Through the Woods
I'm in a terrible mood. I've been wrecked for meaning, for reality. I have no patience, no goodness to spare. What did it to me I don't know. Or I might be unwilling to tell. Either way, I'm sitting here greedy for crumbs, angry at anyone who has a slice of cake.
Amid this stormy mood falls Suzanne Burns's Siblings, an exploration of the story of Hansel and Gretel told in short poem-chapters. Early in the book, Burns creates a powerful claustrophobia. Stuck in the depth of the nuclear family, the sister-narrator has no desire but her brother's to aspire to -- "He tells me at night how he wants / to make love to a landlocked mermaid" -- and no conspirator but her mother:
I ask Mother
to tie my legs together with ribbons.
I ask Mother
to save the fish bones from dinner.
When the children leave the house -- not for good, yet -- they find themselves hemmed in:
A large piece of black material
unfolds in front of us as we walk,
just out of reach
but we always reach.
From the dead end of their childhood, there is only one direction the children can go. Burns's numbered sections lead readers inexorably down that dark path.
From here, though, Burns seems to lose her way. On one page, the brother declares that the story's famous villain, the witch, "is on the next page. // And I can see you turning it right now." But the following page offers anticlimax -- not the moment of female menace you might expect, but only the sister backtracking:
In this story there is no path.
The next person who writes this
will add the path back in.
My brother calls that editing.
If, as this suggests, the sister is herself the witch, Burns later seems to forget she's taken readers here: the brother tells his sister that the witch will always find the two of them, because "you are the witch!" Though the brother and sister are inside a fairy tale, and sometimes know it, they go on telling stories about what will happen; through this intermittently promising but inconsistent meta layer, happening is constantly delayed.
The form of the book also wavers. Lines like "It's just, I mean...I always feel full so fast" violate the economy of the fairy tale and the sound control of poetry -- both of which Burns often depends on. Elsewhere, with its frequent one-sentence poem-chapters hastening the reader along, Siblings suggests a mystery, but without the form's characteristic and thrilling unraveling.
Instead, we keep circling the primary theme of incest, which Burns embroiders in her own way. The sister wants to explore, to live; she's driven by desires she doesn't understand or question. The brother, meanwhile, knows what will happen: the sister's sexuality will blossom and exclude him -- destroy him, even. Why he becomes such a Christ-like figure here, promising that the sister will betray him, seeming to have no desire of his own except to keep his sister pure, I don't know. It's a version that disturbs me, no doubt as Burns intends, but I can't resolve whether I'm disturbed by a home truth or the lack thereof. Either way, it's the brother who has the last word:
My brother tucks a caramel
between my waiting teeth.
He believes this sugar
is the only thing a girl like me
should suck on before sleep.
I go on to Lisa Gluskin Stonestreet's chapbook The Greenhouse. Stonestreet traces hot poetic territory -- the opening of motherhood -- in a familiar mode, her accomplished, even fussy diction skittering across the threat of formal disintegration:
oh my darlings if we could only lie down and rest, stop the spinning, the trickle
of sand, the dust and dust again and then the washing and the sleeping and then again to bed
stilled in the fields of our slumber --
I call this familiar because controlled disintegration is the modern postpartum maternal mind: in the poetry of parenthood, she (somehow never he) must splinter to accommodate baby, self, and world, yet must remain mistress of her own splintering. Amid frailty, she must prove she's a good mother -- "the acupuncture, the headstands: what I wouldn't do / in those last weeks to turn you toward the earth" -- though whatever does having a c-section have to do with whether or not one loves one's child? She must remain aware of the world her mother-love seems meant to vanquish, or at least aware of her neglect of it: "Newspapers! I could read / a newspaper. I have the luxury, the privilege." Does it make Stonestreet's work more or less convincing, moving, readable (you choose) that she's constantly on guard against her own mode, apologizing thus:
There is popcorn all over the rug. Do you want
me to tell that story? Because almost guaranteed you will find
(domestic) (female) (too much) (too little, too small)
Perhaps it depends on where you stand. I can see the beauty and subtlety in a poem in which, wondering about the relation of her time to her child's, Stonestreet writes of herself and a friend "nursing, again, sometime midafternoon and a wave laps at the rug, each of us / bobbing cross-legged and curled over, / bowless hulls for our swaddled sons" -- can see the beauty, but cannot help at the same time sniping at her apparent resources. I know it's not fair: every mother should have her "milk- / dream / of a year" -- and why blame Stonestreet that she does? What should she do about it -- the unfairness of the world -- in the span of a chapbook? What can she do besides love her own? Yet I'm bitter.
Then something happens. What it is I'm not sure: she forgets or loses something.
pop in the placeholder, bravado of the dropped
call. Stop. Don't
That was a typo, not my brain.
She must take a test. She fails -- well, she doesn't fail, but there's a "drop-spike in the chart." And that's all we get. This poem comes late in her slim book, and the remaining two don't revisit the subject. Worries remain in suspense.
In her trouble, I'm drawn to her. She reminds me that everyone -- whatever her surface, whatever she manages to express -- pays hidden costs. Everyone earns her story.