House Crossing: Poems
By Laurie L. Patton
Station Hill, 2018
House Crossing is Laurie L. Patton’s “authentic response” to French philosopher Gaston Bachelard’s 1958 The Poetics of Space, in which she offers a “simple poetry of houses.” The effect, she writes in the collection’s introduction, is meant to be “as simple and complicated as crossing to the other side of a room.” It sounds prohibitively boring no matter how it’s phrased. This, combined with Patton’s terse line structure and the brevity of the book itself (only 32 short poems), gives the strange impression that the poet set out to write as unambitious a collection as possible.
But Patton as a thinker is anything but unambitious: she’s the President of Middlebury College, a prolific scholar and Indiologist, and she’s in the process of translating The Mahabharata, an ancient Hindu epic of dizzying scale and violence. This alone might excuse House Crossing for its relative coyness, but at any rate Patton works comfortably enough in what she calls the soft-focus “geometry of intimacy” to merit attention for the otherwise unassuming pieces in her collection.
House Crossing, like the two volumes that preceded it, establishes its own rules and sticks to them. The poems touch in some way on domestic architecture (“Porch,” “Floor,” “Corner”) but they do so with no pretensions of wholeness or even narrative closure. They read as vestigial bits of memories, touching but lacking context and its attendant comforts.
The houses at the center of the collection are, for lack of a better word, haunted, and Patton shows us around to see where the spirits live. The young poet asks in “Ceiling” about a “brown stain” on the kitchen ceiling; she finds it is “apple butter” from the war years; and later, she goes outside to shine a flashlight at the stars, only to see its beams land “in the closer comfort / of the clouds.”
If the poem is about anything – which, in the strictest sense, it isn’t – it is the father’s parenthetical “We couldn’t afford / real butter / during the war,” to which the poet never returns. A whole world of suffering, as alien to the child speaker as it is to us, is conjured there; and though it evaporates as quickly as it came, it is enough to change the poem’s texture.
This is the dominant pattern in House Crossing: lingering, vague artifacts of past anguish are mingled with images of a young poet cagily probing her way into maturity. The resulting mix of associations, no matter how wide their range, is grounded by these ill-understood, painful artifacts. The poet’s father puts a candle in a closet window, “to call the dog, / now dead for / seven months, / all the way home”; her brother goes into the abandoned attic just before he leaves “for Arizona / (and for good)”; the poet tortures her mother’s orderly hallway display of Noah’s Ark figurines:
I piled zebras on turtles
and twisted geese over tigers
and separated rabbits from their mates.
I made them run in all directions.
“Noah is desperately trying
to get their attention,”
I told my mother.
“What we see / at the end of the hall,” she explains, “is the difference between / rest and restlessness, / nightmare and dream.”
Sometimes the effect is over-strained, but usually the poems are imbued with Patton’s subtle, melancholic tenderness. Where she can do away with sentiment, she does. The best pieces are disquieting without explanation: innocuous anecdotes or associations which manage to leave a trace of bitterness. Patton hones this effect over and over again in House Crossing, unable to let the dwelling places of her childhood disappear completely in elegy, but unable to bring them back in their fullness.
In the penultimate poem Patton’s childhood home is demolished, and she visits the rubble with her dogs. They revel in the “globe of colors” and smells left by the destruction, while the poet stands back from them.
They had no grief
for the larger orders
of entrance, hall, yard.
They had no sorrow
for the geometry.
That was all mine.
It is not the stuff of homes that moves Patton in the end, but the structures and designs that give them order. House Crossing is an attempt to explain that attachment, and to resurrect the order and “geometry” of a home now irretrievably lost. In this way Patton’s love is a distinctly human one. Her poems move, or attempt to move, through the “merely” animal love for burrows and shelters, into something abstract, and profound.
Isaac Randel is an MFA candidate at The New School. He lives in New York City.