The Poetry of Susan Tekulve

Claire Bateman WH banner 2022

“These days, though, I leave the lavender alone./I prefer brushing their velvety leaves accidentally, releasing/    their soapy scent, summoning the bees/whose hind claws are so compacted with pollen/they appear to wear tiny yellow combat boots/as they roll tipsily in bowls of tea roses and lilies./Standing beside them, I dig my toes into dirt,/knowing, finally, that every opening/makes way for the beautiful.”Susan Tekulve

Speculative Friction

By Claire Bateman

Author Susan Tekulve.
Author Susan Tekulve.

Claire Bateman

GREENVILLE South Carolina—(Weekly Hubris)—1 July 2022—Susan Tekulve’s newest book is Second Shift: Essays (Del Sol Press). She is the author of In the Garden of Stone (Hub City Press), winner of the South Carolina Novel Prize and a Gold IPPY Award. She’s also published two short story collections: Savage Pilgrims (Serving House Books) and My Mother’s War Stories (Winnow Press). Her nonfiction, short stories, and essays have appeared in journals such as Denver QuarterlyThe Georgia ReviewThe Louisville ReviewPuerto del SolNew Letters, and Shenandoah. Her web chapbook, Wash Day, appears in the Web Del Sol International Chapbook Series, and her story collection, My Mother’s War Stories, received the 2004 Winnow Press fiction prize. She has received scholarships from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. She teaches in the BFA and MFA writing programs at Converse University.


Mine curve like wind-bent trees,
big toes bent by bunions born
of wearing too-tight shoes
my mother said would make me petite
like the rest of the women in my family,
like my grandmother
near the end of her life,
after the elective surgery
my immigrant grandfather bought her
because he could finally afford
the price of a doctor who sliced
those ugly bumps from her feet,
replaced bone with slender metal rods
that stuck from the ends
of her big toes like iron claws.
She corked each one
with a rubber stopper, sat
for the rest of her life
before a TV table
weaving birds’ nests into bridal wreaths,
painting tea roses on table linens and pillowcases.
When I crept too close to the painful stillness
that had replaced her feet
she said, “Those metal rods
hold all my bones together.
Bump them, and I’ll fall apart.”
I imagined her collapsing,
dissolving into the soft carpet
even as she poured lavender beads
into organza sachets my mother slipped
beneath handkerchiefs in her lingerie drawer
I sifted, searching for sex manuals
picturing the uterus as an upturned vase,
paisley sperm swimming into it, chanting,
“Gonna be a kid.”
My own body remained a mystery
for twenty more years
until I became pregnant
and learned why each part of me existed,
why my pelvic bone softened,
widening for labor, why the linea nigra,
the line of pigment running
from navel to pubis to umbilicus
darkened from hormones
that fed the placenta
that fed my unborn son
who slept and grew, occasionally rolling,
thrusting a knee or elbow
rippling my skin’s surface.
I touched my belly in wonderment
at the 40 pounds I’d guiltlessly gained,
went barefoot,
wore diaphanous nightgowns
with a string of pearls in broad daylight.
Nights, I soaked in water sprinkled
with the rose hips, lavender I grew
in my own garden, harvesting and pouring
the beads into organza sachets.
These days, though, I leave the lavender alone.
I prefer brushing their velvety leaves accidentally, releasing
their soapy scent, summoning the bees
whose hind claws are so compacted with pollen
they appear to wear tiny yellow combat boots
as they roll tipsily in bowls of tea roses and lilies.
Standing beside them, I dig my toes into dirt,
knowing, finally, that every opening
makes way for the beautiful.


It’s like water
you can’t drink.
Algae grows inside it,
glowing in a room
dark as an aquarium
filled with more water
behind glass
luminescent as jellyfish.
Your mother arrives.
You haven’t seen her
alive for three years.
Soft grass sealed
the lip of her grave
in time for you to bury
your father beside her.
You’re relieved
to see her again, though
her practical voice is muted.
“Try this one,” she says,
offering you pitcher after pitcher
of water that tastes like chlorine
rising in your throat,
stinging your nose,
burning behind your eyes.

You wake to the sound
of February rain,
find half a bottle of water
beside the bed.
Warmed by the dark hours,
it tastes of stillness
and disappointment.
You carry it downstairs
to your husband.
He hates dream stories,
but listens anyway,
says his own mother hasn’t
returned to him in fifteen years.
As you tell him about
the water and your mother
you both begin laughing.
How funny the dream sounds
spoken in a room
smelling of coffee.
Outside, morning rain
softens the window.


Her hand deep inside my mouth,
my dentist names the patron saint
of dental hygiene.
“Saint Apollonia,” she declares
between poke and scrape
of metal instruments.
I tell her Apollonia’s teeth
were smashed by a pagan mob.
She jumped into angry flames
unwilling to curse her god.
I tell her she still can see saints,
their hair and bones gilded into reliquaries
in churches across Italy, Spain, France.
I tell her the saints and prophets
rarely rest in one piece.
Buddha’s teeth are enshrined
in pagodas across Asia,
encircled by chanting monks.
Two hairs of Mohammed spring
beneath limestone in Jerusalem
near the spot where the prophet
rose to heaven.
Saint Catherine’s body reclines
beneath a Roman altar,
her head locked inside a Sienese cathedral.
I’ve seen only one whole saint.
In a church basement of Assisi,
Poor Clare lies in a glass case
her pale skin waxen as marzipan,
guarded by a tiny nun
who hushes crowds, repeats,
“These are the shoes of Saint Clare,
and that is her head.”

My dentist stands, removes her mask, says,
“I think I’m going to be sick.”
Waiting for her return, I stare
at walls lined with portraits
of nicotine-stained teeth
bleached white as daffodils blooming
beneath a dull February sky.
Who better than a dentist
to understand the ancient need
to catalogue and save
remains of the dead?
Who better than this woman
who reads radiant x-rays of my skull,
realigns my jaw unhinged
by four teeth-grinding years
of watching Alzheimer’s etherize
my mother’s mind,
osteoporosis splintering her arm bone
from her shoulder ball
splitting her wrist down to the ring finger
her nerve endings so deadened by disease
her own dentist pulls her abscessed teeth
without anesthesia?
My mouth aches to confess
what I’ve not said to anyone:
I need to believe that my mother
no longer feels pain.
I want her broken body to rest
beside water springing from a prophet’s rock,
her mind rising beyond its wilderness.
My dentist’s voice dissolves
into a drill buzzing down the hall.
Pentothal drips down my throat,
closing my voice.
Only my chest remains open,
fluttering beneath a tray of metal picks
that roll, clattering like bones.

After D.H. Lawrence’s “Boccaccio Story”

You thought it a wholesome painting.
Decameron’s peasant feigning muteness, entering
a convent to satisfy every novice.
Beneath almond’s shade he collapses,
his shirt flung off while nuns file out of the forest,
their lavender frocks like down-turned crocus.
Only the abbess blushes.
The rest of her flock gazes
unsated from beneath straw hat brims
you painted with soft rags, joyous fingers,
harmonious palms as your wife called for you
to paint with your toes.
You pronounced it “un capolavaro,
molto moderno,” lived long enough
to see your nuns fade
into gray reproduction,
your pink trees extinguished,
the grass beneath the bold peasant
parched and unpronounced.


The dark hours—
scrambled eggs, tap water
beyond the kitchen window
crepe myrtle twists liked skinned muscle
into scrub oak and holly. Fallen summer leaves
no longer shield me
from black and broken windows
in the home for unwed mothers
behind my house.
One of the girls has left
a bureau sinking into mud, teenage lingerie
foaming from its top drawer.
I’m reminded of Italian daughters
bitten by the spider
of unnamed desires,
tarantatas fleeing
through orchards, falling
into spinning dance for three days,
collapsing in church ruins,
heads rolling, white peasant skirts tangled
between bare legs, waiting
for the men to offer
violins, tambourines, voices:
Figliola, mother, virgin, fountain
climb the mountain, enter
the garden, go across waters, make
this young girl happy, heal her
The moon is white and you are dark.

I’m reading a letter from a former student
on God’s mission in a rainforest.
She writes of wind and rain, the call
of monkeys, bright birds at night.
The rains are so soft
but they come every day. Mold
grows on my walls and ceiling, clinging
between creases in my skirts.
I am not lonely.
A schoolgirl brought me her tarantula.
She was very natural with holding
and letting it crawl all over her.
Some tarantulas are poisonous.
This one hardly bites
and his venom is weak.
I conjure her dark eyes,
stories of her mother
who gave up painting for children,
drank coffee inside a child’s empty teepee.
When do girls stop believing in spun myths
of women happy to be still?
I walk into the backyard’s late-winter ruin.
Sharp holly leaves prick
my bare feet. Moonlight softens
the home for unwed mothers.
Mold clambers down its slate roof
like black and harmless spiders.

This poem first appeared in “The Clackamas Review”; it was one of five finalists for the review’s “Williamette Award for Poetry.”


My husband loves my reticence.
He says stoicism is underrated in women.
His mother can tolerate more pain
than any other human being.
Her tailbone broke with his birth
breaking again with the last of five children.
She had no friends, needed only her children.
She told no one until the breast tumor grew
to the size of a baby’s fist.
Unfavored daughter, she drove alone
up the mountain, past her young,
favored brother’s grave
to warn her own mother of the surgery.

My husband buys his mother
soft winter hats she never wears.
He takes me to the brick house
kettled between two mountain ridges,
where she sits at the kitchen table in a white robe,
unashamed of her perfect baldness,
her chemo-burned skin clear and white
as Saint Catherine’s lilies.
Quiet, I sit across from her,
watching for signs of weakness.
She eats, testing out country ham, chess pie
on her chemo-cracked tongue.
Outside the window, my husband tunnels
through thick winter snow on his belly
our son, his nephews stacked on his back.
Snow clouds pour over the mountain ridge
their shadows spilling, gliding
over his white path like dark wings.

Afraid of crying, I take myself away from her.
Upstairs in my husband’s childhood bed,
I think of stoics Stoical stoically
in Latin, stoicus means the porch of Zeno,
Greek philospher who asked the old question:
Whether it were better to have
moderate affections or no affections.
The stoics said none.
Patient endurance indifference
to pleasure or pain rigor asceticism
stoique in France, stoico in Siena,
lascivious home of Saint Catherine,
the most austere mystic.
At sixteen, she cut off her luxurious golden hair,
scalded herself at the source of a hot spring,
caught smallpox, scrubbing the scabs
raw and bleeding until she was
ugly, old enough to wear the white veil
of the widowed mantelletta.
Catherine’s mother had no use
for her daughter’s heroics,
made her into a servant
until she fell into the kitchen fire,
burning with exquisite visions.
Her father saw white doves diving above her head,
gave her away to the Dominicans
who taught her to regard
the sweet as bitter, the bitter as sweet.

My husband appears in the doorway,
his face fallen with gentle grief.
“How is she?” I ask. “What does she need?”
Below us, his mother
wants nothing, asks for nothing.
My whole body aches
beneath the weight of her grace.
I recall how she laughed as she told him
over the phone of her latest dream:
I’m standing on the front porch in a hurricane
in my mastectomy bra
No matter how hard I try to hold on
the bra’s lace and batting
tears out with the wind, rising
like doves through the rain.

This poem first appeared in “The Clackamas Review.”


All night drowsing
on a balcony woven with jasmine,
I’ve watched the butcher’s daughter
beautifully seduce
the grocer’s son. Playing
Clytemnestra to his Agamemnon,
the girl shimmers before candles
in seashells that stage her
inside this cliff town’s piazza.
Below the clock tower,
she floats her robe across cobblestone,
beckons her wayward husband to cross
silk into fatal bath.
Her loveliness tyrannizes
the eyes of retired stone masons
gulping grappa beside the war memorial.
They hunch toward each other
as if to whisper,
We are not dead, we are not yet cold.
The clock tower chimes seven.
Full of sleep I believe I can fall
safely into Etruscan graves
one hundred feet below.
The north wind rouses
jasmine’s thick perfume.
An autobus hums
on an unseen street.
I linger between
beauty and movement.
Larks unfold over poppies
Flaming in the canyon.
The masons rise, saunter
toward wives hanging empty bed sheets
over fortress walls
to purify in sunlight and wind.

This poem first appeared in Savage Pilgrims, Serving House Books.

To order copies of Claire Bateman’s books Scape or Coronology from Amazon, click on the book covers below.Bateman ScapeBateman Coronology

Claire Bateman’s books include Scape (New Issues Poetry & Prose); Locals (Serving House Books), The Bicycle Slow Race (Wesleyan University Press), Friction (Eighth Mountain Poetry Prize), At The Funeral Of The Ether (Ninety-Six Press, Furman University), Clumsy (New Issues Poetry & Prose), Leap (New Issues), and Coronology (Etruscan Press). She has been awarded Individual Artist Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Tennessee Arts Commission, and the Surdna Foundation, as well as two Pushcart Prizes and the New Millennium Writings 40th Anniversary Poetry Prize. She has taught at Clemson University, the Greenville Fine Arts Center, and various workshops and conferences such as Bread Loaf and Mount Holyoke. She lives in Greenville, South Carolina. (Please see Bateman’s Author’s Page for links to all her publications, and go here for further information about the poet and her work.) (Author Head Shot Augment: René Laanen.)