Entering the House of Awe

by Kristin George Bagdanov June 17, 2012

Review of Entering the House of Awe, by Susanna Childress (Western Michigan UP, 2011)
This review first appeared in Issue 24: Heirlooms. [P]icking up Susanna Childress’s second book of poems, Entering the House of Awe, is like uncovering an heirloom in the attic. The book’s unique dimensions alone (7 x 10 inches) cause it to stand out on a shelf, while the winding and varied lines within signal to the reader that these poems will not be left alone, nor will they stay contained within the cover once they are unfurled. Childress requires our trust to enter this book, yanking us around blind corners, pulling up short and changing scenery until she finally unveils the gripping and guttural truth that leaves us in jaw-wide wonder. Perhaps one of Childress’s most notable feats as a poet is her capacity to hold the tension of a sentence or line perfectly until she makes the reader trip the wire. In “Just like Solomon,” a poem about the end of a relationship, “four years unwinding / like the tire swing twisted up tight and all of a sudden / let go,” we experience this sweeping destruction first in the form of the poem, which winds back and forth across the page, then again in the nauseating speed of the relationship’s demise. In fact, two-thirds of the poem is comprised of a single sentence that does not even stop for a breath before dialogue:
You hold onto the sounds of this inside your mouth, the way you don’t let much of anything shrink away these days though it goes and goes whether you like it or not: shock, the blotched red couch, his mother that first Thanksgiving taking your picture over and over . . .
We cannot rest and cannot help but yearn for a resolution, especially as the speaker digs down, finally, to the root of their conflict, the “dark almond lodged in [her] throat,” and realizes her own culpability, preferring to “saw the place in half” over compromising. Other poems, such as “The Lanterns,” unfold rather than unwind. This two-page poem comprised entirely of couplets enlarges as it progresses, with each metaphor blooming into a bouquet of intricate details before we alight upon the next. The speaker describes how she hears
the awe of my voice at itself, spilling from the tender napkin of my throat, ticks and shirks of consonants, hums that tripped through each of the known vowels and words that were not, will never be, words. It doesn’t matter how things grew too bright, how fear etched its haggard lines under the sac of breath in my chest . . .
Each line leaves the reader rushing to the next to see what each new image will reveal as it resonates with and strengthens what precedes and follows. The story and detail contained in one metaphor alone is enough to keep me churning the image in my mind for the rest of the day, imagining, for instance, “what wide vats, / what lavalieres of words came, faster and blacker, banana leaves // shriveling over flame, canaries set loose in the kitchen . . . ” Childress’s book of poems overwhelms us with the heavy burden of witness but, unlike sensationalized reports and headlines, does not abandon us in our grief. “The Wry World Shakes Its Head,” a meditation on Isaiah 40, is a teeth-gritting narrative that grapples with how the Lord’s glory is revealed in our lives, how we can be comforted by the seemingly distant promise of Isaiah. For the speaker,
The first time you see the rugged place become a plain is the moppy red hair of your mother’s retarded cousin Roy Dale, cropped, stern as a recruit, something of a joke atop his docile body: slack, spittled, set in the corner . . .
She wonders, “Where, then, to go from here? . . . // . . . not What should I cry out but What shouldn’t I?” In “Chloé Phones after Three Weeks Working at the Home,” we witness terrible acts of violence and injustice as relayed by Chloé to the speaker who, like us, searches for a response to these atrocities. But what can one say to the child raped by her stepfather? “There needs to be no right word There needs to be a wide hole a / whole mouth where the right word isn’t.” Then, in “What’s Done,” we watch “the women who pummel their children / in public. . . [the] Lady // at the airport flinging her spatula of a girl again and again . . . ” and want to shout out in protest or, rather, cry out to the Lord: “Split open the hazelnut under / our ribs Let there be enough to go around and around.” Childress leads us down these corridors of outrage, disgust, and stomach-churning guilt so that we might know our limits and recognize what we are capable of, that we might somehow learn the answer from He who “bends but a portion of our hearts / toward hell.” It is not easy to enter this house of awe; once you take Childress’s hand and pass the threshold, you will not leave it unchanged. In these poems, we discover how broken stories can be reassembled, how sometimes the crying out is the answer, how poetry is both an act of discovery and of witness, how “telling, fashioned like a nest, is not the sound of a thing, but its hearth” (“Fetching”). --- Read Issue 24: Heirlooms.


Kristin George Bagdanov
Kristin George Bagdanov

Author

Kristin George Bagdanov earned her M.F.A. in poetry from Colorado State University and is currently a PhD student in English Literature at U.C. Davis, where she studies 20th century and contemporary ecopoetics. Her poems have recently appeared in or are forthcoming from Ninth Letter, Denver Quarterly, Cincinnati Review, The Laurel Review, Mid-American Review, and other journals. She is the recipient of the 2016 Henry David Thoreau fellowship at Vermont Studio Center and is the poetry editor of Ruminate Magazine. Follow her on Twitter at @KristinGeorgeB.



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