Entering the House of Awe (New Issues Poetry & Prose)
New Issues Poetry & Prose, 2011
85 pp., $15.00
Entering the House of Awe
Recently, the poet and critic William Logan summed up the way that many poets and readers alike tend to see poetry. "There are still those odd sorts," he said, "no doubt disturbed, and unsocial, and torturers of cats, who love poetry nevertheless." It reminded me of a comment by another poet, Geoffrey Nutter, who accused poets of having a kind of Stockholm Syndrome; they are overly sympathetic with their critics. Poets become apologetic, timid, suspicious of both their craft and their audience.
Even so, the poem remains a uniquely potent and powerful form, and the brave ignore the critics and work their magic with words. To this class belongs Susanna Childress and her haunting collection Entering the House of Awe (her second book of poems, following Jagged with Love, which was selected by Billy Collins to win the Brittingham Prize).
Reading Entering the House of Awe, I thought of a moment from Susanna Clarke's novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, when Norrell visits the theoretical magicians of York (who believe magic no longer exists). Stone statues come to life. The voices of the dead are heard echoing in a cathedral. Magic is alive and well, it turns out, and the world is revealed to be richer and more complex than we ever thought.
This is what it's like to read to Childress' poems. She reminds us of the power and life that are hidden in words. Her style in this volume tends towards longer, narrative lines in which she plays with form, tone, and pace, evoking laughter or horror or melancholy in language that manages to be at once conversational and challenging. Thankfully, New Issues/Western Michigan University Press has printed these poems in a beautiful edition that leaves enough room on each page for Childress' lines to dance and stretch.
She prefaces the collection with a passage from Denise Levertov, which reads like a prayer of invocation:
at every turn, in every
guise, dark horse,
egg, iron ball, shadow,
cloud of breath
on the air.
Childress then begins her own prayer "about the women who pummel their children / in public," weaving together images of maternal and biblical violence:
Both you and I been angry enough to shake a baby to turn over tables Lady /at the airport flinging her spatula of a girl again and again / into a chair SIT loud enough to render an ocean still only she isn't she wails You saw
In a casual tone, she laments,
The Problem Almighty
is what Janet's mother said of French-kissing teens Do that for the world to
and you've got to wonder what's done in private This is not loaves and fishes is not the white stone on which you'll carve our new names this is the lopped-off ear the hem of your gown after all those years of blood You send us hell-bent upon each other each lurking bully quite sure of representing Capital-Y So I can ask
(as my mother would say swatting the air to keep her fists from me O you)
with your feathers who bends but a portion of our hearts
The structure of these stanzas, the lack of punctuation and the long gaps between certain words, reads like someone who is breathless and gasping, reeling between the discontinuity of what they witness and what they want to believe.
This is Childress' magic, a wild brew of violence, absurdity, and beauty, all tangled up in the quotidian: the way a green spider noticed in the shower can suddenly make the world appear "intricate … delicate and composed."
The collection's title is apt, and perhaps Childress intends it as a bit of pun. While the phrase "Entering the house of awe" conjures (for this reader, anyway) a sense of transcendence, in Childress' poems, it also suggests the word "awful." To read her is to experience a wide-eyed encounter with sorrow, loss, and violence. She renders these encounters conversationally, connecting the commonplace and comical to the grotesque and the tragic in movements as fluid as thought.
In "Torn", it's a laughable conversation with a friend about his fear of birds that reminds her of a fear of balloons, rooted in being sexually assaulted by "the neighbor boy" at a birthday party. "Papi," she laments, "how could you know that balloons, to this day, loose my bowels? / I never told you. / I swore it was a dream."
In "All Hallow Even", it's an encounter with love in the midst of an obscene Halloween party. She begins trying to avoid "the man with a tray of triangled sandwiches / surrounding a foot-long rubber penis or the other guy / with gigantic strap-on boobs looming over cocktails, a lady / in one of those sexy bunny outfits offering, Mine are real." But these figures are eventually eclipsed by the one she loves, whose presence rescues her from the chaos as his "hot spirit / seems to bob each moment like a hard-boiled egg." Love cuts through the obscene milieu, a joyful surprise: "and this is how it might be, our worlds shattered with a clarity / we don't know what to do with."