In the Low Houses by Heather Dobbins

Reviewed By

Thrumming with longing and loss, In the Low Houses yearns toward mourning marked by resolve, toward mourning that is more than body as “chickenwire, its twisted metal lines / cowering over dandelions and thistle.” As lyrically sonorous as it is intelligent and introspective, In the Low Houses is the incredible elegiac debut from Heather Dobbins.

Elegies, by their very nature, commit to the impossible questions about being and grief, love and abandon. Have no illusions, “These headstones go mostly unanswered,” we are told in the first poem, “Foolheart in West Tennessee.” Absence, loss, emptiness—how do we express their (paradoxical) weight and expansiveness, the space they demand in our lives? How do we address that which is without body? We turn to poetry. And we look to masters of elegy. The speaker of “Foolheart” explains, quite provocatively, “It isn’t true that silence is wisdom.” So, from the very first poem we are told that answers are often unsatisfying. But the ambition of expression? Absolutely vital. The poem ends with “A love letter in pencil / was sent months ago, / unreadable in a few years. // A foolheart will not lie.” The foolheart, the lover with her heart on her sleeve, entrusts us with her language, her voice in the world, and we, thereby, trust her as our guide into the elegiac.

And let’s be clear, elegies are not dusty things, but quite the opposite: full of passion, craving, and desire. Dobbins’ poems are driven by the sciences of movement, attractions, magnetisms, and force. “What has me falling down keeps the planet in orbit: / we can’t pick one over the other” the speaker says in one of my favorite poems, “Flirting with an Astronomer.” The poem ends “from Chaos and night comes erebus and eros.” Throughout In the Low Houses Dobbins tells us again and again how form and restraint (especially embodied restraint) not only sustain but cultivate chaos. Out of disorder comes order, and within order, the mess of uncertainty, the chaos of the unknown. The speakers of these poems are equally willful of and conflicted by the various confines we find ourselves in: homes, relationships, even our own skin. And eventually we are confronted by consummate containment: the grave (that is, low houses).

“Like Nothing Else” exemplifies this tension of restraint and uncertainty. In this poem the speaker is on the subway, looking at her reflection in the train’s windows. Dobbins’ task is to make us look, inviting readers into her investigations. “Perimeters contain, try and try / again, their sides holding // the space of all I don’t know.” And later “Answers always meager: / a limitation, a lemon holding.” Again, no illusions: this is not about answers, not about what is sought or arrived at, but about the energy, the movement toward, the seeking.

Let me see you rise

from this clank and bang
in the loud place’s degradations.

Stranger, the best I ever look
is in a subway window.

“The best” meaning removed? Contained? Mystery is often a source of heartache, and uncertainty is our only certainty.

Similarly, the unknown brings us to the known thing. As we become intimate with another, drawn to and into mystery, we are, paradoxically (frustratingly), drawn to destroy this mystery. We are human, lovers who ache to know deeply, intimately. We seek to make the strange familiar and strangers, familial. In “What Is Most Familiar Is the Not Quite,” Dobbins draws us into this struggle, into the conundrum of desire: give in and know, or hold back and revel in the unknown? “To touch / without danger // is to close.” Do our restrictions, whether bodily or circumstantial, inspire longing? Dobbins implies so, as we find “tracks of zippers at the same coordinates,” and in another poem, “not formally across the table from each other / but side by side, split in a line of neon.” Boundaries, coordinates, pressures, contours make the body a map.

Dobbins reminds us of—then invites us into—the ephemeral, fleeting, bodily present (an incredible achievement for a poet). In a poem about such evanescence, called “Ten Years after Following a Band,” the speaker is in her car listening to the radio and recalling the synaptic experience she once had at a concert (the notes in the back of the book dedicate this poem to Modest Mouse). The song coming through the speakers is an echo, memory sparking. “Song strays into noise—not the record version / but live, guitar picks and drums. // I lean forward, but you aren’t there.” It is only the human who experiences this, who is always reaching for the moment gone or the moment that’s not yet; we yearn to be “that sound board body, salted / hair sodden and dancing, / where self is a ticket stub in a wallet.” The body realizes itself, but always in a moment nearly or just expired. In this way the body and language are kin: close as skin and soil but as mysterious as want and harvest; we are eager for what evades. In “Six Graders Discuss Poetry”:

This truth is prevalent:

what two colors have always been together?
Thirty unplanned crayon drawings of sky and grass
on classroom walls. There can be

no human without earth, nor love without language.

And in another poem, “Bodies and words wayfare together.” Instincts and intuitions give Low Houses its verve. Our impulse to create and translate language is akin to our urge to partner. “Clay,” a cornerstone of Low Houses, describes what gives and takes, the oscillations of love and sex: “O maker of paper and dams / formed after minerals of time, // teach me to adjust to this bed, / its varved histories and sensitivities.” Paper connotes language and frailty, finitude. Dam and time connote energy and potentiality. We build with earthen, finite materials what we hope will last. It is not dire, but we are wary. We create families and suffer loss. We love and find ourselves lonely. “Rocks weather, rise through ledges, / clay in my mercenary mouth.”

Heather DobbinsIn the Low Houses is infused with tradition without surrendering innovation. It is clear Dobbins is not only a writer of poetry but a student, attuned to the ancestry of the elegiac, whose strong grasp of craft reflects how and why the tradition of lament has been so integral to poetry’s migratory patterns. Poets like Dobbins simultaneously follow and influence its direction. Whether a lover, a landscape, or even a former version of the self, we are beings surviving loss; we are beings surviving the tension of movement—from past to present, and the question of the future. In the Low Houses culminates in the last poem, the title poem. We are ushered into that unyielding moment of unease and movement. “Our bodies sometimes align. Said and skin, open and close. // Mostly, we age, botch and buckle.” And later, “Contain, try and try. // Fail. Wait.” The title poem speaks to every other poem in the book, and pivots back to the first poem about the foolheart and our unanswered catechisms: “I look at the cemetery through the window. / He asks, Are you minding the headstones?” Loss—full of feeling and yet evasive, intangible—demands we let go, an act painfully unnatural and yet universally human.

Dobbins proves a trustworthy guide into the elegiac. From subtle, extrapolating metaphor to repetition of themes and images, from careful line breaks to lyrical assonance, she proves to be a poet to be watched.


Caitlin Mackenzie is a poet and essayist living in Eugene, Oregon and working in book publishing. Her work can be found in Fugue, CutBank, HTMLgiant, Structo, and Lambda Literary among others, and her poetry was recently nominated for the Forward Prize. More from this author →