The Haunted House… tumbles through a teenage-girl world, giddy and feverish, at times drunk on foiled friendships and empty kisses, and at others sober with the knowledge that this tumultuous frolic is lamentably (thankfully?) temporary.
Mark Strand, in his poem “No Words Can Describe It,” asks, “What is it in us that lives in the past and longs / for the future, or lives in the future and longs for the past?” Marisa Crawford might have some attempt at answer for him. The Haunted House, her Gatewood Prize-winning debut, tumbles through a teenage-girl world, giddy and feverish, at times drunk on foiled friendships and empty kisses, and at others sober with the knowledge that this tumultuous frolic is lamentably (thankfully?) temporary.
The poems read like they were scribbled in a notebook, in class, right before the bell rings. They come in thick stream-of-consciousness paragraphs, numbered lists, and long-lined odes that almost trip over their own gushing. The key here, though, is the almost; you can follow Crawford’s rambling thoughts as far as they go—almost too far!—but they always stop right where they need to. She retains a certain precision, a polished offhandedness, similar to what she is alluding to in “Yum Poison Apple”: “I / spent all morning getting the I slept in my makeup look.” It appears that she churned these out as some do diary pages, but upon closer inspection, they are the product of a poet with a firm grasp on her craft (similar to the way being a teenage girl looks like fun and games and lipstick, but is a more serious and difficult undertaking).
Crawford’s diction, for example, is delicious—she constructs equally well silver-tipped sibilance and full round “ohs” that role off the tongue: “The sky is made of Lycra. / Chocolate-syrup solar eclipse, maraschino / cherry, hole in the ozone” (“What Happened in the Pool”). Her rhymes are playful, sly, and vaguely Dickinson-esque (someone she evokes both structurally and content-wise). A few lines in “Ghost Story” slipped by me at first (winking, I imagine) but I caught them on a second read-through: “I’d like to thank the seeds, / all the seeds that turned into trees / after everyone said they’d never grow.” I was also particularly taken by the concluding lines of “Valentine’s Day”: “Every spider in the attic is building a sweater; I just do. […] Every thread is a live wire. Every letter is a love letter.” She purrs ‘r’ and ‘v’ sounds in your ear, punctuating them with the high ‘t’s, sweet and shiver-inducing. She is the spider, and you hardly even notice the web until it sticks to you.
Crawford admires dear Miss Dickinson (don’t we all?!) and conjures her in surprising ways; Emily is reincarnated as a ghost in this dream-house of adolescence: “Emily Dickinson chipped my tooth with her head while I / was breathing under my left arm and she was sloppily coming / out of her flip-turn. I found forty bound fascicles of poems in / her locker. She told me the combination once. She told me to use / leave-in conditioner” (“Swimming in Lanes Five and Six”).
This characterization of Dickinson is particularly poignant in the context of all the other girls who haunt the pages surrounding her (Andi, Stephanie, Virginia, etc.). A few I found particularly startling in their familiarity. I attended middle school with the perfect, graceful “Deidre”: “If girls woke up / in fawn spots, wrapped in blankets, it would be called Deidre. If / the pancake batter smoothed to silk, she would be called. Deidre. / Breakfast is ready when you are.” I still know prissy, delicate Alyssa to this day: “Alyssa has a handful of violets. / Alyssa has a lavender lunch pail and a matching headband. / When the roll is called, she always says, Present” (“Valentine’s Day”).
And then there is Cera. Cera is not, as I first assumed, just a girl who spells her generic name in a tragically hip way. Cera is the female triceratops from The Land Before Time and Crawford pays loving and heartsick homage to her in a five-part series titled “For Cera” and spread throughout the first and last parts of the book. She seemed to me Crawford’s girl-crush (“every letter is a love letter”) but also plays a more significant role in the overall commentary of the adolescent girl situation. Cera reminds us “Some boys eat plants some girls / eat meat some dinosaurs have three horns”, and that “the very / earth we walk on was once inhabited / by giant reptilian monsters.” These issues that exist now for us conscientious, romantically-inclined beings have existed for centuries. There have always been teenage girls battling Sharptooths in one way or another, and always will be: “Your frills are / made of bone and we were born that way.”
This sort of gender-role analysis stays, for most of the book, a subtle beneath-the-surface context. Crawford begins to coax it out in “The Haunted House” the nine-page fragmented list that comprises the midsection of the book. In part number 31, she makes a tongue-in-cheek commentary about attempted subversion of gender-normative behavior in young and modern couples:
The carnival ride where the boy’s supposed to sit on the inside
and the girl’s supposed to sit on the outside, so when the spinning
starts she slides into him. I though we were being radical when we
switched seats. I though we were being radical but really you were
just crushing me.
It’s a perfectly ironic scenario: crushed by the expectations, or crushed again by the attempt to defy them? Either way, you’re crushed.
“Tidal”, the first poem following “The Haunted House”, deviates in form and tone from most everything else. Its epigraph is a Dickinson quote alluding to the title of the collection: “Nature is a Haunted House — / but Art — a House that tried to be Haunted.” The poem is angrier, and crashes against the constrains of its form, which is more tightly structured than the longer, flowing lines we’ve seen up until now: “if beauty is a dead girl / a garden / would you lift up her skirt […] airtight in that corset / lungs expanding / and what if when she finally spoke / she wouldn’t ever shut up.” It seemed to me an awakening, a turning point in the dream-like world we’ve been wandering. But with the exception of a few moments in the subsequent section—”The binary is awkward and unbalanced and explosive. Which also / means, a perfect song for dancing” (“Called Back”) the tonal shift is, unfortunately, temporary. We return for the remainder of the book to the same slow-forward motion of someone stuck in the sticky web of their own youthful angst.
I suppose it is to be expected. This house of tangled halls Crawford leads us through is that of memory, with its nostalgia and ghostly inhabitants. The end Crawford comes up with—appropriately called “Artifacts”—isn’t truly a way out because there isn’t one; memory is the eternity of our minds (“To save this message forever and ever and ever and ever and ever, / press 9”). When we’re young, it is the ghosts of the future, the promise of everything that we are going to be, that haunt us. When we are older, we can never forget what we once were. That is the answer to Mr. Strand’s riddle—in us is the meandering, and indeed haunted, house of memory. Marisa Crawford, with this collection, unlocks for us a door to explore it.