A poet who uses the ordinary organizational tactic of list-making to capture the extraordinary experience of being human is my kind of poet. In her debut full-length collection Hover, recent winner of The Patricia Bibby First Book Prize from Tebot Bach, poet Erin Malone includes, in addition to recurring list-poems each entitled “Questions for My Brother,” such catalogs as: things lost (in the poem “Cuttings),” objects not visible to the human eye (in a poem named exactly that), and wishes (in “Fable”). It helps to know, as the reader does thanks to Ralph Angel’s introduction, that the brother in the volume is also irrevocably lost and thus no longer visible to the eye; clearly this is one reason why “Fable” begins “I make a list of wishes then cross them out.” This is the beginning line of the poem, not the earned final realization, because early-life tragedy sets up from the start exactly the startlingly bleak worldview Malone delineates.
Fanny Howe wrote, “Any act of salvation is a problem because of death which has always had the last laugh, and if there has been a dramatic and continual despair hanging over childhood, then it may even be impossible.” Here we see the voice in Malone’s book, after the loss of a 11-year-old brother when the speaker was herself 12, trying—against the odds specified by Howe—to find salvation in relationships with husband and toddler son. How the self in relation struggles with the self independently defined, after relationships have been shown to be so frail and unsalvageable, is one central question of this book. Is salvation even possible after loss of a beloved, this most human of circumstances, particularly when it happened in childhood? These are the questions that Malone struggles with, and she lets us observe that struggle in poems of astonishing frankness.
The attempt of the voice to form a family with husband and infant son is problematic almost immediately. “…I broke down. He held / the baby, edge & center of everything. / They seemed so far away. // Note the distance between points” ends “Pulling Up the Corners,” a poem laden with clinically descriptive words for structure, geometry, distance, and direction. Break down, pull up, edge, center, point, corner—so many of the words define either position in the world, or a human reaction to the fact, or perhaps more specifically against the fact (holding and pulling), that the baby (and center) could become as lost a thing as a younger brother once was, a thing whose position is not guaranteed: despair and anxiety permeate.
At the same time as effort is expended building a familial structure against the abyss, there is rebellion against the strictures embedded in society’s circumscriptions of traditional gender roles. “… My- // self, aproned, pocketed!” Malone cries in “Suspect”, with a stanza break in the middle of the word ‘myself’ to emphasize the concurrent experiences of fragmentation and entrapment, compression. In “Morning” Malone laments, “a woman with pins in her mount / hemmed my dress to the floor,”, and we sense her despair rising, the one thing able to rise. “I wear the house like a box,” she writes, and her inability to escape the constraints she adopted to support her relationships threatens to subsume her in “Objects Not Visible to the Human Eye.” The title of that poem indicates that the woman as individual is disappearing while the house, the family structure, looms ever larger. And yet, in the earlier poem “Wearing the Terrarium,” the voice admits, “I stuck my head in a house.” What has been signed up for is exacting a higher price than expected, to the point that “My head is a guest” and “I shout! To hear myself think.”
Because the voice in Hover has trouble emotionally distinguishing the tragic younger brother from the young son, she is astonished to find her son becoming a separate self, defining himself free of relationships, before she, hobbled by early losses, has been able to do so. The poem “And Then” ends with:
made the shape of a song.
Where had he heard it? I listened to the tune.
This was not a song I`d known.
It is not only the tune that the mother cannot recognize, but also the freedom to sing a song self-determinedly that is unrecognizable to her.
Malone`s ambivalence finally comes down to fateful memories. “He wonders what the sea was like / before color while I return again and again / to the same cabinet for a memory,” she writes in “The Day After Yesterday,” a poem in which `he` could just as easily be son as brother. But in “Maps of Childhood” with its clearly delineated temporal reference, we read “Memory is not one thing but / I prefer to keep the mountains / on my left.” This is Malone`s incantation for working out her salvation from her past, and from death which bookends her consciousness: placing things in space since time has been so unreliable. In fact, much is made throughout the book of a childhood on the east coast and an adulthood in the mountain west, an extreme strategy for replacing time with space.
“Poems tend to have instructions for how to read them embedded in their language,” wrote Matthea Harvey, and while Malone’s poems do just that, she has given us extra directives as to how to read the book as an integrated whole, via section breaks entitled “Symbols to Guide Your Viewing.” It is with tremendous compassion that Malone gives the reader these instructions, insuring that as we navigate the story, one she herself has struggled to cope with, we are protected against becoming as despairing and as lost as she has been. One telling symbol resembles the capital letter E with a colon, below which a key includes the suggestion that the symbol “can also be a bed on which three people rest, the smallest in the middle.” Triads with uneven power dynamics populate this book: woman, husband and baby; sister, brother, and death; reader, writer, and book. But Malone is there to guide us safely through the waters she had to ford herself alone, without brother, without help from society. She, who worried about her suitability as a mother of an infant, is generously there to mother us all in this book, which is all the more complex for its honesty.