If the House by Molly Spencer
University of Wisconsin Poetry Series, October 2019
96 pages / Amazon
Anton Chekov is thought to have said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” The tidal shifting of images in Molly Spencer’s debut—and winner of the Brittingham Prize in Poetry 2019 selected by Carl Phillips—If the House, shows its telling in every poem. Throughout the book, the language is stirring, concrete, and ineffable, all at once. Lulling and disturbing images percolate in all directions, tracking the book’s central themes.
If the House cracks open the idea of home, showing us its undefended interior, guiding us intimately through every room. The common stuff of a life—marriage, children, home, divorce, moving from one home to another—is a structure for revealing interiority. The hidden stuff of a marriage seep in through the vents—you may wish to turn away, but you won’t. These poems are packed with imagistic language, measured use of punctuation, unexpected juxtaposition, and restrained line endings; they carry the look and feel of being grateful in sorrow. Consider the craft in these lines from “Even so, the first bird,”
with the broken world—
ball, lifeboat, faithful, fist
full of wildflowers with their roots pulled loose.
Several poems recount the worries inherent in searching for a house that will become home. A listing of things that are needful in “Conversation with Shower and Vestibule” include these lines: “I want a narrow / Empty place made for entering it’s called a vestibule.” A series of poems that include the term “Disclosures” in their titles, speak to the gulf between a sales pitch and a lived-in home. In “Disclosures│If you are aware of any shared features,” are these lines depicting small and not-so-small domestic dramas,
One set of hands to test
the child’s brow in fever. One sink
at which to stand wiping plates. A single mouth to taste
the dust of those words again—for poorer till death.
Or a breastbone—as if to cleave
did not mean to make a way through by splitting
apart. As if it did not also mean
stick fast to.
Reading these lines, I couldn’t help imaging the speaker slicing through a chicken breast in her kitchen with these thoughts swirling and bouncing off of her labors. The sequence of poems titled, “Interior with a Woman Peeling Oranges, Snapping Beans” is a litany of private thoughts breaking through domesticity. The poem ends with these lines,
Tonight the whole world stands by and I stand by
the sink, snapping off the tapered ends of beans I’ll feed to my children
at six-thirty sharp,
then snapping them in half—tell me, how can I not
think of finger bones—
in half again.
The inner life of the speaker in If the House is filled with particulars that hold a mirror to our deepest anxieties, such as those found in these lines about separation, in “Bridging,”
a body of water deep enough to swallow
whole towns, wide enough to spawn legends
of mothers reaching shore without their children,
of children seen as islands from the shore.
The language in If the House evokes clothing—what fits, what needs to be discarded, how cloth hides nakedness. Throughout these poems, metaphors soothe when the damage is too great to look at head on. The fear of not being seen or heard runs through this book too. It is a fear that is at first familiar, and then is dismembered, image after image, showing how invisibility happens, how it stings, how it leaves ruin in its wake, and how a life is built with words, as a home is built with stones.
Stones are one of several metaphors used throughout If the House. A stone might be a hard, solid substance found in the ground, a material used for building, a unit of weight, the hard seed of a fruit, or a bodily formation—such as oyster stone, gallstone. We find metaphoric stones in Spencer’s titles, such as, “Because I want to give them more than the small grey stone,” and in endings that devastate, such as, “What was stone in me is ground to sand,” in “There is Only One Word for Snow, but I Want More.” The response to that end line is found in another poem, “Elegy at the Strandline,”
I have counted up all the times
you didn’t touch me. Where
I have stood on shore
years and seasons, windward.
Don’t pretend this sand was never stone.
There is the story of a marriage here, with moments of “he said, she said” that will break your heart. When she says, “tell me something” in “Conversation with Glass and Joist,” we hear,
Then the palpable glass
Of his silence and her words falling
From it like stunned birds then the sinking
Of another broken dusk down into night
The poem ends with,
To the glass, to the falling
Night did you hear that
The description “falling Night” and the question “Night, did you hear that?” is rendered forlorn without punctuation. These binary enjambments, found throughout the poems, work to slow the reader down. Spencer often uses line breaks to show that an action is also its counterpart. In “Silences: snowfall,” she says,
She didn’t even go out to watch him leave
seeds for the birds atop the new snow. And love
took its leave of her slowly,
When the speaker in Spencer’s poem, “Conversation with Lace Thong and Car Keys,” “snips the loose thread at the crotch of her jeans” it betrays an erotic moment by showing the distance within the marriage. Despite its gravity, there is a sense of forward momentum in If the House—growth from girl to woman, the act of choosing a home, a move borne of separation, the watchful gaze over children, a leaning towards redemption. In “Meditations on Ice-Out,” transformation starts with thoughts brought alive by the act of writing,
Write a poem about the sounds the ice makes
end of winter, my father says.
If I said, grinds like slow gears.
If I said moans and grieves, cracks
like a gun in the night, but holds,
I would not be wrong.
There’s a remedy for winter called the tilting of the earth.
Spencer’s poems often gesture towards the natural world, finding reflecting upon both its gentleness and devastation, as in these lines from “Elegy with Edge Effects,”
There was something about cool silk. Sand
on a bare heel. There was
something about the threshed
light through branches
when the rain stopped and the sun
slid through, about more than one world
in the world. I keep trying to tell
about this and the call
of the bird more often seen than heard.
In “Tentative Theories,” Spencer reminds us that our lives belong essentially to ourselves,
All the smooth, untouched waters
of our lives are still ours.
And were never ours.
Sometimes a stone is only a stone.
If the House is a manual for living deeply through heartache and memory, transformed by the ingredient that makes it possible: the creative force of love that we find rendered in these lines from “Love Story,”
Bootstrap love, cinder love, love
that knows everyone’s heart
is the size and shape of a fist.
If the House transports us through the interior of domesticity with craft, wisdom, and grit. It shows us how a woman builds a room of her own.
Risa Denenberg lives on the Olympic peninsula in Washington state where she works as a nurse practitioner. She is a co-founder and editor at Headmistress Press and curator of The Poetry Café, an online meeting place where poetry chapbooks are celebrated and reviewed. She has published three full length collections of poetry, most recently, “slight faith” (MoonPath Press, 2018).