A review is not meant to be a personal essay. A review, like a house, has a form, forms walls, walls you into the world of the work. But then, “By whom or by what agency is the behavior of the poem suggested,” writes Barbara Guest, “by what invisible architecture, we ask, is the poem developed?” We are building structures here. So, first:
When I was a kid I spent a lot of time on construction sites with my dad. I watched him lay foundations, frame walls, and install siding, insulation, drywall. For a few summers in high school, my father hired me to do weird jobs like scrape errant putty from newly installed windows or wipe mysterious pee stains out of waterless tubs. Even though I’d watched it go up in real time, each new house felt like a magic trick.
As an adult I bought a house while my father was dying, so late into his dementia that he couldn’t even hammer a nail. I thought without thinking that the house would give me what Gaston Bachelard calls an illusion of stability. I’d bought a house because houses were what I knew—but without my father’s magic tricks, I was still a woman without a home.
Houses are not time machines…
When I picked up Mark Irwin’s Large White House Speaking, I saw that the poet’s memories had been triggered by long afternoons with a kind of writing that meanders back in time. Many of the poems in the collection lead back to houses as locus of emotional intensity. The large white house of memory.
The very fiber of this collection is like the dream of a once-house the poet is always trying to return to, the birthplace of his personal duende, what Bachelard calls our oneirically definitive dwelling place. Even if the houses/spaces he travels back to are not literally Irwin’s first home, they’re imbued with the same power, a means into his past.
Even the shapes of most poems in this collection are bricklike. Only occasionally as in “Tell Me,” an epistolary poem about time undone, do we get the blown-out light of a Turner painting.
Resolution: the act of finding an answer; the answer itself; taking a complexity and breaking it into its simpler notions; determination; the point in a story at which the complication is worked out; the measure of the sharpness of an image. The title poem of Large White House Speaking begins, “—From morning to evening the resolution of light through windows.” Light seeks, light illuminates, light clarifies, light determines to break darkness.
Irwin isn’t interested in one shade of light. His project in “Large White House Speaking,” and in much of this collection, to accrete possibilities, shades of light-and-dark (we know from the demented that memory ain’t strictly black-and-white). Reanimating the past requires flow: In this poem, a resolution of light is also the resolution of time; people are windows through which light pours so that the light of memory filters through our very bodies; evening is also equal to memory.
Bachelard writes, “every corner in a house, every angle in a room, every inch of secluded space in which we like to hide, or withdraw into ourselves, is a symbol of solitude for the imagination; that is to say, it is the germ of a room, or of a house.” In Irwin’s poem, “A house / is a pocket with many smaller pockets: rooms, closets, drawers. You / are reaching now into darkness.” Irwin isn’t reaching back to find memories; he is reaching back (one might say into his imagination) to find the right words to house the memories.
If resolution is the act of answer-finding, or if it is the answer itself, this collection is more a move toward discovery than the discovery itself. Memory is slippery—structurally and sonically—Irwin’s metaphors morph into new and sometimes perplexing and contradictory metaphors as he follows their trail.
The houses in Large White House Speaking, it turns out, are time machines.
In “Portraits,” an estranged mother and son wash windows together:
She stood outside.
I stood in, and we cleaned each one that way, staring into each other’s eyes,
rubbing the white towel over our faces, rubbing
away hours, years.
The obvious eyes/windows/soul connection. Or the act of working on a house together brings the two characters back, literally face to face, to another time in which either they are not estranged, or she is not dead (this could definitely be a poem about a ghost).
Or in “Elegy,” “Inside / the house we are suddenly weightless, having not seen /each other for years, then touch like lights rehearsing the latitudes / of our names.” It’s as though the air in Irwin’s houses takes on a spaceship immensity.
“Elegy,” is one of those poems that follows a trail of words into the past, where “a carcass of vowels wept.” Memory is both retrieval and failed mission.
Memory resurrects ghosts, and time morphs into one meta-ghost; In the poem “Ghost,” Irwin elides memory, words, and houses into the sound of a bell’s gong:
you come & go through the mansion
of air. How
will I address you, small
weather? Sometimes your name’s
a dress like an iron
bell the years
swing shadows from
longer than home. Can you hear
that word peal? I’m going
carrying the windows
all the vowels.
How will I address you, small weather? might be one of the best lines in the book, strange and lovely. Aside from the poem’s lyric intensity, the line breaks enliven its mystery: “of air. How” stands on its own, asking how to breathe? or “longer than home. Can you hear,” imploring us to stop and repeat the word home aloud, to contemplate its significance as both word and recalled place.
The extended metaphor—a technique that works often and well in this collection—is in this poem (and a few others) a frustrating buildup of sensory data. How, I ask myself, is a name like a dress which is like an iron bell from which years swing shadows that are longer than the word home (not very long), and then how does home turn into the pealing bell, and how is the speaker going into that bell, carrying the windows that were inside all the vowels?
Colliding disparate things, cement-mixing metaphors at high speed, is a dangerous business. The cascading creates in me a never-grasping or a rabbit hole. Which may be Irwin’s point. I think about the impossibility of returning to my childhood home(s), to those particular places and times, and how we might chase language ad infinitum to never quite find what we’re looking for.
In contrast, in “Poem Beginning with a Line by Milosz,” bodies, too, won’t be defined, are not what they appear, but Irwin’s logic is more traceable. The poem amasses contradictions to Milosz’s assertion that “beautiful bodies are like transparent glass,” where language/memory/vision are slippery and indecisive, but we all know intimately the shape of a body. The poem makes me feel less like I’m in a freefall and more like I’m witnessing real-time contemplation or a proof-building. Take these three phrases:
“What appears transparent is really flame / burning so brightly it appears like glass.”
“The most beautiful bodies / are not transparent, but sometimes the color / of lead”
“The bodies that seem / transparent are made of an ice so pure it appears / to be glass sweating”
Each phrase definitely re-imagines the last, each becomes a new possibility for the body, our version of a turtle shell, versus an unsolvable mystery.
One of the most crystalline pieces in the collection is a short prose poem about a private viewing of the Australopithecus skeleton, Lucy, in 1974, in which the narrator speaks to Lucy’s several hundred pieces of bone: “For the most part you were all there, with the notable exception of right femur, left tibia, and part of the skull. No hands or feet. I guess they were shattered and lost in your swim to the surface of three million years.” The poem concludes with a pregnant woman in the group catching sight of the skeleton’s partial pelvic bone and sacrum, and the two living characters exchange a single moment of awe, the woman’s hand on narrator’s shoulder, as they gaze “into a white fire,” and the woman says she needs to go home.
In many ancient traditions, the sacrum is sacred space, the seat of creation and desire—even the house of the soul. I love how this poem brings ancient and modern woman together even as the glow of such magnitude-of-lineage becomes overwhelming.
Irwin performs a similar sweep in “Sentence,” vastness plus the language that evokes it. The universe doubles as a house:
we lean on earth’s railing, gazing upward at a billion
fires, distant, unsexed, a syntax whose one unraveling subject’s all verb.
Interesting that syntax, the ordering of language, is unraveling; or rather the subject that syntax wants to describe is coming apart. The subject must exist in the doing (all verb). We eat, we sleep, we fuck: all of which are indescribable acts as we gaze, frozen, outward and upward, through the windows of our white houses, that when recalled from years later, feel a lot like home.