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.
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
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
(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.)