Susan Elbe

Susan Elbe won the 2012 Backwaters Prize for her manuscript The Map of What Happened.

Susan is the author of Eden in the Rearview Mirror (Word Press), which won Honorable Mention for the Council for Wisconsin Writers Posner Poetry Book Award, and two chapbooks, Light Made from Nothing (Parallel Press) and Where Good Swimmers Drown (Concrete Wolf Press, 2012).
Her poems appear or are forthcoming in many journals and anthologies, including Blackbird, Diode, Nimrod, North American Review, Prairie Schooner, qarrtsiluni, Salt Hill, A Fierce Brightness: Twenty-five Years of Women’s Poetry (Calyx Books), Fire On Her Tongue: An eBook Anthology of Contemporary Women’s Poetry (Two Sylvias Press), A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poems (University of Akron Press), and City of the Big Shoulders: An Anthology of Chicago Poems (University of Iowa Press).
Among her awards are the 2011 Concrete Wolf Poetry Chapbook Prize, the inaugural Lois Cranston Memorial Poetry Prize (Calyx), the Council for Wisconsin Writers Lorine Niedecker Award, Third Place in the Poetry Center of Chicago’s 14th Annual Juried Reading, and fellowships to Vermont Studio Center and Virginia Center for Creative Arts. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin. You can learn more about her at

Books by Susan Elbe for the Backwaters Press

The Map of What Happened

Author: Susan Elbe
Format: Paperback, 69 pages
ISBN: 0976523124
Published: May 2005

Buy This Book: Amazon – Barnes & Noble – Small Press Distribution

Awards for The Map of What Happened

The Backwaters Prize 2012

Critical Praise for The Map of What Happened

Rain from “a bruised-pear summer sky,” a river’s “cold silver zipper,” and the “green, sexy smell of water” fill Susan Elbe’s sensuous poems in The Map of What Happened. Perhaps, because these poems are silky attempts to defy “rain, which erases everything” and to recover images of the past in order to recast them. Even a woman hemming dresses for money, maybe an aunt or mother or neighbor, glints with the watery image of a “fan of silver pins glittering between her lips/ as she knelt on the cold linoleum.” “I’m the one,” Elbe says, “whose laugh falls from the bridge,/ the last to run for cover/ when a hard rain pushes us toward home.” Whether the water is memory or tears or erotic danger, it fills these poems, vividly presenting moments of intimate, often exquisite, recovery.

—Diane Wakoski

Susan Elbe’s “Map” is an elegant work of starkly-hued reminiscence, a love letter to the city that raised her and an unflinching exploration of the littered personal landscape we all must travel. These deftly-crafted stanzas will conjure home for you—wherever that home is, whatever shape it has taken.

—Patricia Smith, author of Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah and Blood Dazzler

The city itself—Chicago—is a dominant image in Susan Elbe’s The Map of What Happened and in some of the poems one can actually hear echoes of Sandburg and an earlier Chicago poetry, a tradition Elbe revitalizes.

—Stuart Dybek

Susan Elbe’s book is indeed a “map,” the kind we increasingly need. It’s easier to locate a particular spot by satellite coordinates than to memorably express how it feels to live there, how time and place intersect, register, and resonate in the human heart. These poems skillfully and lyrically provide such mapping, inscribing the contours of place in images vividly specific to the poet, but strangely familiar to the reader.

—Max Garland, current Wisconsin Poet Laureate and author of Hunger Wide as Heaven

The effect of these lines brings me back to things I didn’t know I knew, a slow rewinding of relationships with parents, brothers, sisters, childhood friends. Remember sitting cross-legged on the floor in a drafty school hallway for air-raid drills during the Cold War of the 1950s? Fasting on Good Friday? Tube-lit radios? Back porches?

John Lehman, Wisconsin Academy of Sciences Arts and Letters

Poems from Susan Elbe’s The Map of What Happened

Coda: The City Says

My name begins with a whisper
and ends with “go”, the in-between syllable
caught in your throat
like a crow’s nagging yawp.

Windy and crooked,
stuck halfway between shining seas,
I have my own ocean,
my own sweeping coast.

My eyes reflect iron-gray water,
pigeon-wing sky, a wet, broken light
you can’t see into,
all of your secrets cached there.

You can’t catch my flicker
inside a jar. I’m your nerve and your jugular,
your bullet and needle,
your gangster and gangway

holler, the sweet home guitar
you rub bottleneck blues up against.
I pin a dead-animal
smell to your dress,

fill your empty December
pockets with snow, cold as Resurrection
Mary hitching rides
down Archer to nowhere.

Any comfort you find here
is 2 a.m. hungry in dim greasy spoons.
You swear you’ll never come back,
but I’m who you won’t leave.

Out there in the dark, my skirt
of water swings back and forth to
music from open windows,
everything juked with longing.

The Map of What Happened

It started with the weather,
a devil-damp
seeping up from the basement,
slipping in over the transom,

a split seam, a curled edge,
the taxi-yellow
and crazy-making-orange
dahlias opening.
All night the kitchen faucet dripped,
one drop at a time
hesitating, then falling to pool
on the rusted drain, gathering
the weight of cancer,
the smell of fish,
fish called by my father,
a man who waited out the hours
casting into silver mirrors.
Water leached through rough pipes
in long trickles, gurgles in a throat.
The stink of August
gnawed at us like rat’s teeth.
The window,
slowly filling with a smalt dawn.
November and the rain came,
its raw knife carving the corners.

A slim hand startled with its cobweb touch.
My mother’s face, only ruin.

My heart, that red closet,
filled with the silence of old wool.
We went down on our knees
but there was nothing to be thankful for.
I was taught to hold tight to the breast bone:

                                                              Close your eyes.
                                                              Make a wish.
                                                              Pull hard.

Look, it wasn’t only death that pushed me down,
scraped my shins, and tore my sleeve.

It was the bridge from there to here,
the hum of its metal, how the girl who needed
to cross couldn’t trust it would hold
the weight of her grief or her love,
until one day I recklessly took up my own life
and hopped a bus North, laden
with proof I belonged only to myself:

the door to a dismantled house I wore
like a scapular beneath my blouse,

two cicadas singing in my suitcase,

and this thin-skinned map.

I’ve carried them with me everywhere
hoping someday to be found.


4 Trackbacks

  1. […] Elbe is the author of The Map of What Happened, winner of the 2012 Backwaters Press Prize and the Jacar Press 2014 Julie Suk prize for the best […]

  2. […] Susan Elbe’s 2012 Backwaters Prize winning collection, The Map of What Happened, has been reviewed in Prairie Schooner by James Crews. […]

  3. […] Julie Suk AwardBy Kevin Flatowicz-Farmer | Published: February 17, 2014The Map of What Happened, Susan Elbe‘s 2012 Backwaters Prize winning collection, is now short listed by Jacar Press for the 2013 […]

  4. By Susan Elbe in Verse Daily - The Backwaters Press on February 11, 2014 at 11:22 am

    […] Elbe in Verse DailyBy Kevin Flatowicz-Farmer | Published: February 11, 2014Backwaters Prize winner, Susan Elbe, was featured on Verse Daily on February 8, 2014 with her poem, “Her Winter House” from […]

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