Arts & Culture · Poetry

Poetry Sunday: ‘Turning’ and ‘December,’ by Susan Spear



This is the season of turning and tears,
Emerald aspen have grieved themselves gold.
The sepia moon dips down closely and hears
The sighs of this season of turning and tears.
This blue planet spins and tallies her years,
Young bones have gone cold and will never grow old.
This is the season of turning and tears,
Emerald aspen have grieved themselves gold.

First published in Angle.



Bulbs—these dun, dormant gifts.
The very word bursts from my mouth,
my breath rushes past my lips—
I bury five, homely rounds
inside glass houses filled with rock
and water.
…………………….I blink once, twice,
and roots shoot between the rocks.
The globes bulge, split and spit
grassy spears toward the light.
I turn my back, they sprout by inches.
They rush, swell, burst, bow,
and bear white blinding blossoms
on stubborn stalks that pulse with life.



Susan Spear_6-7-15Susan Spear teaches poetry and creative writing at Colorado Christian University in Lakewood, Colorado. She earned an MFA in poetry from Western Colorado State University in Gunnison, and she now serves as managing editor of Think, a journal of poetry, criticism, and book reviews housed at Western. Her poems have appeared in Academic Questions, The Lyric, Raintown Review, Relief, Mezzo Cammin and other on-line and print journals.


Notes on “Turning” and “December” 

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

I met the author of these poems last May at a poetry conference held in a former convent called Mercy-By-the-Sea in Madison, Connecticut. I remember swallows, the sea, old trees, courtyard gardens tangled with bindweed. Patterns of pebbles and shells on sand, of words on the page, people opening their hearts as they sometimes do. When Susan told me of the loss of her beloved son to suicide, it was with a depth of grief perfectly balanced by the dignity and strength of her bearing. Her bearing. Somehow, she translated that into these poems.

“Turning” is a poem of personal loss made universal by the beauty, simplicity, and restraint of its utterance. The two lines that open the poem also close it:

This is the season of turning and tears,
Emerald aspen have grieved themselves gold.

This is an example of a refrain, a phrase or line repeated like the chorus of a song, typically at the ends of stanzas. The refrain that begins and ends the poem is also an example of “ring construction,” a device that mirrors the cyclical nature of the seasons that are the poem’s apparent subject.

I say “apparent” because, even without what the author told me, it is clear that the poem is about some loss deeper than the changing of summer to fall. A refrain is also sometimes called a “burden” [John Drury, The Poetry Dictionary (2d. ed. 2006)], and we feel the terrible weight of those lines in this poem. “This blue planet spins and tallies her years” enlarges the seasonal cycle to all time and likewise enlarges the scope of the loss, rendered devastatingly human in “Young bones have gone cold and will never grow old.”

“Turning” reminds me of that poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins called “Spring and Fall” and dedicated “to a young child” that begins

MÁRGARÉT, áre you grieving   Over Goldengrove unleaving?  

and concludes with the idea that the child who believes she mourns the passing of the seasons is really mourning her own mortality:

It ís the blight man was born for,   It is Margaret you mourn for.  

I don’t know if this poet intended the allusion to Hopkins, but it came through for me, and so I want to talk briefly about literary allusions in poems. When made to literary works that are too arcane, such allusions run the risk of alienating readers, making them feel ignorant or excluded. But done well, allusions can function in such a way as to not detract from the experience of readers who fail to “get” them while also enhancing the experience of readers who do. Those who discover an allusion get to import the thing alluded to into their experience of the poem at hand, enlarging it and sometimes adding other layers of meaning. For example, a poem alluding to Shakespeare’s Hamlet gets to borrow the whole of the reader’s experience of that play and piggyback it—atmosphere, characters, history and all—into the poem on the page. An allusion can universalize a poem. It can also add emotional and psychological depth, due to what I call the poignancy of memory, the way the experience of reading a poem (or of anything, really) is intensified by the power of recognition.

When I recalled Hopkins’ poem while reading “Turning,” I experienced again the ideas and emotions that “Spring and Fall” engender in me: the poignancy of Margaret’s innocence, the appalling juxtaposition of a youth with death, the bitter understanding that every spring is a seed of fall. Those remembered responses amplified similar reactions triggered in me by reading “Turning.” And I also thought about Hopkins’ “Terrible Sonnets,” those iconic poems of grief and despair. In adding a human dimension to the loss, thinking about Hopkins gave another cue that “Turning” was about more than the sadness we feel at summer’s departure.

It is a problem that has preoccupied poets for centuries: how to transform unbearable loss into something that appalls but without casting a pall that cloaks and blurs the loss? How to express powerful suffering without making the reader turn away? Too much exposure to tragedy, psychology teaches us, can cause habituation in its observers. Overexposure can also cause readers to feel manipulated or worse, can engender a kind of voyeurism. An overwhelmed, numb, resentful, or entertained reader is not feeling the grief the writer of an elegy surely hopes to convey.

The author of “Turning” uses restraint, refrain, ring construction, and (I think) allusion to contain and yet give full expression to a grief too deep to be named. Eschewing the first-person “I” as well as any impulse to name what or who is gone, it locates its loss wholly in nature and the change of the seasons towards winter so that at the end of the poem, readers are left in the experience of grief, not some false redemption or recovery from it. In this way, “Turning” avoids self-pity or sentiment, and gains power by respecting the dignity, privacy, and depth of the speaker’s loss.

Susan Spear’s second poem, “December,” also made me think of Hopkins, “Bulbs—these dun, dormant gifts” and “globes [that] bulge, split and spit” reminding me of the paratactic stresses and sprung rhythms of “The Windhover,” a poem that like this one affirms beauty, hope, and faith with a surprising muscularity. Also surprising is the poem’s title—we do not, in the darkest, shortest month of the year expect to find blooming spring. I love the way the poem makes me say the word “bulbs” aloud, noticing its plosives shaping my lips and breath. The transformation of “homely rounds” to “white, blinding blossoms” is wonderful, as are stalks “stubborn” in the way they “pulse with life.” Once again, this author communicates powerful feelings without sentiment and portrays the seasons of life not as cruel, but something vastly more implacable, imponderable and—sometimes—impossibly beautiful.


Paradise Drive book coverRebecca Foust’s fifth book, “Paradise Drive,” won the 2015 Press 53 Award for Poetry and was reviewed in the Georgia Review, Hudson Review, Huffington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Review of Books, and elsewhere. Recognitions include the 2015 American Literary Review Award for Fiction, the 2015 James Hearst Poetry Prize, the 2014 Constance Rook Creative Nonfiction Award, and fellowships from the Frost Place, MacDowell Colony, Sewanee Writer’s Conference, and West Chester Poetry Conference. “Paradise Drive” can be ordered at For more information visit

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  • marian Dornell October 25, 2015 at 1:46 pm

    Once again, Becky has chosen poems that touch the heart and soul as well as to nourish the spirit. Her explication is as satisfying as her choice of poetry. Thank you, once again, Becky for your choice of poetry and for your wisdom. My Sundays are complete when I read this column. Thank you.