Reviewed by Christie Williamson, Charlotte Gann and Michelle Smith
Giant in the Doorway is a collection of intensely moving poems focussing on the sensitive issue of mental health in the family. Often disturbing, the pamphlet is arranged in two sections. The first is written from the point of a view of a ten year old child taken on an Easter family holiday to a Cornish cottage. Certain lines make it clear – “something is happening again”, “I’m glad there’s no wireless to tell her what to do” – that the Mother has been struggling with what seems to be paranoid schizophrenia. This sequence eloquently captures the fear and confusion of a child whose world is thrown into disarray. It is complemented by part II – eleven poems from the perspective of adulthood; whilst the mother is alive, at the moment and immediate aftermath of her death, and meditations on the arc of her life and death and its impact on the narrator.
These poems are not for the faint of heart. The interplay between what we are shown and what we are not creates disturbing images – “I think mummy knows and must have seen/ the way he sometimes touches me”, for example, creates disturbing speculation.
But what stays most strikingly is the triumph of the human spirit. In ’Alteration’ the narrator consciously manipulates the image of her mother –
I have her skull and some soft tissue
in the museum. I use
3d software, slap of clay.
The head is much admired
until eye sockets weep rusty blood
and milk. I cross myself
pull it down with ropes. Knock
half her nose off. Pin her to a wall.
Install it. The label reads:
Body Part – Unknown.
The contents of Giant in the Doorway skilfully walk the tightrope between emotional honesty and intellectual robustness. If you want an easy read with your mackerel supper, this won’t be your first choice. If, however, you like poetry that expands your horizons and challenges your understanding of the human condition, then this is for you.
Marion Tracy’s sequence, ‘Giant in the Doorway’, which forms the first half of her pamphlet, is a fragmented account of trauma in its making. At the same time, it’s controlled, lucid, and rhythmically soothing. It’s this combination I’m most struck by: how skilfully Tracy uses language to hold such painful matter.
The sequence chronicles one day and night. The rest of the pamphlet deals with a lifetime of consequences but for the purposes of this review, I’d like to stick with the opening sequence.
A family—consisting of mother (clearly mentally ill), father, two daughters and their young brother – is spending Easter in a holiday cottage. The first few lines seem to me as good a sample as any. They begin – as the sequence continues – unpunctuated, and in lower case:
wind shocks a cold hole into my face
and goes through earwax right inside my head
in one ear and out the other my french teacher says
behind me four cut-out paper dolls sway up the beach
get your excitement from things not people
shouts a voice beside me in the dark
This is brave and skilful writing. To introduce the concept “get your excitement from things not people” in line 5, and have already managed to set so much context, seems to me exceptional.
As well as her fine control over her subject, Tracy’s use of rhyme and rhythm throughout also serves to reassure. Take the line “a woman like my mother is out after supper” (1.). The internal half rhymes of “mother”, “after” and “supper” soothe, even as we’re shaken by the concept.
Tracy renders her sequence safe enough for the reader, while not holding back on clarity. For me, this makes it stand out – as both courageous, and generous.
I’ve only space to touch on one other aspect. The two sisters cope as best they can. The little boy, on the other hand – “lennie” –is seemingly too young to reflect. It’s his apparent oblivion in the face of such catastrophe – asking his mother for drinks, untying her shoelaces – that, for me, delivers some of the pamphlet’s greatest pathos:
lennie puts two dinky toy trucks a red racing car
mother’s face is smooth only her eyes aren’t right
and a fire engine onto the window ledge
I loved the disorientation I felt on reading this book for the first time, and how that feeling caused me to re-read it immediately, teasing out both the story being told and the poet’s ways of telling it. I’ve returned to the collection several times since, with its opening poem in which we are taken to “the edge of the black wall called la mer” by a speaker who tells us:
I’m ten the bowl of stars I breathe in move my arms
up and down then out is something I have
no name for and none for this but I know it’s wrong
From here, we follow the speaker through the first sequence of two that make up the book. The first set maintains the point of view of a child, and the poems are numbered rather than titled, concentrating a continuity that contends with the disjointed glimpses of what is happening. And what is happening is a holiday weekend in which a family lurches into crisis. The child’s confusion over the events is shot through with moments of clarity, such as the moment in which the speaker seeks a name for her mother’s psychiatric illness, or wonders if she will grow up to be like her.
The second sequence gives us the point of view of an adult looking back. Here, each poem has an individual, stand-alone quality, even as the poems continue to elucidate the sustained effects of the mother’s illness. There is an effective shift in language here: attention to punctuation and measured rhythm separates it from the child’s speech, in which lines feel as if they are rolling over one another like waves. Images and sounds intersect and echo throughout the collection, bringing the collection together as a whole. As just one example, here are some lines from ‘3’:
I kneel on the green
in the easter church mother is looking at me
hassock with flowers on and then mother’s crying and I think
I always do as I am told and never answer back
something is happening again
I kneel on the green
The scene resonates with ‘Lighting a Candle’:
I burn my fingers, drop the match.
I set the flickering tea-light among blackened
stumps and guttering wax
and kneel, self-conscious, not believing
I will hear her song
in this invisible choir of lights.
It’s beautiful, this quality of resonance, the way it fits together what is fractured but resists easy resolution. Giant in the Doorway gives us a balance between evocative reflection and the terrifying knowledge that we must go into the dark and “creep down the steps each ones a cliff”.