Susie Susquehanna / Clara Mae Barnhart


Susie Susquehanna & the River Valley Blues

poems by

Clara Mae Barnhart

ISBN: 978-1-59948-877-6, 102 pages, $16 (+ shipping)

Release/ship Date: May 18, 2021

The Advance Sale Discount price on this title has expired. For those who prefer to pay by check the price is $19/book (which includes shipping + applicable sales tax) and should be sent to: Main Street Rag, PO BOX 690100, Charlotte, NC 28227-7001. 

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Clara Mae Barnhart attended Champlain College and received her Masters and PhD in Creative Writing at SUNY Binghamton. Upon completion of her doctorate, she stayed in Binghamton, adding two dogs, a cat, ten or so chickens, and a tree man to her family. Her work has been published in various journals including the Paterson Literary Review, Timberline Review, Best New Poets New York State Anthology, and Deep Wild: Writing from the Backcountry. When not working or writing; she enjoys snuggling her pit bull, eating pizza and chicken wings, being outside, and sassing the tree man.

Good god, no phone. Throw your fine brass compass in the upland lake. Burn the topo maps and your furry beaver Stetson. Turnout the horses. Toss your tin candle lantern, the bottomless supply of elk jerky, waterproof matches, spare woolen socks. Now, profoundly, spit on the ground. Now, very politely, tell Sacajawea to go home. Tell her everything you need to reach Higher Ground is right in your hands. You have Clara M. Barnhart’s poems. ~J.C. Ellefson


Clara Barnhart is one of the most genuinely original voices of her generation. I love her work. Her poems in Susie…Blues illuminate the lives of the so-called-ordinary. When I read it, I feel like I’m opening the door to a diner where I’d usually feel too shy to walk in alone. Barnhart welcomes us to all the places we haven’t been, and a few that we have. It’s a glorious debut. ~Liz Rosenberg



Thieves, we, with our unassuming faces,
round cheeks and straight eyelashes,
lips and fingertips purple from picking blackberries
on posted property.
She sauntered up and looked down at us
From underneath her sunbonnet.
She waited for an explanation,
the stainless-steel pot in her hand
caught the sun and stewed it into a heavy
flash of light: an interrogation.
Did you ask permission from my husband?
Garth Coddington? He’s in the book,
“Oh, no. I guess we didn’t.” My mother answered.
Well, next time do. It’s okay, for today.
We turned back into the brambles and lost sight of her.
The ripe berries fell into our hands, acres of them.
The woman would fill her pot five times and let the rest
rot, because these were Coddington’s:
wild spirals of fruit cut back by a mowed path,
a trimmed awning of maple and oak,
a groomed trail like a ribbon around a parcel.
This is where we both grew up, my mother and I,
in these hills that birth the waters that run through us,
we found our way along telephone lines, old farm paths,
scraped our legs on pricker bushes, jumped over red
ant hills, ate ham sandwiches under canopies of pine.
We could show you where the snakes live.
We would run down this mountainside— trusting it,
our little knees would buckle, loose rocks tumbled
after us and past us all piled at the bottom—
a heap of limbs, forest leaves and dusty hair.
Deer leave imprints in the tall grass
where they lay down together,
if you find it at the right time you can still
feel the warmth of their bodies in slumber,
you can sense the movements that they made—a twitch
of an ear, a long leg bending at the knee, and repositioning.
In this way I can hear us laughing,
I can smell the creek mud under my fingernails,
taste the sweet grass that we ate but never owned.





The rain came calling that June and over
stayed her welcome, the whole month
was warm and wet, new green grass covered
in puddles that we stomped through for fun,
me, soon to be 18, emerging into adulthood
as my little brother, 12, was going through his own
metamorphosis. We stomped out our angst all
over town at night in our old sneakers, we ran
about kicking up waves, peeling off drenched
cotton t-shirts to throw in the hamper for Mom.

When the sirens started that morning we smirked
at each other, the word evacuate seemed screwball,
where do you run to when you’re already in the safest
place in the world, falling asleep each night in twin
beds to the sound of Spring rain, calm in the solid truth
that our town had no bears, no tornadoes, hurricanes,
when a tree fell on our house the previous summer
my brother watched it slow itself down before
gently resting its boughs on his windowsill.

A One-hundred-year flood is a weather anomaly,
with a 1 percent chance of occurring in any given year.

My mother and father snapped us out of our stupor,
sirens still blaring and told us to collect our things.
I grabbed the old tin cigar box I kept next to my bed
full of knickknacks, treasures, a lock of my mother’s
hair that I had stolen when her friend cut it short
in our kitchen one day. I kept my favorite things safe
in here where I could find them quickly in case of fire,
a disaster that had befallen this house before I was born,
so many of my mother’s treasures turned to embers.

We picked up Mom’s friend Paulene on the way out of town,
she was in her nineties and came out of her house wearing
three baseball caps stacked on top of each other, carrying
a few of her best oil paintings. Her house was like a gallery,
every inch of the small living room covered in rolling hills,
farmland, portraits of Native Americans. She would often
call to warn us of an oncoming storm, we could hear her
yelling through the receiver Susie, Susie, best close your
windows dear, I just heard some thunder!

My father refused to leave our house,
as if he could hold back the water with his arms,
rebuild walls in a fury as the house was caving in.
The water came up to our front steps before
receding, and he saw his old friend Jeff Kane
canoeing down main street in front of him,
waving and shouting like he was in a parade.

After the river calmed my older brother came home
from college to help us clean out the basement,
to help our neighbors scrape mud off their living
room floors. The sky was clear and blue, it was
a perfect summer day when someone sped down
Main Street with their windows down screaming
The Dam is broken, the damn broke, get the hell
out of town, we’re going to be covered!

Mom was at the grocery store when this
happened and they yelled over the intercom,
Get out, get out! She says she looked at the things
in her cart and thought, How am I going to put
all these things back?, before coming to her senses,
dropping the ground beef in her hand and running out.
When she pulled in the driveway we were ready with
the dog, the rabbit, and one of the cats, we all piled in
the minivan and sped up Martin Brook Rd towards
the hill, all of us crying for the other cat we couldn’t find,
imagining our house splintering under a tsunami,
her little body swirling helpless in brown water.

I pictured the East Sidney Dam breaking, those walls
I had walked on as a child, heart pounding,
where I went with my boyfriend the year before to kiss
and feel grown up, as big and alive and indestructible
as the starry sky above us and the raging water below.

Of course, it wasn’t true, we soon realized, pulled
to the side of the road listening to WBNG,
it was a rumor, a cruel hoax or a silly mistake,
the dam was still there standing, keeping us safe.
But other structures fell after the hundred
year flood, other surprises would rock us,
proximity to danger doesn’t always sound
off like a siren at noontime, sometimes it’s the
shy feeling you get at Tony’s pizza every time he
offers you a lollipop, or the odd scowl the neighbor
gives you in the summer when you wear shorts,
and a part of you isn’t surprised when the FBI
raids the pizza parlor and finds evidence of
pedophilia and rape, or when the neighbor gets
caught by an online trap, a police officer
in a chat room pretending to be a 13-year-old girl.
When the hundred-year flood came back again
only five years later it wasn’t such a surprise this
time, we all thought, of course. Of course.
The river had changed, we’d seen it in our canoes,
the new curves where it surged, where the water
hollowed out masses of land, eroded
the natural barriers that used to protect our town.
People started locking their doors,
giving Susie odd looks when she smiled
at their children.





I’ve had eight DWI’s,
That’s a fact. He says.
Drives his lawnmower down Main Street
when he needs another thirty pack of beer.
At the end of each month a neighbor takes
a truckload of his cans to redemption.
Afterwards he asks to be left at the bar.
He likes to get drunk, buy things,
then give them all away.
Last month he came rolling into town
with a truck full of antique furniture—
three dressers, two desks,
a music cabinet with curved mahogany legs.
Here, take this. He says.
I don’t want any a’ this shit.

Oh, I can tell you stories, he says, leaned up
against the porch railingmy god
did I have some fun—one time I rolled
twelve bowling balls down main street,
right down the double yellow lines.
Yes, there was drinking involved.
No, I never did get any of them back,
haven’t bowled since, come to think of it.

Charlie takes care
of the neighborhood dogs.
Each time he comes over they wiggle
at him and sniff at his hands, ears flattened,
drool collecting at the corners of their mouths.
They know they will get treats before he leaves.
When his pockets are empty and his Busch Light
drained, Charlie will stop mid-sentence and say,
Well, Entertainment time’s over.
And he’ll put on his straw hat,
give a wave and nod as he starts
up his mower and drives off.



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