More Than Ordinary: If the House by Molly Spencer

Reviewed By

“The poet speaks on the threshold of being,” writes Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space. For Bachelard, the house represents a “concentration of intimacy,” offering a locus of scenes and images of “the sorts of space that may be grasped, that may be defended against adverse forces, the space we love.”

Molly Spencer’s debut collection of poems, If the House, winner of the Brittingham Prize in Poetry and selected by Carl Phillips, meets her reader in an imagistically and emotionally charged space—the “refuge” (Bachelard’s term) of the house. Yet the spaces that Spencer’s poems inhabit and create, like Bachelard’s house, are not neutral or uncontested—rather, they are spaces capable of defense and the navigation of love. Take the milk spilling in the opening poem, so domestic and ordinary an event that it is proverbial:

Don’t cry,

little one, the milk-spill
is harmless, bridal

wash over dark wood,
moonlight shoaling

slow, pledged to the crack
where the leaf drops in, loose

devotion. Destined. Undaunted.
Then the slipping through.

The spilled milk and the consolation of the child (and possibly the self) demonstrates the ease with which Spencer’s poetry bears the weight of both the everyday and the metaphoric. There is a table, there is spilled milk—but, as is the case throughout If the House, there is always more than the ordinary, more than the nouns and our daily habits around them. Or, the ordinary contains more than one might initially think, for example: the “bridal wash” of the milk and the verb “pledged” evoke the ritual and performative language of marriage. Spencer’s line breaks also resist and provide elaboration on the ordinary, for example, “where the leaf drops in, loose” is a syntactically complete line, but the line break further describes the table leaf’s fit as “loose / devotion.” With the metaphor of devotion or worship, and the suggestiveness of looseness, the poem’s final line absorbs the existential weight of the table leaf and spilled milk: “Then the slipping through.” This line also shares a rhythmic and syntactic resonance with the final lines of Emily Dickinson’s “After great pain, a formal feeling comes,” which concludes, “then the letting go.” Dickinson’s evocation at the poem’s close raises the lyric stakes for the subsequent poems—this is metaphysical poetry, living through extensions of image, metaphor, and grammar, making both a musical and argumentative claim on the world and its reader. Bachelard writes, in a line that is apt for both the spilling milk and all the poems in If the House: “At the level of the poetic image, the duality of subject and object is iridescent, shimmering, unceasingly active in its inversions.”

Raising Dickinson as a lyrical presence draws attention to Spencer’s intensity of tone and the deep interiority of If the House. Multiple forms of conversation and silence are integral to such a voice, and there are a number of “Conversation” poems—for example, “Conversation with Lace Thong and Car Keys,” “Conversation with Glass and Joist,” “Conversation with Shower and Vestibule,” “Conversation with Distance and Shaking,” and “Conversation with Windows and Green.” Each of these poems demonstrate a collapse of categories around the speaker: objects, memory, inner and outer dialogue all blend into each other. In “Conversation with Lace Thong and Car Keys,” the effect is one of grammatic and dramatic leveling—“She is in the kitchen bent over / In a blue lace thong when he comes / Through the door blows by her forgot my keys he says.” The poem reads like a scene from a modern play—each word, each routine action seems turned up to its highest key:

She says oh
She is standing up now having found
What she was looking for she forgets now what it was

Down the hall the thunk of a drawer
Opening the broken music of his hands
Running over its contents did you find them

She says yes he says good she says

Why is it the “broken music of his hands”? The third-person speaker hears the ordinary sound of the searcher’s fumbling as music—music of living with our things in furniture, in houses. The way the line breaks roll past the syntactical breaks in the conversation, “did you find them / She says yes he says good she says” is Steinian, reminiscent of Tender Buttons with its small sound-narratives that plough past punctuation in pursuit of their individual, particular music. Both speakers in the poem, having completed their exchange, meet briefly once more in the kitchen:

Blows back through the kitchen
The keys jangle their little found song gotta go
He says bye she says bye

To a door already latched shut she says
To the ringing quiet I guess I’ll get dressed now

If we saw this poem performed on a stage, it would be a black box theater, the audience’s folded knees and feet close to the edge of the kitchen floor. We would see the man walk rapidly through the kitchen, keys jingling in his hands, would hear him say “gotta go” and “bye,” see the woman turn in the direction of his exit and the door and say “bye” to an otherwise empty kitchen. Seeing the poem performed would make clear the “concentration of intimacy” of the space, the kitchen, and the conversation—would show us the vulnerability of the woman searching the kitchen drawer, standing in her blue lace thong. One sees the line, “Then the slipping through,” performed as the man slips out the door, as the woman returns to the drawer and the task at hand. To see the poem actioned in a theater would be to see its objects in a heightened light, particularly those populating the poem’s final couplet and line: “It was seam tape she needed no it was / A pair of shears she slides into her jeans then she // Snips the loose threads at the crotch.” Playing on the grammatical ambiguity of what slides into the woman’s jeans—the shears, her body, or the shears while her body is in the jeans—brings the poem back to a hyper-focus on the loose threads at the crotch, to the woman’s tidying up of loose ends.

Attention—where it is, where it is not—pervades If the House. A sequence of “Disclosures” poems, employ the language of real estate sellers’ disclosures as their subtitles—as in, “Disclosures | If you are aware of any settling,” or, “Disclosures | If the house is built on a hillside.” Themes of the house-as-habitat-to-self and house-as-self echo in such disclosures, present even in poems not bearing the title of disclosure, such as “Love at These Coordinates,” where the speaker notes,

Keep sweeping

over the bare place
where
you thought you left

your body—breezeway
strike plate
tread of the stair.

Naming specific, physical places in the house (all of them liminal: the breezeway a covered walkway between the garage and house, the strike plate part of a door jam’s lock, the stairs) is a way the speaker locates how she imagines her body and self. Again, the everyday and the metaphoric merge, a Daphne-esque metamorphosis of the musing self into the seasons of the house:

Here is the sill
where at the end of

every winter I have tried
to force the paperwhites

to bloom.

Midway through If the House, the four-poem sequence “Bridging” appears. The first (sonnet-shaped) poem opens, “Let it be early, before the birds begin.” If the reader is reminded of Linda Gregg’s poetry (and perhaps specifically her poem, “Let Birds”), Gregg seems fitting company for the speaker in Spencer’s work, for the woman working out her life through love and loss, through geographic moves and the lyric of her everyday. One important revision here is the presence of children:

Let it be early, before the birds begin,
and the night sky still
rashed with stars. Let the children sleep
while he packs the car for the drive back
to the house you’ve come to terms with, a day’s drive
from here, a day and the edge of one night,
which is where you are now, standing
with your mother in the driveway while the men
carry the children—one, two, three dream-soft
bodies—settle them into their seats, tuck
them in snug under blankets.

The speaker’s soft hypothesizing, the ordinary grace for which she petitions, has an intentional looseness and lack of coordinates to it. “When they wake / you’ll be hours from here” suggests the speaker is parting with her children, but the scene is hazy and, once again, liminal. Essential to the composition of If the House is the holistic discomfort of sitting with spaces as they grow foreign to us, as they grow known to us—as we pass through both these states and into other forms of intimacies with our environments. Despite the repetition of the word “stone” and “sand” in the book, the speaker is far from a mineral element or the state of an object, as the poem “How to Love the New House” attests:

Slantwise

Along the blade

Made of moonlight

With open eyes

By groping along

Only at night

Until your whole body knows it

Readers of Dickinson might once again hear her in the poem’s opening word, “Slantwise,” as well as the poem’s shorter lines, with their encouraged, accentual reading. Dickinson might also approve of the eroticism of the interior, enclosed space in “How to Love the New House,” along with the double entendre of “knowing” something or someone. “Without a sound / On the table, the floor,” the poem directs, continuing its cues:

With your ear to the door

When everyone’s sleeping

Propped open

With both hands

In the arched darkness

On the stairwell

On your hands and knees

This poem both is and is not your mother’s house poem, in that it opens up what it is to be often viewed as intimately in relation with the domestic and to function in a historically gendered space. “Until you ache with it,” directs the poem. There is a fought-for attunement, a labor, present in “How to Love the New House” that demonstrates love as attention and knowing—but also that revels in the eroticism of the self’s spaces, and the self herself. This acknowledgement of the self as sufficient is why the poem “Aubade” functions also as a love song to the self, beginning with the conclusion, “In the end one cannot keep this love / concealed” (a line from Zbigniew Herbert’s poem “Stool”). Rather than a scene of lovers parting, in “Aubade” the parting has already taken place, and “You wake alone, // breeze and consolation, loose / in your white cotton.” The light, too, gives rather than takes away: “Light // gives the shape of hill / back to the hill.” The poem presents the “you” in a state of self-recollection, and the final couplets recount how

The quiet

skin remembers
and remembers—blue

of chicory flooding
its petals.

Molly Spencer’s If the House traces lines of the domestic that open the book up to being an existential-poetic ledger of the labors of women and caretakers, and the spaces we inhabit. Or, as Bachelard says of the house: “the space we love.” The aim of Spencer’s poems is not to own or possess, but to inhabit, to live with the many disclosures and conversations of the house. Emotions have shapes and spaces in If the House—it is in such rooms, hallways, and steps that our domestic dramas play out, and by such physical markers that the speaker lives to “tell the children the roof was built for this / weather.”


Hannah VanderHart lives in Durham, NC, where she co-runs the Little Corner Poetry Reading Series at Duke University. She has her MFA from George Mason University and is currently at Duke writing her dissertation on collaborative women's poetry in the Renaissance. She has poetry and reviews published and forthcoming in The Kenyon Review, Poetry Northwest, The Greensboro Review, Thrush Poetry Journal, and elsewhere. Her chapbook, What Pecan Light, is forthcoming from Bull City Press, and she is the Reviews Editor at EcoTheo Review. More at hannahvanderhart.com. More from this author →