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House Held Together by Winds
Harper Perennial, $13.95 (paper)
The house in House Held Together by Winds is both mansion and metaphor. Our docent for each construction is a little girl in a lace collar whose satirical observations of her dominating relatives expose the fears at the root of chauvinism. A grandfather insists upon mathematics drills: “What happens if a fly / tries to land on a railroad train / and the train is moving? / (it was always moving night and day).” In “Penthouse,” a stepfather makes her climb the water tower atop their apartment building: “Below was a blur. / Cars turned the corner / of Madison and Seventy-ninth Street, / waves speeding to a cliff.” This is a house of ill winds: “This was home, and love and country: / him helping himself to another martini . . .” Objects are animated by the inhabitants’ perplexed restlessness. The birds on the wallpaper, the carved animals on the music cabinet, the fur coats in the grandmother’s closet that blew “through [their] nostrils with a Whiff! into the dark” presage the young girl’s choices: conformity to a stifling femininity, imaginative liberation, or madness. She passively resists her wildly narcissistic relatives, learning to “dissemble / and hide [her] intentions . . . to retreat, / before the enemy could guess [her] position.” Forced to perform for the grown-ups (“How many grown-ups there were then”) she eventually learns to sing, full-throated, for herself, taught by the lambs and goats of Achill Island in Ireland: “I had trusted them with my grief, / and they spoke to me: // through the inside walls of childhood / and above, on a green headland.” Inhabiting a house in this pastoral landscape proves as restorative as the earlier setting had been destructive, so that these poems ultimately celebrate the breadth of inspiration: “I pressed down with my larynx, / my tongue arched dark / to keep syllables rounded, / the notes and letters moving and alive.” Readers who allow themselves to be voyeuristically fascinated by the gothic eccentricities of these poems will be moved by the transformation.
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