By Greg Bem
In Susan M. Schultz’s pandemic volume, we confront one artist’s engagement with and description of daily life. What we do with our time every day is an illuminating question, and Schultz uses the form of the “dog walk” to document and present her own findings.
Each entry in Lilith Walks is approximately a page in length, describing the poet’s walk with her curious and empathetic companion Lilith. The setting spans multiple locations in Hawaii, a landscape Schultz knows well from decades lived there. A zooming in toward the texture of daily life is blushed with natural beauty and a description of the environment through which the walk occurs. In “Chemistry Professor,” the walk begins within a cemetery:
Lilith and I walked farther into the cemetery than new usually do today, past the black tombs with Japanese names on them, around the corner, and up the hill toward a loop built around fountains and a garden (with stones and plaques in it, including some to the still living). (page 76)
A brief read of Schultz’s descriptions comes off as ordinary, even perhaps mundane, but in sum they build an arousing context through which the work becomes more whole, more complete, filled with issues, subtexts, and questions. The environment fills in the periphery, but the pressing themes mostly concern what other dogs and their humans are doing as they are encountered.
These characters show up once, or twice, or many times, and many are not without their own problems. Whether it’s on presidential leadership or on teaching remote or on surviving a pandemic, the conversations are not without tension. The fleeting nature of the “dog walk” amplifies the allegorical qualities behind the encounters and discussions, such as this one from “Lilith and the Cop’s Pug”:
He says there’s no leadership from the top of the police department. No advisories on how to deal with the public. He asks me how on-line education is going. I tell him some of my quiet students have come to the fore on discussion boards; other students have gone missing. Sangha has a missing professor. I tell him I’m worried that the crisis will become an excuse to convert us all to on-line from now on. He nods. Everything’s changing. (page 41)
Schultz’s reflective processes are acute and endearing, and with each piece there’s a sense the poet is sharing with us a secret, an illumination into an otherwise impossible space and interaction. This continues with her writings of observation, which often walk the line between the literal and the absurd, painting an image of the book’s corner of Hawaii as a land of extremes:
On our way back down Kahekili I see a young man in swim trunks ,dancing at the light; his movements awkward, head bobbing up and down. I also see someone with long brown legs carrying a large black plastic bag, a black piece of luggage and an umbrella. (from “Embodiment,” page 25)
The realm of human to human interaction is pervasive in Lilith Walks, but it must be said that dog walks also involve dogs. And so, while Lilith serves her human as a Beatrice-Virgil dualism guiding toward instinct, reason, and a profound sense of life, Lilith also is a dog who has her own world. And what a world it is! Schultz commits vast space and time to describing Lilith’s relationships and behaviors. Interaction leads to description, new layers and complexities evolving with every turn, as seen in “A Death in the Neighborhood”:
Her older dog, Buddy, made her anxious interacting with Lilith (as usual). A smallish brown dog with black snout, Buddy had had a tooth out, and that was after he had eye surgery. Buddy was costing her some money. But Buddy’s eyes looked better, far less bloodshot, and he didn’t seem to be in distress over the missing tooth. My neighbor had her wide-brimmed tan hat on, but didn’t answer directly when I asked how she was. On Sunday, she died. (page 13)
In Lilith Walks, no description lasts long, though, because of the remarkable temporary qualities of the “dog walk.” As a literary form, a dog walk feels like a remarkable hybrid between inspiration and constraint. The “dog walk” is descriptive yet concise. It balances deep engagement with time and place and often relies on a lightheartedness to carry forth the spontaneous flashes of experience. Even the usual and ordinary are elevated because dog walking is often about established routines and norms. In Schultz’s approach, the form is opportunity to document where norms are broken, where the exceptional occurs.
It is important to note that the activity of walking the dog appears to be exquisitely aligned with the pandemic. As we were all figuring out the world and our place in it, we often were doing so outdoors, in the comfort of our shared isolation across outside spaces. Thus, Schultz’s work doubly serves as fantastic pandemic literature. Published in late 2022 alongside a variety of other pandemic collections, Lilith Walks includes writings running from 9/10/17 to 11/12/21, making it exceptionally above and beyond most other pandemic literature and offering insight into what life was like immediately before. It is a fascinating portrait of the artist as a person living their life and continuing to live their life as the world is upended, with the help of a trusty, loveable canine in the lead.
You can find the book here: http://wp.blazevox.org/product/lilith-walks-by-susan-m-schultz/
Greg Bem is a poet and librarian living on unceded Duwamish territory, specifically Seattle, Washington. He writes book reviews for Rain Taxi, Yellow Rabbits, and more. His current literary efforts mostly concern water and often include elements of video. Learn more at gregbem.com.