What Is Home? On Sophie Klahr’s “Two Open Doors in a Field”
By Adedayo AgarauAugust 5, 2023
Two Open Doors in a Field by Sophie Klahr
I had the pleasure of working with Klahr to edit my first manuscript, The Morning the Birds Died. Her meticulous and inventive approach to the editing process shaped my own work and gave me a deeper appreciation of the rigorous attention to detail in her own collection. These inventive sonnets challenge convention while honoring the subtleties of the form, dancing along the edges of tradition to complicate the classic romantic narrative.
In a fascinating opening poem, “Driving Through Nebraska, Listening to the Radio,” Klahr presents surreal and ephemeral moments of desire against Nebraska’s rolling hills:
[…] That old dream again:
the dream again of the house that isn’t.
Why don’t you admit, you said, that all roads
lead to Nebraska. In the time we spent
together, somewhere, a few languages
died. When you said It will always be un-
even between us, I heard a new word
for a field impossible to measure.
The poem moves between physical sensation and the abstract concept of emotional distance. There is silence, or rather, a codification of language explored through the enjambment of “un- / even,” emphasizing the barriers that time can create between people. This deliberate lineation highlights the limitations and intricacies of communication. The poem’s thematic focus on motion in the relationship underscores the metaphor of the journey through life.
The longing and desire established in this first poem resurface throughout the collection—for example, in the poem “Parked, Nebraska,” when the speaker recalls that “for weeks we touched only / in the dark, pulsed like sea anemones.”
Many poems anthropomorphize the speaker with inviting language. As the speaker becomes another creature, the imaginative leap makes room for the reader to enter the speaker’s perspective. The speaker drives, heartbroken in many of these poems, in circular trips between Nebraska and California, with music on the radio as her sole companion. The poems embody the ache of a familiar road, a road often traveled. Even if they have never taken the physical journey, the reader travels the emotional loops.
The experience of reading these poems is beyond an offering to the reader; it is as if the poems seek in their reader a sense of home. In “Motel, Wyoming,” the speaker is present with the reader:
A kid in the parking lot asks me if
I live here—this is that kind of motel:
barren vending machine beneath the stairs,
a clock radio left on in the dark.
Rather than answer whether this ephemerality is the speaker’s version of permanence, the language itself (and the line break “if / I live here”) answers the child’s question. The reader experiences the speaker’s interiority, her loneliness, before the speaker’s actual response. Later in the poem, a hyphen marks another powerful enjambment:
when I first entered the room, little mess-
ages noting what is broken, what not
to lean on. Tonight I live here, I say.
The Quiet Inn rests on the highway’s lip.
How does “mess” metamorphose into “messages”? In what ways does the enjambment bring us closer to or farther from a sense of wholeness? Absence becomes a presence throughout this collection, on the road and in sterile rooms. The poem eventually answers the question: “So desperation is a part of what / a prophet must have.”
We are enamored, enraptured, by the language of emptiness, but we are also prophets of desperation, looking for answers. Klahr emphatically guides us to find meaning between and beyond the literal question and answer.
In “Motel, Oregon,” Klahr wrestles with the finality of romance through evocative imagery:
we’d rent the coastal room in an attempt
to say goodbye again as if eros-
ion could help us to undo what we had
done again we’d try to craft an ending.
Another masterful use of enjambment, “eros- / ion” creates a powerful, layered image that speaks to the intertwined nature of love and decay, passion and dissolution. The deliberate breaking of the word “erosion” at “eros” underscores the idea that romance is often inseparable from the forces that wear it away. Like the previous “Motel” poem, Klahr again explores the transiency of relationships in the context of a futile search for a sense of home:
so well I thought it home. where o? we left
all that we made our bed and lied in it.
The wordplay in the phrase “we made our bed and lied in it,” using the past tense of deceiving rather than lying down, is as intensely desperate as it is witty. Sustaining this combination allows the book to be at once inviting and unraveling.
What is home? In Two Open Doors in a Field, transience and the eternal search for home become a kind of home. In a poem titled “Home,” British Somali poet Warsan Shire writes: “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.” In contrast, Danez Smith describes California in “i’m going back to Minnesota where sadness makes sense” as “the only warm thing for miles / the only thing that can’t shine.” the loop between these two definitions, the chaos of Shire’s “Home” and the comfort of Smith’s “i’m going back to Minnesota where sadness makes sense.”
For Klahr, the personification of place often becomes a surrogate for the lost or longed-for person. In “Like Nebraska,” she encapsulates this relationship between place and the individual body, here the speaker herself: “They are like Nebraska / At the end of September: / Still-blooming marigolds heaped.”
In Klahr’s collection, migration often feels like unraveling the secret of the road, as grief might unravel its survivor: “Clouds like braille like cures above the mesa” or “Whale-song seeps against the mountains, backlit / with glimpses of cliff, bright inside the pines.”
This is a poetry that occupies with language and attention the very voids it points out. Sometimes the landscape becomes elegiac, taking the shape of an absent person; sometimes the poem becomes the landscape it passes through. The wetness of the winter land in “Like Nebraska” contrasts with the arid descriptions of California, Klahr’s destination. Klahr draws on many dichotomies: abundance and drought, love and loss, home and exile, desire and fulfillment. And while the texture of the place is different, the title posits one singular field with “two open doors,” as if each place is just the portal or perspective onto a more conceptual field of time and space. That field is memory.
While the function of memory is to keep, we may enter a memory or it may enter us differently each time. In Klahr’s poetry, the reader and poet may meet there. In the poem “Dust Storm,” the poet writes:
I dreamt I kissed your mouth
and felt the hours
trembling in my hair.
The reader may occupy the speaker’s memory. Here is one possible answer Klahr offers us for what home is: the memory of another person. The distance of the moment, time itself, becomes the speaker’s imagined physical experience. Over the course of Two Open Doors in a Field, the field and the doors of the title become the body’s, and as the speaker’s memories are embodied in language, the road trip between geographical states becomes a journey through deeply felt states of consciousness and selfhood.
Adedayo Agarau is a 2023 Wallace Stegner Fellow and a Cave Canem Fellow.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Elena Karina Byrne reviews Dean Rader’s “Before the Borderless: Dialogues with the Art of Cy Twombly.”
Victoria Chang and Dean Rader review Jenny Xie’s “The Rupture Tense” and Monica Youn’s “From From.”
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!