Sasha Steensen’s Ohio is eerie and weedy-wild, full of the tender and the brutal in matter-of-fact convergence. House of Deer is a story of childhood, but it approaches the time—the 1970s—with both nostalgia and violence. We at once imagine a girl whose hair is streaming in verdant fields and something ominous in the woods beyond her.
Steensen’s greatest interest in this book is to explore the concepts of family, complete with big and little F. In an interview with Zyzzyva, Steensen says, “In the writing process, I became interested in the fissures inevitable in memory work, as well as the attempt to both re-present and, occasionally, bridge these fissures via storytelling.” The poet becomes interested in the vagaries of memory and the ways in which many memories at once can shift the narrative of experience.
In the greater Family and imagination, there are the national stories: the massacres of Munich, Vietnam, Kent State, and ones I had to look up, like the death of Christine Chubbuck, the news reporter from Ohio who committed suicide on air. There are poemlets evoking Hart Crane, whose writerly spirit haunts her Ohio, with Sherwood Anderson and “the grandeur // of God, Oh I // know Ohio / how squirrels on my roof sound like a stampede.” Ohio is full of the broader memory and the intimate.
The center of the book houses a sequence of prose poems in the retelling a Zuni myth, and contains a cast of characters that include a girl who is left by her human mother, a deer family of a mother and two fawns, and the family of origin who hunt the deer. The story opens with a poem relying on anaphora that gives the feeling of perpetual motion, a kind of cycling and birthing and departure. These paragraphs are peppered with phrases that indicate authorial awareness such as, “This is another part of the story the writer can’t tell” and “If the writer were the uncle, she would tell the story like this.” In fact, it is the story that becomes the most protected—the deer-mother tells the girl to “stop and allow herself to be caught so she can go back to the farm and tell the story”, which results in the shooting of the doe and her fawns. The story becomes the primary concern and closes in this mournful, loving sentence: “The writer can say, with confidence, that in the evenings, when the town comes alive, the girl will tell the story of the girl and the deer.” We are reminded—these are the author’s memories, this is her childhood, and this is her story—there is family, too, and, in the words of Sharon Olds, “I will tell about it.”
Many of the poems are briefer in lineation, sonic moments that bookend in both tenderness and shock. In the opening poem, one maternal phrase, “we went darker into what was not there / & found a fawn // deeper inside her mother”, is contrasted with the closing quatrain: “if ever I were to return / an ingenious hunter / conceals himself / by stepping inside.” Steensen again employs anaphora with the phrase “The family loved” a few pages later, and we read, “The family loved its overgrown plot. / The family loved its dilapidated barn.” and we continue the trajectory until we reach the last three lines: “The family loved its silo where so many cats drowned. / The family even loved the bats in her belfry. / Until they burned it down.” Even at its most loving, there are imperfections; the reader may ask the question: what can be loved enough not to destroy it? Outside, “I can see a shoal / / of tadpoles / drowning themselves.” Too, there are some beautiful images that will linger: “It was their scarf of earth.” Love and failing exist simultaneously.
Steensen also, in the title section, smashes words together as the joining of hands. There are “landwhales” and “seahippos” and joy of the landscape. At one moment, we envision: “like1976 / snow & dirtroad no one drives down / but us &other neighborfolk / &nowhere to go / but backtotheland” and ends “&the heart bolted to the land / &&” This moment gives us an indoor/outdoor continual flow—I imagine the way the screen door opens in summer, that hinge pumping in and out as children slap back and forth, the environment a cusp, a cup. Pages later, there are “mounds of children / in mounds of sleepingbags / &clump of elders in the yard / &truth be told I wasn’t sleeping.” We spent too long running in that whispery field; now we have that something else, the mysterious ominous buttressing against innocence. On some level, there’s that childish feeling of isn’t this all a big slumber party? “&truth be told / I never heard of keyparties / till recently / we lived so farout / tents dot the farm”. These words, clinging to each other like this call attention to other words and close-words, such as “linseedoil,” holding, too, “lens” and “see.”
So much of these stories are meant to lean on orality, are reminders that memories are faulty and we all tell things differently. Steensen is fully aware of a gaze that is both sonic and visual. She writes, “I will try to tell you about my childhood hill so that you might see it for yourself” and then “I’ve always had an eye for seeing without knowing what the other eye is for.” Her eyes are electric, unflinching.
Because of Steensen’s use of punctuation and the page, it isn’t a far stretch to transform the line, “A ribcage. A ribcage. A ribcage.” into a trio of imagined ((( parenthesis, as words begin to stand in for punctuation. At this point in the book, we are swept into the rhythms of alternate punctuation and lineation; our expectations of form have been expertly diverted.
There’s a sequence of lines on the penultimate page of the book that feels as if it speaks to so much of what Steensen has explored throughout the book:
I abhor the Niagara
the difficult beauty
of its frozen falls
and all they’ve
come to represent.
It’s not entirely in the attitude that one might glom on to, but the paired words “difficult beauty” that draws in all of the passages beforehand. Earlier in the book, Steensen writes, “I had to seethemsee,” which reminded me of how my own daughter, just three, will tell me matter-of-factly how she needs something, like ice cream or a doll she cannot reach—had to, need to. With the words converged like this, I initially misread it as “I had to see them see me.” The had separates it from the want.
House of Deer is a command of a book—you must experience this—a book that hums with deliberate strangeness, an afternoon heavy with humidity and the unrelenting buzz of insects.