SOMETIMES what is most surprising arrives at your doorstep quietly, damp from a rainstorm, wrapped in brown string.
The erotic is all about postponement. Mark Strand told me this once. In an interview, Strand said,
I don’t have a definition of beauty. I think when I write or make collages, they are, in some ways, what I think of as beautiful or close to as beautiful as I can make them. Beauty is a very difficult thing to talk about. I don’t think anyone has talked about it successfully. You can talk about what it’s not which is what Kant did. But what it is, I’m not sure. When I see it, I know it. When I hear it, I know it. When I read it, I know it.
So it is with The Tulip-Flame, Chloe Honum’s stunning first collection of poems and the winner of the Cleveland State University Poetry Center First Book Prize (selected and with a foreword by Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy K. Smith). Honum does not pretend to define beauty, or to offer explanations for it. Instead, she seems to ask: does beauty persist in spite of pain, or is it a method of recovery, something we craft in pain’s aftermath?
“Mother,” begins the first poem in The Tulip-Flame, “tried to take her life./ The icicles thawed.” With this, Honum sets the stage both for the familial drama that will unfold over the next 55 pages as well as the space that nature will occupy in the consciousness of the speaker.
The first section of the book, “Seated Dancer in Profile,” takes its name from a Degas painting. And the image — a young ballerina bent away from the viewer, touching her neck, the lower half of her body disappearing into a sea of blue — captures perfectly the gesture of this first book. Here we have Honum’s clear, intimate voice, present for a moment in the physical world before being subsumed by vapor, by something not-quite-physical. “To love her is to accept that she will never turn around,” Honum concludes. And this is an accurate way to look at the effect of Honum’s poetry. It turns from us. It leaves us wondering: is beauty merely a defense mechanism? Can it exist in the physical world? Or, like poetry, is it only available to us in increments? Is part of its charm that we can never entirely possess or understand it?
Mark Strand edited the 2008 edition of Best New Poets, in which Chloe Honum’s poem “Directing the Happy Times” first appeared. It’s no surprise that Strand gravitated to her work: they both treat the Romantic sublime with the kind of precision that requires removal, distance — more like the light in a Hopper painting than a Keatsean ode. However, where Strand has mastered the art of removing himself from the poem physically, leaving almost a breeze, a suggestion of his presence, Honum remains on the ground, still looking for the way up. “By then I’d learned/ a triple pirouette,/ which felt like disappearing,” she writes in “Ballerina at Dawn.” This posture, rooted in the real but still desperate for something beyond, leans toward the Plathian tradition. In fact, Honum chooses a line from Plath for her epithet: “Love, love, my season.” This idea of love as season, as transient conditional, is appropriate to Honum’s work. In her poems, beauty is both fleeting and ever-present, inescapable, returning always in sequence.
Beauty, Honum possesses in spades. The Oxford Thesaurus offers these alternatives for that oft-abused word: “comeliness, allure, eye-appeal, heavenliness, grandeur.” I first heard Chloe Honum read in upstate New York many years ago, where she performed a villanelle she’d written titled “Come Back.” “I can’t see all of any horse at once,” she repeated unhurriedly in her peculiar New Zealand accent. With each repetition, she became quieter, more distant, as though receding into a trance. Listening, I saw before me the muted field, the horses covered in mist. Afterwards, the audience was frantic. “Who was that?” The line seemed so simple. And like anything simple in today’s cluttered world, it stood out. It demanded to be heard.
The Tulip-Flame is perilous in its proximity to trauma; nature, the only relief for our graceful speaker. Throughout the collection, Honum choreographs a steady adagio: the return to trauma and the retreat from it. The return and the retreat. Andrew Wyeth once said, “I don’t believe a picture should be liked because of its detail. I want it to live at both ends. I want both detail and simplicity at a distance.” This is Honum’s gift.
The simplicity of her work is, of course, an illusion. The Tulip-Flame reminds us that beauty is intrinsically complicated and, more often than not, arrives cloaked in loss. “Erotic” is not the first word that comes to mind when one imagines shattering poems about a dead mother, but Honum uses the effect of eros, of suspense and postponement, to invite us, the readers, into her imagination, her particular world.
This is most apparent in the visitations that occur throughout the book. In “Hunt” she writes:
How we’d glide from
the house to the garden,
like a pair of falcons
toward a rustle in the grass.
Much is suggested by this “rustle” — it could be a snake, a rodent, or, more likely, the whisper of something unseen, a haunting presence. Only a few pages later, in “Assembling Faith,” Honum describes a wild turkey almost as one would a bloodied ghost:
Waxy, red dribble —
and yet it glided
into the misty woods.
Elemental, rooted in the sensory, many of these poems function as smoke signals, calling out to the dead, looking for answers. Despite the precision and clarity with which Honum conjures these visitations, they are still exactly that — apparitions, heavily shrouded (or colored) by memory. Reading Honum, I think of Yeats, and the stunning conclusion to his poem “Towards Break of Day”:
I dreamed towards break of day,
The cold blown spray in my nostril.
But she that beside me lay
Had watched in bitterer sleep
The marvellous stag of Arthur,
That lofty white stag, leap
From mountain steep to steep.
As in Yeats’s poem, Honum finds the dream world as pervasive, if not more so, as the real world, influenced as it is by the psyche. Dreams, Honum would remind us, do not always have happy endings. The focus of her work is very much concerned with the realm beyond reality.
Her speaker moves through the world as through mist, but Honum slips away from the cliché. If anything, she reminds us why mist was so coveted as poetic in the first place. Rather than some passive subject of nature’s brutality, Honum makes the weather her medium, maintaining total agency over it. With deliberation, she builds the world of fog around herself. And rather than the haze of memory, this constructed fog seems to represent the writing process itself. The atmosphere becomes a substitute for her losses: reeds are “swirling,” skin is “shimmering,” charm is “blinking.” It is perpetually raining. Birds abound, and the book has a lightness which gives the illusion of fluttering. But beyond this, the dark trees, the “hems of clattering hail,” threaten our speaker, like forces in a gothic Disney movie.
In “Ballerina, Released,” we witness the speaker taking control of her dream state, shaping it, crafting it into something soluble:
I dance the murders of
the Firebird, my red tutu a flame
in a cave, then fall. I cannot grasp my life.
I float. The garden shakes behind my smoke.
The mist/smoke/fog that surrounds the speaker allows for a retreat from the world, and into one’s art; it is not entirely unwelcome. It encapsulates grief, yes, but also productivity, so that this “clouding of consciousness” (a psychological term defined as “mental confusion with impaired awareness of the environment”) seems not only an appropriate summation of the speaker’s state, but also a productive one, at least as far as her creative endeavors are concerned. In “Evening,” the Romantic wind of inspiration becomes both posttraumatic vision and ars poetica:
Now the wind
won’t let the leaves alone —
they swirl against my door
like words to a sentence,
out of order and burning.
Again in “Bright Death,” Honum describes a moth
writing erasing writing
in quick, looping cursive.
A tattered scrap of a thing.
My voice. Its see-through wings.
One of Honum’s obvious talents is the ability to isolate and explode a very simple image. In “Ballerina at Dawn,” her description of “the swords of slow rain” may seem to glide past the reader, but in fact this image alone could carry the book, indicative as it is of the practiced, deliberate violence enacted by the mother figure throughout the speaker’s life. Later, in her poem “The Tulip-Flame,” these same rain drops become “glinting arrows,” transformed, but no less capable of violence.
In a feat of magical realism, a set of car keys in the poem “Alone with Mother,” transforms:
In the car, we sat a long time,
the keys a silver
starfish in her lap, silence
a kind of love between us.
This is not the Romantic’s sublime, but a sublimation of the mundane-mechanic into the magical-natural. While the 19th century saw the natural world ever transforming into the industrial, here we see the supernatural reversing its course. The keys are metal, an instrument, therefore the starfish is a curious image. But the starfish in this context, though gentle and beautiful, is also limpid, out of water, and therefore, doomed. It is silver, suggestive, glamorous, yet ultimately silenced.
Much could be made of Honum’s color choices throughout the book. Silver, emerald, gold, and red drift through Honum’s landscapes. Without much ado, the ethereal and indeed regal qualities that Honum attributes to her mother begin to manifest in the mundane — in animals she encounters, in everyday objects, and in landscapes. We experience not only grief and absence, but also the everlasting presence of the mother figure, taking these poems somewhere beyond elegy. Making beauty of her traumas, she manages to both mystify and clarify — to leave the reader haunted and simultaneously enchanted.
For most of the book, the speaker’s confusion about the mother’s will to die is palpable and lends another layer of agony to the eventual suicide. Only a few hints are given as to specific events that might have triggered the mother’s depression — plot points, if you will — including the brief mention of molestation at the hands of her father (the speaker’s grandfather) in the poem “Nursing Home.” Honum addresses the grandfather character: “Mean drunk. Molester. […]// I would like to see you crawl under the shrubs.” By and large, however, we are left wondering, as is the speaker, about the mysterious forces behind the mother’s suicidal tendencies.
The speaker reacts to her mother’s suicide attempts several times throughout the collection. In “Leaving the Hospital,” Honum writes, “Alone in the elevator/ my sister was sad/ and I was angry,// but turning to face her/ was like turning to face/ my heart.” How can we explain in any other way how a slight, outward gesture, an exchange of looks, can pull one so deeply inward?
Often plain-spoken, Honum’s poetry cumulatively shatters the heart with its candor. In Art as Therapy, Alain de Botton and John Armstrong write
We hunger for artworks that will compensate for our inner fragilities and help return us to a viable mean. We call a work beautiful when it supplies the virtues we are missing, and we dismiss as ugly one that forces on us moods or motifs that we feel either threatened or already overwhelmed by.
By this logic, someone who is drawn to grotesquerie may lead a relatively peaceful and mundane life, while someone who is suffering and feels a closer connection to the grotesque might be more drawn to something beautiful and simple, because it represents the calmness they lack. Indeed, Chloe Honum has created just that: a steady, controlled universe constructed out of the inner dark.
It comes as no surprise that Honum was a dancer before she was a poet. There is grace and constraint in her careful language and in her strong and measured pacing. In “Danse des Petits Cygnes,” a beautiful reminiscence of her days in the studio, Honum describes herself and the other ballerinas “like roses standing naked on a coffin,” adding, “I was soothed/by the sound of rain/hissing through the leaves.”
Ballet, like poetry, represents a desire to achieve control, to aspire to (and never quite reach) perfection. The more polished the poem, the deeper the unrest. The poet, like the ballerina, combats chaos at every turn. Honum herself addresses the topic in an interview with Poetry Society of America:
I remember my teacher yelling “sloppy hands!” as I danced. What she meant was that I had forgotten my fingertips, that I wasn’t dancing with every millimeter of my body. For me, every word, comma, and hyphen is part of a poem’s dance. I’m drawn to that level of concentration.
Unusual among today’s younger poets, Honum does not shy away from rhyme, and her poems have the elegance and quality of a classical song. Take, for instance, the final stanza of her poem “Dress Rehearsal”:
I am smoke in darkness, climbing away
from a burning hut in an otherwise empty field
on which the fire is slight and low,
and the rest of it is snow.
These bold rhymes echo back to Plath’s tireless music, as in the poem “Elm,” also on the topic of suicide:
I know the bottom, she says. I know it with my great tap root:
It is what you fear.
I do not fear it: I have been there.
Like ballet, the art and originality of this poetry is a constant calling back to tradition. The title poem, “The Tulip-Flame,” seems to nod to a scene in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse: the character of the sister paints a vista, with “the centered tulip-flame…a blaze in the midpoint of a wet field.” Like Lily Briscoe, in a landscape embodying the loss of the beloved mother figure, the young girl struggles to find a balance, in both life and art.
In the third section of Honum’s book, “Fever,” our speaker falls in love and faces the challenge of how to incorporate a new, immediate grief with an older, underlying one. As though looking back over her life, she writes,
I stood gazing at the hills —
water, smoke, clouds —
going over how I’d failed
to make him love me.
In one of the boldest poems of the collection, “Crossing the Three-Rope Bridge,” the speaker returns to address the mother: “The world forgave your attempts, but I/ held out.” The image of the “Seated Dancer in Profile,” therefore, seems at once a self-portrait of the speaker and a memory of her mother, helpless and fragile, perpetually turning her back on her daughter.
The collection is spare. Maybe too spare. It does not launch off; nor does it hold back. The book promises the values Elizabeth Bishop exalted in poetry: accuracy, spontaneity, and mystery. Written at the beginning of her career, this book acknowledges Honum’s full personhood, with room for evolution and expansion. In fact, what the collection lacks is in many ways its greatest strength. Patience is Honum’s virtuosity. She is taking her time. This is how poetry is meant to be written — and read. I am grateful for this relief from the oversaturated poetry that seems to be proliferating as rapidly as social media. The Tulip-Flame represents an exciting moment for contemporary poetry. Itis an escape from cultural stimuli as well as a return to nature. It reminds us to revere the ephemeral while we can. One wishes the larger world would strive, every once in a while, for the same.