Suzanne and A Boy Named Sue

My name is Susanne and for years Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash, and Shel Silverstein taunted me because of my name. Cohen wannabes stalked me through high school corridors mimicking his edgy baritone –

“Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river
You can hear the boats go by
You can spend the night beside her
And you know that she’s half crazy…”

I smiled and tried to look mysterious and worldly, like a woman from Montréal, Cohen’s hometown, might look. With hair like the top of a teased cotton swab, this effect was hard to achieve. Jimi Hendrix had hair like mine but it didn’t work so well on a gangly white girl with fishbowl glasses. Still, I was pleased to be thought of as that kind of Suzanne – alluring and half crazy. It sounded tragically romantic.

Then there was the Johnny Cash song, A Boy Named Sue. When the gang of wall-leaning boys, who blew smoke O-rings in the breezeway between the shop classes and the main school building, saw me they’d all roar at the top of their nicotine filled lungs –

“My name is Sue, how do you do
Now you’re gonna die”

They’d double over laughing and hacking, holding on to the wall to keep from collapsing under the weight of their wit. For a year they kept at it, laughing at their joke.

Every.
Single.
Time.

I’ll never forgive Shel Silverstein for writing that song. But because of the poem Suzanne, I found the first book of poetry that I fell in love with. I hunted down the words in the library and found them in 15 Canadian Poets which also contained another poem by Earle Birney called From the Hazel Bough. Published in 1970, the book contained some of the early works of Leonard Cohen, Margaret Atwood, Earle Birney, and Al Purdy to name a few. I read it whenever I was in the library. Astonishingly, nobody else ever took it out.

In the eleventh grade I spent a lot of time in the school library stacks to escape Suzanne and Sue. Once, I was standing in a quiet reverie re-reading my favourite poem when a girl in the twelfth grade approached. She carried a clipboard, a pencil, and a conspiratorial manner. Almost whispering, I thought because we were in the library, she asked me something.

“Pardon?” I said.

Speaking a little louder she asked “Would you like to answer a confidential survey about sex?”

My face flushed and my armpits dampened. I was cornered. The windows to the school courtyard were behind me and she was blocking the way out of the stacks. Glancing over my shoulder, I looked to see if anyone sitting outside the window was watching, worried they might be able to lip-read – S – E – X.

I said no to all the questions.
No. I hadn’t had sex.
No. I wasn’t on birth control.
No. I’d never used a condom. (That question made NO sense at all to me.)
No. I didn’t have a boyfriend.

It was a depressing conversation for a lovelorn 16 year old reading lusty love poetry.

After she left, I tried to read Under the Hazel Bough again. Lines tumbled on the page. My ears were burning hot and ringing. I had tunnel vision. I pushed my back against the metal shelf, feeling its edge cut across my spine, and stared at the words I knew by heart. Its jaunty rhythm calmed me and I was able to recover from my acute embarrassment.

I loved this piece of work and still love the rhyme and the way it bounces along. The stanza

“we winked when we met
and laughed when we parted
never took time
to be broken hearted”

has stayed with me for 41 years. The impossibility of attaining such a lighthearted love didn’t occur to me at the time. If only love were so simple and composed of winks and laughs all the livelong day. I suppose that’s what I thought it was when I was 16 and eager to have a try. Perhaps that is why it has stuck in my head – a poetic tribute to youthful romance and a 16 year old romantic named Susanne.

From the Hazel Bough – Earle Birney

I met a lady
on a lazy street
hazel eyes
and little plush feet

her legs swam by
like lovely trout
eyes were trees
where boys leant out

hands in the dark and
a river side
round breasts rising
with the finger’s tide

she was plump as a finch
and live as a salmon
gay as silk and
proud as a Brahmin

we winked when we met
and laughed when we parted
never took time
to be broken hearted

but no man sees
where the trout lie now
or what leans out
from the hazel bough

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(This is a Sue “redo” from a previous blog. In the winter this year, I took a course in writing creative non-fiction and challenged myself to take an already written piece of work and change it up. This was the result. Through the process, I discovered the “elasticity” of writing.)

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33 thoughts on “Suzanne and A Boy Named Sue

  1. Bruce Goodman June 6, 2015 / 1:34 pm

    That’s lovely thanks Susanne. I put the quotation below not to taunt, but to let you know I’m one further generation back!

    I had a dream the other night, when everything was still;
    I thought I saw Susanna dear, a coming down the hill.
    A buckwheat cake was in her mouth, a tear was in her eye,
    Says I, I’m coming from the south, Susanna, don’t you cry.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Cynthia Jobin June 6, 2015 / 5:58 pm

      Dang you! Now I’ll be singing it all night……

      Oh, Susanna, don’t you cry for me
      I’ve come from Alabama, my banjo on my knee….

      It rained all night, the day I left
      the weather it was dry;
      the sun shone so
      I froze to death, Susanna, don’t you cry..

      Liked by 4 people

    • redosue June 7, 2015 / 9:34 am

      Not to be insulting, but I think that song goes back quite a few generations!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Cynthia Jobin June 6, 2015 / 1:54 pm

    This is just wonderful, Susanne. I know this 16 year old so well…so, so, well, from having a name which became an embarrassment (my own name was always problematic for different reasons) to reading things in the library that no one else seems to have checked out, to being an innocent fantasizing–and trying to project—sophistication. This piece is alive, it breathes; I love it!

    Liked by 1 person

    • redosue June 7, 2015 / 9:42 am

      I can guess the problems of your name, Cynthia. I wrote a short story with a girl named Cynthia as the main character who was teased because shortened it sounded like “sin”. That book of poetry (Fifteen Canadian Poets) was published up until 2003. Clearly, I have good taste in poetry. 😉

      Liked by 2 people

      • Cynthia Jobin June 7, 2015 / 10:04 am

        When I was 18 and working as a waitress, a guy used to come into the restaurant every morning for coffee and boom out to the whole place: “Who put the SIN in Cynthia?” I guess he thought he was really witty.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Bruce Goodman June 7, 2015 / 2:17 pm

        Try having a name like “Bruce” – at least in this part of the world down under…

        Liked by 1 person

      • redosue June 7, 2015 / 3:16 pm

        HAHAHAHA! Too true! I forgot about that old Monty Python sketch.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Cynthia Jobin June 7, 2015 / 4:40 pm

    “This here’s the wattle
    The emblem of our land;
    You can stick it in a bottle,
    You can hold it in your hand.”
    —–Bruce, at the Philosophy Department Meeting with Bruce, Bruce, and Bruce.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Rosanna June 7, 2015 / 11:41 pm

    I’m wondering about the original piece,Sue.., because this one made me laugh and thank my lucky stars that only one person ever thought of writing a song about my name, and that it was a nice song…sang by Toto. But I loved Oh Susanna, and I can still sing the chorus lines that one of your readers wrote in this comment section…

    I wanted to read the original piece but I see that you’ve taken down the other blog…anyway…loved this one!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Rosanna June 7, 2015 / 11:45 pm

      and would love to try redoing something i wrote to experience the elasticity of writing….

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Luanne June 9, 2015 / 6:51 pm

    That was really beautiful. You put me there completely. I read the comment about Oh Susanna. I had that record as a little kid and played it over and over and over and over again. Thanks for this.

    Like

  6. derrickjknight July 4, 2015 / 3:54 am

    A marvellous blog. Thank you for choosing Johnny Cash and one of my favourites, with a reminder of all the work he did in the prisons.

    Like

  7. Manja Mexi Movie August 24, 2015 / 4:49 am

    Very smile-inducing. Cohen’s Suzanne made my teenage years more tea-and-orangey too. But then again, my beloved grandma’s name was Suzana not mine. 🙂

    Like

    • redosue August 24, 2015 / 12:38 pm

      Isn’t fun how reading something later in life – like Suzanne – is a very different experience than having read it as a youngster? Life adds layers of meaning, like looking at old photographs when you’re 50, the same ones you saw at 15, and understanding the background of people in the photo better.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Susanne November 11, 2016 / 7:46 am

    Reblogged this on wuthering bites and commented:
    Long before People Magazine created the “Sexiest man alive” cover, there was Leonard Cohen. At 16 years old, bubbling with hormones that kinked my hair tighter than ever, his song “Suzanne” and its intertwining of sex and love and Jesus was my poetic unbuttoning. I traveled blind with him into my high school library and let him touch my mind with his perfect words. Thank you, Leonard Cohen. (1934-2016)

    Like

  9. Donna Gwinnell Lambo-Weidner November 11, 2016 / 8:45 pm

    The comments are like icing on an already perfectly yummy cake too … sweet, tangy, and lingering. Although I could do without that Oh Susannah ear worm burrowing in my head, I am relishing that picture of your hair “like the top of a teased cotton swab”. Five thumbs up, as always Susanne!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Susanne November 12, 2016 / 7:54 pm

      I know. As soon as Bruce made the comment, that darn song was stuck in my head. I suppose it could be worse such as having the Macarena floating in one’s noggin.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. underswansea November 11, 2016 / 10:51 pm

    Wonderful post!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. derrickjknight November 12, 2016 / 6:55 am

    I enjoyed this again after the reblog. I have been Delboy to some after ‘Only Fools and Horses’

    Like

    • Susanne November 12, 2016 / 7:53 pm

      That’s not a side of you that’s immediately apparent, Derrick!

      Liked by 1 person

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