At the top of my stack of books and files this weekend was Donna Vorreyer’s first full-length collection, A House of Many Windows. In some ways, I don’t even trust myself to review this book since many of its narrative threads have woven their way through my own life: infertility, a woman betrayed by her body, the way the body can begin to revise one’s sense of self. And then all the usual ups and downs, bumps and bruises of being a human being connected to other human beings.
So here’s my big disclaimer: I’m reading this book through some not insignificant glasses and they’re decidedly not rose-colored. I’m reading this book as it plunges me back into those times when the body betrayed and revised, and when the usual ups and downs of life felt fraught because of larger losses.
And yet, the narrative unfolds quietly in this collection because the poet keeps us centered on emotion. Her use of sound and image, rhyme and form throughout remind us that poetry is for more than telling a story; it’s for re-creating the emotion of an experience.
This happened for me almost right away as I read an early poem “Upon the Second Attempt, Whole Foods.” Here it is:
Upon the Second Attempt, Whole Foods
Care for the container and the fruit will not bruise,
my grandmother would repeat, her own picking basket
smooth and neat, all stray points cut or sanded away.
So we begin to wander, empty-handed, seeking
to maintain the vessel: all organic, free of foreign
substance, feathering a natural nest where a guest
would want to settle, a nest woven to impress
so that any fruit, having spent all summer ripening,
without a blemish to call its own, would wait
for hands to cradle it instead of falling, hard
and half-formed from the branch into the yard.
The quiet desperation of this poem — the empty-handed wandering, the “feathering a natural nest” by “maintain(ing) the vessel” — felt so familiar to me: that myth we tend to believe that if we take good care of our bodies they’ll take good care of us. Instead, the falling fruit — which is made more blunt by the sudden change of form at the end of this poem: what would’ve been the final tercet cut short a line by loss.
By the end of the first section of the poem, attempts have become failures and we find ourselves at IKEA in “After the Sixth Failure, IKEA.” For me, this poem conjures the experience of being amidst loss and struggle and yet still being in the world doing mundane things:
“…………..We pile the cart with parts
to build a new fixation, try to fill a hole
in a pail that holds no water. We follow
signs on the edges of aisles, prepare our little
wrenches, take everything we think we need.”
Ah, those little wrenches… if only they could save us.
The collection continues its steady walk through life, loss, and longing with titles like “Housecleaning Venus” (an amazing ekphrastic poem after this piece of art), “Another Truth the Dead Know,” “Other People’s Children,” and “After the Fight, In the Kitchen.” One of my favorite poems mid-collection is “Loss Song,” in which sound becomes the vessel for the “crooked wah-wah” of this life. The poem, which is not without a tender hope, tells us: “Plug a mute into that horn. Play it again.”
In the last section of the poem we find a bit of relief — both comic and otherwise. Vorreyer takes on rockstar poet Billy Collins in “Billy Gets the Analogy all Wrong,” in which she quotes Collins as having written:
a woman without children, a gate through which no
one had entered the world
The poet tells us what a woman is:
“not the gate but the sentry,
ushering the lost to refuge,
not the entrance, but the stage,
action all unfolding from her wings,
not the shuttered womb,
but the unlatched heart, wide open.”
Um, note to Billy.
In the final section, the speaker does become a mother through adoption — this a moment of relief as well, but Vorreyer doesn’t look away from the double-edged sword of motherhood. We go from picking the child up at the airport — “and your whole body knew just what to do” — to “Now My Teenaged Son Just Tells me to Go Away” in the span of four pages. Any parent will tell you: that’s about how fast it seems to go (well, most of the time anyway; some days it appears to take forever for these children to grow up #trueconfessions).
By the end of the collection we’re a bit bruised and battered. I should say: By the end of the collection, I’m a bit bruised and battered. The subtle knife of these poems found a home in me. And yet I’m not left bleeding. The collection’s final poem knows what we all learn about suffering and loss: in the final analysis it doesn’t make us unhappy. Instead it makes us keen observers, and we understand that words and labels (happy, unhappy for instance) don’t do justice to the primal wisdom, the beautiful ravishing we gain through adversity. This poem reminds us that our intimate bonds — with others and with our vulnerable bodies — both heal and wound us. This poem returns to a brokenness, but one that seems somehow okay. Here it is:
When You Ask Me If I Am Happy
I cannot tell the truth — I swear
it is not in my machinery,
something damaged in
production, a little mix-up
of wires and switches,
neurons that osculate but
do not spark. Stop. Do not ask
me again. This morning, the sky
burned so blue, my bones
ached to touch it, and you grazed
the back of my neck to shiver.
Something rose in my throat,
something ancient and erupting,
something that sounded like yes.
Buy this book at the link in the photo above (scroll down) or next week at #AWP14 !