Diane Seuss


I have been compelled by the slipperiness of persona since I first read Browning’s dramatic monologue “My Last Duchess” and Ai’s poems in the personae of reprehensible speakers. I like the opportunity to abandon the mask of goodness and to explore the pockets of personality where the 8-ball lurks. My most recent project came as a result of listening to my mother’s oral history of her upbringing in rural Michigan. These characters aren’t reprehensible, but they’re complicated. Their mystery can’t be solved. I wanted to get at the weirdness of small town life rather than the nostalgia. I’ve always believed poems can be a potent link with the dead. What can be better—especially at midlife—than to abandon your own storyline and to let the dead speak through you? Persona allows me to abandon my narrow shell and take up residence in a coffee can.




hey pauly


it was the barber and the undertaker who got into the heart
of the village earlier than even the firemen and the pharmacist

the barber would call hey pauly that's what he called paul
the undertaker and they'd head for marge taylor's place

for coffee and maybe a poached egg or a fried cake
thrown hot into a paper bag with some sugar and then

marge would shake it and stick her hand down in and lift
it out and present it to them like a magic trick it was said

the barber had the eye for her his own wife home scaling
fish or picking the pinfeathers out of a goose or washing

the storm windows with white vinegar bye pauly the barber
would say as they parted on the street each to face his own

kind of work and although they were such good friends
the undertaker never asked the barber to style the hair

of the dead but he came in every two weeks for a shave
and a trim and never paid nor did he charge the barber's

widow for his services a few years later the washing
and the dressing and the steel comb through what hair

was left. that's how things worked out between them.



what Marge would say if she'd lived to say it:


thatched roof like the one on Stack's garage and inside
six stools covered in split red plastic, five booths, a cement

floor (I'm being honest about its frailties) and an oil heater
the kids gathered around drinking their cocoa, no I didn't

offer marshmallows, no I did not make my own pies,
simple fare, chili, burgers, grilled cheese, coffee, real

cream, the men liked it here because it wasn't home
and they liked me because I wasn't their wife, my own

husband at the Uptown drinking his case of beer a day
with George Stack and Charlie, yes I was bony but I had

a nice smile and that place wasn't called Tom's or
Marge and Tom's it was Marge's, such as it was



the Lee girls had it bad


and their little brother Sonny but they were busy
for a long time on the top floor of that old barn

at the edge of their dad's property and finally
one day led me up the stairs into what had been

the hayloft and removed the bandana they'd
tied across my eyes as a blindfold and there

was the most beautiful playhouse I'd ever seen,
they'd made little curtains for the windows with

a matching tablecloth for the table and cups
and saucers and beds for us and small beds

for the dolls and a wash basin and a vase
filled with wild chives and white lilacs and empty

cans for canned goods and nails in the wall
for our coats, I used to believe all the babies

Mrs. Lee lost when they quit breathing and turned
blue were the lucky ones until I saw the rag rugs

on the floor of the playhouse and the bookshelf
and the Bible and even a newspaper for when

we could get Sonny to play father.



Nothing lasts for long here


You can be one of the richest men in town
today and just a splatter at the bottom of your grain

elevator tomorrow, you can be a town in the morning
and by evening a pile of cinders, the old barber shop

went up in flames, Merle smelled smoke and ran down
to the fire station in his long underwear but it was too late,

all the guys were volunteer firemen but still their houses
burned, the lumber yard burned, later the Hicks house

and field fires out of control swallowing churches,
though never the funeral parlor, which was good

at staying where it was, and always things got built
back up again until these days, when what had been

the hardware store and what had been the drug store
and what had been the Uptown Tavern all burned

within a few months of each other and nothing
moved in to replace them, empty lots bulldozed flat,

Stack's place long gone, Irma gone, I remember
smoke spiraling down the barber pole like a woman's

long gray hair when she pulls out all the pins




dianeseuss.jpgDiane Seuss is Writer in Residence at Kalamazoo College in Michigan. Recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in North American Review, Indiana Review, Blackbird, Alaska Quarterly Review and The Georgia Review. New Issues Press published her book It Blows You Hollow, and her poems have been widely anthologized, appearing in Boomer Girls, Are You Experienced? and Sweeping Beauty, all from the University of Iowa Press.