Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Children, Illness and the Blessing of Language: A Review of House and Fire

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House and Fire
by Maria Hummel
American Poetry Review, 2013; $15.00

In Maria Hummel’s debut poetry collection, House and Fire, we inhabit a mother’s world as she cares for a chronically ill child, a timeless space where past, present, and future blur together beneath longing for health. “You believe / the hours pass by instead of spinning you / inside them,” Hummel writes in “The First Turn Might Be the Right One Home,” and this sense of spinning inside time pervades the entire book, refuting the simple narrative of a journey from sickness to health in favor of intensely felt moments in which the reality of illness overshadows causality. Hummel delivers these moments through carefully constructed poems that rely on repetition, comparison, and form to translate life into language. The spare, sturdy poems comprising House and Fire illuminate difficult experience with care and precision.

In Hummel’s first book, novel Wilderness Run, she plunges readers into Civil War-era Vermont through prose relying on frugal, weighty details. Similarly House and Fire, selected by Fanny Howe as the winner of the APR/Honickman First Book Prize, also relies on key details to create its speaker’s vivid world. The collection’s basic premise, that of a mother whose young son suffers from a debilitating yet unnamed disease, emerges through images of the hospital’s bare reality—tubes, wires, pills, white beds.  Hummel also establishes the relationship between speaker and child through simple, striking images of connection and closeness: in “Station,” the speaker tells her son, “I hold you like a hole holds light,” while in “Changeling” she says, “I carry you / like the hill carries its trees, / all over nowhere.” These comparisons, based on seemingly basic images, stand out because of their precision, a quality critic James Longenbach in The Virtues of Poetry describes as “not opposed to mystery” but rather something that “[makes] what might otherwise feel like a retreat to stillness and restraint feel laden with connotation.”  Hummel presents us with this rich, connotation-laden world again in “Ultrasound,” where the speaker tells her son:

somewhere there is a tree

that grows its leaves on the inside.

Somewhere a forest that rustles and hushes

in no breeze.  Where stones float

and rivers sink below them.

Hummel’s surreal landscape hovers in the imagination, comforting and womb-like, resonant in the simplicity and strength of its details.

Just as Hummel’s use of precise details strengthens House and Fire, so too does her reliance on poetic forms including the pantoum, villanelle, sonnet, sestina, and ghazal. Hummel takes a middle-ground approach to these forms when they appear throughout the collection, honoring the basic structures that give them strength while simultaneously knowing when to bend the rules and let the more rigid aspects fall by the wayside. For instance, in “Station,” the pantoum that opens the collection, Hummel follows the form’s rules of circling, repeating lines, but varies each repetition just enough to leave room for the revelation of important facts.  “Days you are sick, we get dressed slow, / find our hats, and ride the train,” she writes at the poem’s outset, a simple enough scene to begin with.  However, by the poem’s end, she echoes these images with the lines “We wear our hats and ride the knives. / They cannot fix you.  They try and try.”  With the substitution of knives for train, Hummel transforms an everyday scene into a scene of desperation in the operating room.  Similarly, in “Quiet Hours,” a villanelle set in a hospital room filled with weeping and machinery, Hummel employs variations on the question “How can I get used to this?”  She transforms it into “How did we get used to this?” and finally “A mother lies / awake, weeping, because she is used to it,” and with each transformation, the line takes on another layer of resignation and desperation, reflecting the internal struggle the speaker experiences. The sonnets, ghazals, and a sestina also included in the collection do similar strong work with repetition and variation, highlighting Hummel’s talent for nimble yet muscular writing.

In the same way that Hummel knows when to stray from the strictures of form, she also displays an instinct for knowing when to weave in a poem not obviously connected to the narrative of speaker and son. In doing so, Hummel expands House and Fire beyond the limitations of illness, arguing for a fullness of life both in spite of and because of the pervasive presence of the disease.  However, a thematic thread still connects these poems to those about illness, that of longing and thwarted desire condensed into vibrant images. In “Ghost Traffic,” Hummel sees longing in “the sleek fat cars / from the decade of my birth,” while in “Cole’s Pacific Electric Buffet” she finds it in a French dip and the cook “grinning and tonguing / the dark between his teeth, red beef // shoving through boots of bread.”  In the truncated, surreal lines of “Solstice,” longing turns into violence:

a girl chucking

stones at a nest

of wasps

and the black alphabet

unscrolls

from its paper sheath.

Desire unleashes the onslaught of language, here as elsewhere in House and Fire. Painful though it might be for the writer, we benefit from the elegance and strength of what the writing contains.

Elegance and strength—Maria Hummel’s House and Fire exhibits the achievement of a gymnast after years of training, routine and repetition so fully mastered that they result in seemingly effortless, beautiful motion.  For this mastery as well as for its faithfully rendered vision of a mother’s experience with her son’s illness, House and Fire merits attention. Hummel’s debut into poetry succeeds in sharing personal trials through language that resonates beyond the page.


Julie Swarstad Johnson completed her MFA in poetry at Penn State. Her writing delves into history, memory, and place. She and her husband live in Tucson, Arizona, where she coordinates education programs for the Tucson Symphony Orchestra.

 


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