In her stunning first collection House and Fire, Maria Hummel (a former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford) explores the harrowing, surreal world of a new mother, whose toddler son has been felled by a mysterious, life-threatening illness. The poet finds herself thrust into a parallel reality, where markers of a normal childhood, like puzzles, crayons, and carousels co-exist with sickbed vigils, IVs, and transfusions.
The opening poem, “Station,” starts us off in medias res– and is worth quoting in its entirety:
Days you are sick, we get dressed slow,
find our hats and ride the train.
We pass a junkyard and the bay,
then a dark tunnel, then a dark tunnel.
You lose your hat. I find it. The train
sighs open at Burlingame,
past dark tons of scrap and water.
I carry you down the black steps.
Burlingame is the size of joy:
a race past bakeries, gold rings
in open black cases. I don’t care
who sees my crooked smile
or what erases it, past the bakery,
when you tire. We ride the blades again
beside the crooked bay. You smile.
I hold you like a hole holds light.
We wear our hats and ride the knives.
They cannot fix you. They try and try.
Tunnel! Into the dark open we go.
Days you are sick, we get dressed slow.
Throughout this collection, Hummel skillfully uses poetic forms to both contain and give order to a terrible, overwhelming experience. Her particular knack is choosing the formal device that best serves a poem’s topic. Here, though the unrhymed quatrains of “Station” are orderly, and sonically dense with repeated sounds, words, and phrases, they remain free verse– until that final heroic couplet.
The tension between her often unspeakably painful subject matter and these plain-spoken, sometimes singsongy poems is effective, creating an overall tone of a dark, sad fairy tale. Hummel’s lyricism and sonic beauty urge the reader to enter this dense forest, rather than skirt its edges.
Particular poetic forms also deliver specific effects; such as the ABA rhyme scheme and repeated lines of the villanelle– mimetic of both the repetitive nature of hospital routines and the stalled/circular thinking inherent to trauma:
“Today your arm eats strawberries.
Tomorrow, birthday cake and toast.
The tubes go in, their liquid clear.
As our life at home grows far
and faint, food becomes a ghost.
Today your arm ate strawberries.
I read you books on dinosaurs,
their lost hungers, fallen bones.
The tubes go in, their liquid clear…”
There is an exquisite and sure-footed balance in House and Fire: between formal and free verse, terror and love, past and present, realism and magic realism. The most surreal and least formal piece, “Unicorn,” a prose poem about a desperate father delivering a bloody, dying unicorn to the nurses’ station, is a gut-punch depiction of a father’s battered, desperate hope.
With deft slant rhymes, assonance ‘rhymes’, and other slight rule-break variations, Hummel’s formal poems feel smooth and uncontrived; indeed in a few cases, it took me a second reading to notice a rhyme scheme at work. Metaphors too can be subtle, accurate, and devastating, as in the conclusion of “714 B”:
“…I don’t envy the nurses their jobs;
they avert their faces from mine:
smiling at this small limp boy,
lifting a rattle for him,
setting it down,
turning the pages of a book for him,
saying where’s the baby? show me the baby.”
When serious illness strikes a child, it strikes his parents too– so the poet is both a witness and a fellow abductee; the suffering is both hers and not hers. Hummel skillfully explores her own pain while never losing sight of whose crisis this really is: “She has a hole in her side/ she probes when no one is looking/ to feel if it still pains her. It does. It will/ not heal. It will not kill her./ Her boy is beautiful and ill…”
A brutal blow can make a person two beings simultaneously– the old self, and a new, vivid, crisis-made self. The poet struggles to integrate her pre-crisis and post-crisis notions of safety, reality, sufficiency. The chasm between the two is impossible to bridge, yet must be bridged.
This one-sentence poem, a pithy meditation on dual realities and transformation, gives the collection its title:
in equal parts
earth and sky
is now in equal parts
house and fire
Of course a mother is a house for her child– first literally, as a womb; later figuratively, as a protection, a shelter. Faulty-house and tree images recur in several other poems, such as in one untitled piece about a miscarriage that happens in the same time-frame as her son’s illness: “ultrasound static/ hundreds of gray leaves/ twitching around you/ and my first thought:/ how safe.”
Parallel/ dual lives and impossible contradictions permeate this collection– the well and the sick, the pre-crisis and post-crisis selves. The poet’s son is both a baby at the beginning of his life and a potentially fatal medical case. The mother is joyfully in love with her child while also suffering and terrified. Even the sorority of other mothers on the ward is divided between those whose children will get better and those whose children won’t.
In “Children’s Ward,” a pair of linked villanelles, we meet the baby roommate of the poet’s son, another gravely ill boy whose own twin brother lives at home, thriving and perfectly well:
In the bed beside yours, the child is so small
he could fit in a lady’s purse, a shoebox.
He smiles but doesn’t say anything at all.
You fall in love with him, wake up calling
Baby! Baby! pull our curtain back, knock
the reeds of his crib. The child is so small
he barely sees you, or the picture on the wall
you drew for him, of rain and broken robots.
He smiles but doesn’t say anything at all.
He’s one year old, cannot walk or crawl,
and floats alone all day while we play and talk.
The room around us is so small.
When his mother comes, she is beautiful,
her dark hair a sail, her face made of knots.
She smiles but doesn’t say anything at all
as we sit, holding our sons until they fall
asleep. Then she goes, the room closing like water
after a passing boat. The child is so small.
He smiles and says nothing at all.
Lyrical and elegant, simple and deep, brimming with love and pain, House and Fire is a gorgeous book that holds the dualities it explores in a tender, careful embrace.