Introduction

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Schaeffer, Susan Fromberg 1941–

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Schaeffer is an American novelist, poet, and critic. (See also CLC, Vol. 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52.)

Joseph Parisi

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Susan Fromberg Schaeffer is that rarity: a fine novelist and poet. Where others pad slim and fragile volumes with material better kept from a candid world, this prolific author fills a 144-page book in which each poem exemplifies intelligence heightened and transmitted through vivid imagination, brilliant imagery, and remarkable formal integrity. How she can sustain such power, poem after poem, makes one marvel at her craft. Granite Lady comprises an immense range of subjects in an exceptional variety of treatments. She dramatizes growing up with fear, from the child's point-of-view; growing old and the state of senility; the quiet horrors of death, before and after the grave; the terrors of loss, impermanence, dislocation; natural disasters and psychic convulsions; and the miscellaneous griefs that callousness and neglect provoke. Her recurring theme is survival in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Her method: the odd perspective, the unexpected angle of vision, the hallucinatory fantasy, the fairy tale bent to sinister degrees. These poems force us to live the traumata of her characters' lives and often to relive our own.

Under the heading of "Glimmerings", a series of poems presents vignettes of childhood. Worlds but vaguely remembered by the adult spring instantly back from memory into life. In this uncharming nursery-tale atmosphere, the inanimate is always alive…. (pp. 239-40)

Other poems are deliberately confusing at first to convey the frightening aspects of the Brobdingnagian universe confronting the most sensitive young. In The Mother's Curses, the fears and insecurities are handed down through the generations, despite attempts to break the crippling pattern…. Another section, "Lightning Storm", turns to the marriage hearse. The highly original Spat describes blow by blow a quarrel using a fantastic jewelry-box metaphor. The Housewife finds herself in a frustrating replay of youth. Father is replaced by husband, and through an inversion and "shrinkage" her home has become like her girlhood dollhouse, only now the children "play with us / Like dolls." She asks: "Do others feel like this? Where do they go?" The First Madam, the enigmatic treatment of a Freudian case history in The Picture: Wolves in the Tree, and several of the other poems are beyond paraphrase, and probably outside mere rational consideration. But the words, even when meaning is ambiguous and obscure, still have an unsettling, evocative force…. [These] poems do so much at once, they won't be pinned down. Their complexity of motion, wild inversions, shifts in tone and emotional configuration, subtlety of nuance, and rich associative progressions must be experienced. They continue to give up new meanings, provoke different feelings with each re-reading.

In short, what I'm trying to say is: Susan Fromberg Schaeffer is a poet. And Granite Lady is an extraordinary achievement. (p. 241)

Joseph Parisi, in Poetry (© by The Modern Poetry Association: reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), July, 1975.

Carol J. Allen

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[Alphabet for the Lost Years] has two distinct parts although formally there are three sections in the volume. The first and more successful contains meditations on objects and emotions from the Arch to the Zzz of bees and sleepers. The focus on abstractions gives this alphabet an intellectual detachment that mutes the "cry of the human" heard in much contemporary poetry. No first-person pronouns here, and yet there is a mind at work and anguish, however disguised, in poems on Dementia, Hate, Jealousy…. The language is spare, the short lines grouped in couplets or triplets. But their control is balanced and occasionally upset by dependence on sound effects…. The second half of the book collects more personal poems. Perhaps the most successful is "Tulips, Again." Here Schaeffer plays with various metaphors of shape … much as she does in the alphabet poems, but with less detachment. Her last lines skillfully bring together the variations with a typical use of repetition…. Though in general the second half of the volume is less provocative than the first, "Tulips, Again" combines the playful and the serious in a manner characteristic of Schaeffer's best poems. (p. 319)

Carol J. Allen, in Prairie Schooner (© 1977 by University of Nebraska Press: reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), Fall, 1977.

Lynne Sharon Schwartz

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Time in Its Flight is built around the marriage of Edna, a spirited Boston teen-ager of quite original attitudes, and the morose but passionate John Steele, a dedicated Vermont country doctor.

Set in the latter half of the past century, the book is a chronicle of the burgeoning Steele family in its passages through joy and adversity, births, illnesses, and death, with accompanying probes into the meaning of time, change, mortality, and other imponderables. When these large themes are embodied in action or event, the results are admirable, but they are too often pursued in an expository, didactic manner.

Schaeffer has a teeming imagination, and scatters ideas, anecdotes, and descriptions with a prodigal hand (the portrayal of nineteenth-century New England rural life is in fact educational, offering meticulous details about domestic customs, farm lore, fads, superstitions, tidbits from magazines and newspapers); unfortunately, only a portion of these contribute to any formal design or movement. Similarly, Schaeffer's attempt to render a photographic reality of affectionate family life (children underfoot, pancakes sizzling) yields tedium. When Schaeffer is not patronizing her characters or reminding the reader how lovable they are in all their quirkiness, her writing can be taut and vigorous…. (p. 35)

Lynne Sharon Schwartz, in Saturday Review (© 1978 by Saturday Review Magazine Corp.; reprinted with permission), June 24, 1978.

Webster Schott

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"Time in Its Flight" illustrates Tolstoy's idea about happy families. They are boring.

Not that Susan Fromberg Schaeffer intends it. She livens things up with epidemics, marriages, a suicide by hanging, insanity, a murder trial, philosophy via daguerreotypes, reports of the American Civil War and 20 or 30 deaths. None of this helps much. Mrs. Schaeffer, who did better with "Anya" and "Falling," is a prisoner of her romantic fatalism….

"Time in Its Flight" will satisfy if you need to kill time or want to know how the rural rich once lived in America. But it's a poor intellectual companion. It's capriciously organized and confusing without purpose. Susan Schaeffer's heroes speculate sophomorically about time and opposites, and the author worries as much about costumes as she does about the people inside them. Her characters are incidental to their environment. Her most vivid scene has John and Edna contemplating their losses after their children have departed. "Time in Its Flight" cries for such moments of insight. It's usually panorama and chatter.

Webster Schott, "Happy Family," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 13, 1978, p. 34.

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Schaeffer, Susan Fromberg (Vol. 22)

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