When is a Polka Like a Ship Deck? On Suzanne Cleary’s Poem “Polka”

by Gabrielle Freeman

I’ll admit it. I’m biased. I love Suzanne Cleary’s poetry. I first heard her read in my second semester in the Converse College Low-residency MFA back in June of 2011. Although it probably didn’t happen exactly this way, in my mind, Suzanne walked up to the miked podium at the front of the crowd in the high ceilinged, many windowed Zimmerli Common Room, smiled, and said, “Sausage Candle.” I just about fell out of my very uncomfortable folding chair. It was the first time I realized that poetry could be damn funny and damn good at the same time. So it was with great anticipation that I went a few weeks ago to hear Suzanne read from her new book Beauty Mark, the winner of the John Ciardi Prize for Poetry published by BkMk Press.

While there is plenty of Suzanne’s distinctive, subtle brand of humor in this collection, it was the poem “Polka” that caught my ear that rainy January night. “Dancing the polka is like walking / on a ship’s deck / during a storm, water flying into the air, / sliding in sheets across the gray / wood” (43). Now, you don’t have to be a polka aficionado to get this. If you’ve heard even one polka played or seen one performed, you understand the image: “Each time the ship / tilts, you take two hop-like / steps in one direction” (43). The poem is accessible, a quality which I admire and for which Suzanne makes no apologies. But this poem also takes risks, something Suzanne encourages in her craft lectures and her critiques of her students’ work, and something that she practices in each and every poem.

The humorous image of people dancing as though trying to regain their balance on the deck of a listing ship becomes something more when “There is someone in your arms, and this is what / makes it a polka, although she or he / does not look into your eyes, and you / do not look either, at your partner,” (43). And more when “to dance the polka is definitely / to think of death, your partner’s shoulder / surprisingly small in your hand” (43). Then there really are two people, not simply dancing, but barely hanging on to some small human contact; two people with a tenuous hold on life but still moving, still keeping in step.

The risk is taken here in “hop-skips.” Once the reader accepts the idea of the polka as keeping balance on a deck at sea, the poem skips to the idea of one’s fleeting connection with other human beings, and the reader must balance. The next skip is to a part of US immigrant history, to learning the polka “from grandparents, whose grandparents / learned it from their grandparents, who left / Petrovavest for Bratislava, Bratislava / for Prague, for ships that took six days / and five nights to cross the ocean. / They never spoke of the crossing, / not even to each other” (43). The reader must again catch her balance.

There is another risk, another hop-skip and rebalance when Suzanne describes the polka this way: “You might as well call the dance / Walking the Ship Deck During a Storm / that Partly –Holy Mother, Forgive Me –/ I Did Not Want to Survive” and then “this dance / that could more succinctly be known as / Long Marriage” (44). This poem that starts off so simply, this poem that hop-skips across the page with its lines alternating between left-justified and tabbed over, maintains its own balance though the “deck” leans more and more until the final line which stops the poem, the reader, and the dance.

“God. You’re beautiful when your hair is wet” (44).

Cleary, Suzanne. Beauty Mark. Kansas-City, MO: BkMk Press, 2013.

“[W]hat happens, sometimes, when two men meet.”

I love a poem that tells a story, gives such a distinct sense of time, place, and character in so few words that the reader can’t help but be right there in the moment. When that same poem has the power of becoming more than a vivid scene, of going beyond the moment, of becoming a MOMENT, then it is a poem that really works. 

Suzanne Cleary’s poem “Are You Max Schmeling?” is one of those poems that the reader first experiences as a narrative. The year is 1944. An American soldier comes upon a German soldier in the woods. It is raining, and that is why the American can sneak up on the German. When the German soldier finally turns to face the American soldier, the American realizes that the man standing in front of him is the famous boxer  Max Schmeling, a boxer who the American has admired for quite some time. The American indicates that Schmeling should go, and he does.

The story is incredible on its own. Imagine being at war and coming face-to-face with your idol. Imagine being trained to shoot that idol because he is the enemy. Now have Suzanne Cleary write that event in a poem.The title, a question, is introduced in the opening stanza as follows: “It was 1944 and no one who’d ever seen a newspaper or / a newsreel, who’d ever been lucky enough / to get a Max Schmeling trading card inside a pack of cigarettes, / no one alive in that year would have had to ask / this man his name” (40). But the American soldier does ask his name. “It sounded like a real question and it gave the uncle time, / but not too much time, to think, this young soldier / who stood steady while inside hi head a voice, / his own voice, shouted Shoot! Shoot him! // Schmeling nodded, waited, as in truth / both men waited to see what would happen next” (40).  

The only words spoken between the two men are a question, an unnecessary question. But the words put off the American soldier’s training just long enough for him to make the conscious decision to not shoot, to let the man go. The tension and humanity in this narrative stay with the reader. It is one of those poems that you don’t realize until after reading it that you have been waiting to read this poem for a long time.

 There is more to this story, to this poem. You have been waiting to read it.

 Cleary, Suzanne. “Are You Max Schmeling?” Trick Pear. Pittsburgh: Carnegie Mellon UP, 2007.