Reviewed by REBECCA GAYLE HOWELL
On a Sabbath day in 1855, Emily Dickinson wrote a letter to her dear one, Mrs. Holland. Mrs. Holland was the poet’s chosen sister, a mentor and friend in gardening and recipes, householding and womanhood. They were correspondents for more than 30 years, sharing their litanies of living a life. This particular letter concerned the disorienting process of moving house. The Dickinson family was returning to their homeplace. It was the house where Emily was born and it would be the house where she died. But in that moment, having lived fifteen years elsewhere, she felt pillaged and lost, a kind of expat from her country of knowns.
I cannot tell you how we moved. I had rather not remember. I believe my ‘effects’ were brought in a bandbox, and the ‘deathless me,’ on foot, not many moments after. I took at the time a memorandum of my several senses, and also of my hat and coat, and my best shoes—but it was lost in the mêlée, and I am out with lanterns, looking for myself.
The Lantern Room is Chloe Honum’s extraordinary new book, released in February 2022 by Tupelo Press. Shane McCrae calls it “some of the most purely lyric poems [he’s] read in years,” and I couldn’t agree more. Here is the story of many kinds of expatriation, some actual, some envisioned, all of them urgent and frightening. Here is a story told in dazzling music, composed as much from silence as sound, by a speaker who is brave, honest, funny, and clear. With each new word, she steps us forward with the care we use to move into the dark night, when we cannot see the path ahead.
We begin with a poem called “The Angel.” It starts, “On the eve of my thirteenth birthday, I found her in an alley. / Her wings were crossed at violent angles. She was naked and her / bruises were so bright that I ran my finger along them to check if / the skin was broken.” The angel is not only credible; her wounds are credible, tactile, corporeal. To enter this book we must accept what Honum already knows: we are all thrown from heaven, from time to time.
Displacement becomes our subject. The speaker wakes up in New England, then Arkansas, New England, Arkansas, and “the outskirts of a thundering town.” A car driving across the country. A motel. Another motel. A memory of New Zealand. San Bernardino County. A memory of Europe. Arkansas, again. Across three sections, the book travels Honum’s speaker across the boundaries of place and self. What keeps the reader from feeling jostled is Honum’s piercing attention to the present moment belonging to each poem, each line, realized with such precision that the collection is indeed a memorandum of senses.
Honum’s deft skill reaches new heights in the book’s unforgettable second section. “The Common Room” gives us a place to land for a while, but that place is the other-worldly psychiatric ward initiated in her 2017 Bull City Press chapbook, Then Winter. This is a ward of the mythos, in which the reader’s expectations for what is unreal and real are reversed, braided, exposed. The setting is grounded in senses I recognize, but the rules have changed, as in “Stay Beside Me”:
|The psychiatric ward has three levels. We are the day patients, and above us are the overnighters. Above them are those in the most danger. In the common room, the Vietnam vet tells me his fa-
ther, the fire chief, molested his sisters. When he says, my sisters, his slow, gravelly voice rises. Then he falls silent. I think he is afraid
to be womanly. But in the shade beneath his ball cap, the word sis- ters keeps rising, like the moon above a beach where dolphins have mistaken its light for a shared mind, and are swimming in with
We meet the Vietnam vet, the master of dreams, the girl in the soft boots, the manic boy. In this place, the doctors are always leaving. In this place, the patients—who we might otherwise want to imagine as unreliable—rise up like gods. They are the ones who know. Our minds, our thoughts, are the terrain we most want to trust. The poet twists this want, in order to show us what it actually is: a borderless dream.
Honum herself is a New Zealander, living with dual citizenship in the country of her adulthood, the U.S. This is a poet who understands well the heartsick longing for what is known—a landscape, a climate, an air that her bones can recognize as native. In The Lantern Room, Honum slow drips this longing. We feel it, even when we cannot name it; even when we know where we are, we also know we can’t stay. The motion of these poems is as unsettling as grief, as love, those forces that come into our lives not as events but as barometric shifts. A kiwi flickers in with a fluorescent light. Auckland’s Albert Park is guarded by cherubs who offer endless water. Trumpet flowers exhale. And always, always there is flight flown or clipped: luna moths and dead sparrows, crying geese, singing sparrows, hunting sparrows.
One of the most surprising moments in the book is a diptych of historical poems, about St. Mary’s Home for Unwed Mothers in Ōtāhuhu, Auckland. Opened by the Anglican Church in 1904 and named for the sainted Magdalene, this house is now accused of having abused and molested the women and abducted their newborn babies. Honum’s diptych comes early in the collection, and it is the book’s only overt touch to historical assault. The pairing startles the reader’s awareness and awakens the understanding that all of the book’s poems are threaded with memory’s capacity to either exact or heal wounds.
The first of these poems is called, aptly, “Read More About Our History.” It begins:
The history remembers twelve cows on average
were milked, and that an Old Boy sent the secretary
a postcard from the Holy City. Maggie Wilkinson
was told her records were lost in a fire— or a flood.
She was force-fed drops (ergometrine)? . . . bound and given a drug to stop
lactation, stilbestoerol??? The history includes the names of many
Bishops and buildings, and the cost per annum of running things.
Yet there is no space for the matron’s soft shoes, her habit of
silently appearing behind Maggie and screaming if her mop strokes were not square.
No room for the Bible on which the mothers were made to swear
never to try to find their children. Look at the rain tonight
in Auckland, how insistently it searches, in hard spirals,
down Queen Street toward the sea. Winter has just begun.
The second, “St. Mary’s Home for Unwed Mothers in Ōtāhuhu, Auckland,” reads:
a constant danger—
people who desire
in controlling girls
nature and scope of work
Toggling between stated and erased texts, simultaneously engaging poetic erasure and documentation, remembered and present voices, Honum’s St. Mary’s poems create a technique capable of sharing this terrifying past that separated mother and child, and the child from themselves, for a lifetime.
Which brings me to the work’s axis. This is Honum’s second collection—readers will remember her debut, The Tulip-Flame. In the titular poem, Honum reveals that her mother’s death was planned, a suicide.
The speaker in Honum’s poetry knows her greatest exile is from this mother, who appears in The Lantern Room as New Zealand, and the beloved, rain and silence, the poet’s dog, poetry itself. When read as a sequence, The Lantern Room offers a system of nurturing in which every element holds the potential—not to forget suffering—but to embrace it with tenderness. Here, the mother is both intimate and omnipresent. She is always dying, she is not yet dead, she can never die. Indeed, Honum’s spirit realm is not distinct from her earthen realm, the ephemeral and the permanent are on equal ground, we are all eternal, we are all brief.
The Lantern Room is devastating and sublime. I found myself reading it in one heart-stopped sitting, holding the light out for both Honum and myself. I have not stopped reading it since that day. If the present moment is the only real home any of us ever have, Honum is teaching me how to daringly live there. Now, and now. And now.
Rebecca Gayle Howell is the author of two award-winning novels-in-verse, American Purgatory (Black Springs Press Group, 2017) and Render / An Apocalypse (Cleveland State University Press, 2013), and the translator of Amal al-Jubouri’s Hagar Before the Occupation / Hagar After the Occupation (Alice James Books, 2011). Among her awards is the United States Artists Fellowship, the United Kingdom’s Sexton Prize, the Pushcart Prize, and two winter fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, where today she is an elected member of the Writing Committee. Since 2014, Howell has served as Poetry Editor for The Oxford American.