Reviewed by Annie Fisher, Trevor McCandless and Matt Bryden
This slim, elegant pamphlet is American poet Jodie Hollander’s first collection. I found it hauntingly sad and emotionally powerful.
The language is straightforward, restrained, and reads beautifully. The poems progress subtly as a first-person narrative of childhood and early adulthood, beginning with ‘The Humane Society’, a disturbing portrait of the mother who overshadowed the narrator’s life. It tells of how the mother took injured animals and needy individuals into the home, oblivious to the feelings of her own family until finally
Mother kicked us all out –
gave the seven sick cats
to my sister, found my father
a gritty flat, and took his van keys.
That’s when she brought home
the man that beat her,
the Chinese man that broke her nose,
and pushed her all the way down
the shiny maple stairs.
This sets the scene from which the story of a nightmarish childhood grows. Hollander focuses on objects and incidents with the careful eye of a timid, watchful child – blobs of shaving cream on her father’s face, a set of glass elephants on the window sill, a metronome, the Chicken Lady who delivers milk and egg, a child’s recurring dream. Each image is drawn with precision and laden with emotion. It is utterly convincing.
The narrator matures through the poems. She leaves home to study in England, but finds it hard to release her mother’s grip. There is a moving poem in which she ‘Skypes’ her mother, who by now is on her deathbed, and another, ‘Friend Request’, in which “Two weeks after her death,/ Facebook asked if I’d like to be friends/ with my mother – / or rather someone with her name.”
Qualified release and relief comes in the final poem as the ever-watchful narrator observes a tropical storm:
I did the only thing I know,
I dragged out a chair and opened a beer,
knowing destruction will do what it will do –
I sat back and watched what was here.
The only quibble I had was with the title. When the pamphlet arrived for review, I thought for a split second it was a publication from The Humane Society. . . .
The blurb says the poems are “romantic, surreal and tender”. For me, none of these adjectives applied. Mainly the poems report dreams as if they were written as an exercise in personal psychoanalysis. I came away with the uncomfortable feeling of having been caught reading someone’s diary.
Nonetheless, the consistency of theme gives a sense of wholeness to the collection. We move from child to adult and this is set against the concurrent movement of a mother from life to death. My favourite poem, ‘The Glass Elephants’, remembers the daily care an ex-lover showed a previous lover’s gifts. It is understated and clear, clever and moving.
Twice, a degree of awkwardness in the writing pulled me up. The first time was with:
Every night I’d say goodbye to my mother
walking in her long nightgown into the fire.
I want the subject to stay consistent and so my instinct is that ‘I’ (and not the mother) should be wearing the nightgown. The other time is in ‘The Last Breakfast’ where a poem in free verse suddenly runs:
two cups of cold, watery coffee.
Neither of us is really very hungry,
but we eat anyway, chewing carefully
This rush of near-rhyme seemed so out of place that at first I took it to be unintentional. That I am still unsure seems to me a problem.
These poems do not feel to me as if they were written for an audience. They show a poet purposefully reconsidering her dreams. Not only is the subject matter intensely personal, at times I was left wondering why some symbol or image had been used. I felt I was playing at Freud, but couldn’t see any other role left to me.
The title poem, which opens this collection, contains a circularity common to the pamphlet itself. A mother, we are told, brings various injured animals into her house, to care for them. “Then there was Mary Lou,” the second stanza reveals, a home-help, also bruised and someone who “went to the movies alone.” Next comes Lucy, who usurps the narrator, sleeping in the mother’s bed. In the final stanza, this ragbag of family and foundlings are ejected from the house: “That’s when,” Hollander writes, “she brought home/ the man that beat her.”
Act humanely, and humane things happen to you, the poem appears to say; act inhumanely and you open yourself up to inhumane treatment. However, closer examination suggests an encroaching instability – the number of these injured animals, the unawareness of the daughter’s feelings . . . and we see the daughter’s predicament, balancing both personal betrayal and a concern for the mother’s well-being. (As she puts it later, “she never really was my Mother – // rather, I was hers.”)
The poem hinges on the phrase “that’s when.” Since it’s a past narrative, it actually means ‘that was when’. Hence, while the mother’s beating appears to happen only after she emptied the house, it can also be read the other way round: that was around the time when . . . in which case the beating could have pre-empted the move; or worse, the mother could have knowingly chosen this unworthy man over the household.
When Hollander uses form, as in the over-wrought ‘The Mark on the Glass,’ she is at her least successful. Elsewhere, an unexamined use of cliché can deaden the sense.
‘Migraine’ uses some smart imagery (a “brainstorm”) to describe a sense of motherly irresponsibility, perversity and the arcane practices of music, while ‘A Music Stand’ is another strong simple portrait. Hollander has a way with a neat image – the conceit of ‘Metronome’ has the children swinging from parent to parent, and in their own later lives lover to lover.
There is a danger with this vein of writing that it is the subject matter that will grip. Hollander wears Woolf quite loudly. It is where she renders her feelings in a tight image, such as the metronome, the music stand, the will and the fable-like title poem, that her poems work best, and rise well above reportage.
The final three poems end the pamphlet strongly: ‘The Last Breakfast’ is modest and achieved; “cancer has come,” her mother tells her. ‘My Mother’s Will Emailed in PDF’ which begins “This is the order in which she loved: // First, her son” might be accused of compromising her mother’s privacy.
However, as in the title poem, Hollander seems possessed of a surety that lets her get away with things in her best work. Closer inspection reveals the opening line’s ambiguity, which perhaps implies that her mother could only operate her love along such ordered lines. The ambiguity does enough to help her escape the confessional trap, in which staring at the harsh facts without flinching is often thought enough to win praise in itself. The closing ‘First Storm’ reaches serenity, referencing the storms that run through the book.