Joyce Sutphen

Continuing on with my Thirty Before Thirty list, I've spent several hours this past week reading Minnesota poet Joyce Sutphen's 2000 collection Coming Back to the Body. The book was given to me on my 21st birthday by a fellow English major at Gustavus (thanks, Julie!), so I've read many of the poems before. I've since been told by poet friends, however, that though poems are entities unto themselves, a collection is formed intentionally, and should be read as a cohesive manuscript, cover to cover, at least once. So, this is what I've done, and upon finishing, it's clear that each of Sutphen's small creations builds on the next until the reader arrives at the last page with a clear emotional picture of a woman challenged and changed, someone who has returned to herself.

Some of my favorite poems in the collection come from the first of the five sections--not surprising, as they explore the details of rural landscapes. But I was physically stopped at the fourth section's first poem "Bookmobile."

      I spend part of my childhood waiting
      for the Stearns County Bookmobile. 
      I pace back and forth in the line,
      hungry for the fresh bread of the page,
      Because I need something that will tell me
      what I am; I want to catch a book,
      clear as a one-way ticket, to Paris,
      to London, to anywhere.                     (71)

This was me. Right down to the Stearns County address. The bookmobile had been replaced by a permanent library, of course, and I did not have to wait in line, but books were still tickets to faraway lands, locales that were the opposite of plowed fields and deep snowdrifts and everything I thought I already knew.

At the end of Coming Back to the Body in the enclosed biography, I found that Sutphen "grew up on a farm near St. Joseph, Minnesota... [And after studying literature at] the University of Minnesota... like many of the people she had read about, she set out on a long journey to find truth and beauty. As usual, the road led straight back to the beginning: home, country roads, the sun setting through the woods."

Although I still have a long way to go in discovering truth, this sounds a lot like me, too. It's a pity to think I passed the good professor in the hallways of Gustavus' Confer-Vickner building--where Sutphen teaches--without stopping to say hello, without stopping to talk of the St. Joe I recognize in her poetry, the dust coming up from the gravel at dusk, or "the land, threading through me, stitching me into place" (11).


  1. Based on what I have read of your writing you have already discovered the truth and have much to offer all of us.

    You have seen yourself in another's writing. What a wonderful discovery! Write on!

  2. Oh, Bill. I think you are one of the nicest people I have never officially met. I appreciate your comments so much.


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