Oct 16, 2015

Houses by Nikki Wallschlaeger (Horse Less Press, 2015)

The word homesick is sort of beautiful because it refers to a particular kind of longing, while also suggesting that one’s home can make them ill. Such longing – the sense that we belong where we are not – is what connects us to one another, a longing that comes from a feeling of estrangement. It’s cosmic in nature. But what makes us ill is the house we live in now, the one built by the machinery of human history. It gives us politics, economics, race, gender, and culture, each governed, for the most part, by an instrumental rationality articulated with a civil (and forked) tongue. Rather than being cosmic in nature, it is firmly terrestrial. As a result, the individual is half-paralyzed by the venom of what Charles Taylor calls “ordinary time”, where the degrees of our suffering are unjustly determined by power.  

The poet Dan Chiasson instructs the reader in Natural History, his second book of verse, to "Picture a house in a storybook. It is some color houses never are." In Nikki Wallschaegar’s relentlessly inspiring Houses, one finds similar homes - strangely colored, as in a storybook - and in some ways Houses is organized, and has the feeling of, an oddly beautiful (and deeply troubling) storybook: childhood innocence (despite the speaker’s obvious resolve to brawl in a world depicted as completely berserk) is illustrated, or at least channeled, throughout these poems. It’s in childhood, after all, where one remains ajar to magic because the screws of language have not yet fastened us shut. The poet’s fidelity to strange words (I’m a better person now for knowing what a “Calciferous pot” is) and the poet’s mining of language within the vectors of alchemy shows this yearning for a new articulation, one that seeks to break with Earth’s gravity, while not pretending to have been born beyond its laws. 

In addition to the book’s domestic esotericism - the home in Houses is a site of great fluidity, at times a psychic trap ("The laundry sucks my time from me"; "the cat pissed on the lamp"; "the dishes suck") and at times empowering ("I'm lazy/and joyfully//dangerous") - the form of the poems is hyper-consistent, blocks of prose born under the sign of poetry, and the regularity of the titles provide a predicable organizational matrix for the poet and here one can’t help but be reminded of the fact that children, especially children, thrive within a routine, but these gestures also recall routine's terrible track-record in history: traditions of injustice become entrenched for centuries. The poems in Houses constantly explore each side of this demarcation: the social and the personal; the exterior and the interior, because similar phenomena confusingly inhabit both with radically different outcomes and the poet's voice embodies these frustrating contradictions. What can be nurturing in one zone of experience can be traumatic in another.  This unsettling dynamic provides the voltage for Wallschlaeger’s work:

The diversity talking-point chain gang. The delicate warbler, where a
certain carpet will be uncovered before the show tonight, in the newest
crowd-scourge theme of the season: anarchism and artifice.

We'll be adding the local color during the show, rockin ombre hair. Boiled
until the skin falls off. More agreeable as potash bones blinking in the 
direction of the ladle. Maybe they won't see us as rookies,

this alembic day for pagination. Not as kings but that's my daddy the
human needling countries that need our help, avenues for pleading for
threaded eyebrow lashings. So in my anger (yes, I said "anger in a 

poem") I go to the 3rd floor without using the escalator (That should make 
your health coach happy) a mall which overlooks as the world's gibbeting
with the plush of a hundred stuffed animals. What are

you waiting for? With the mop soaked in red paint I walk past the a build a bear
workshop where the dancers are counting off their steps to the tune of the
most popular negation pattern, wearing dresses with

the numbers of the puissant dead. Remember how she would crank your 
hospital bed when your back went out and when you told her to stop she
laughed? A must have riposte for the person who owns

the holiday junket kiosks below. But my dear, I am moving quickly, I
needed the release of old cells, old facts. All the blood I am carrying with
me, waterfalling out of the janitor's bucket. I am sick to death of

cleaning up after your mess that isn't supposed to be permanent, the
swelling replicas of twisted remakes. Every morning I open those doors
but today I am not opening a goddamn thing

("Cranberry House") 

Later, in one of the most profound moments in the book, the poet writes, “What do you look like when you allow yourself to be moved.” If we have taken measures not to be moved, then another question suddenly surfaces: what am I surrendering if I feel?  This seems to encapsulate Wallschlaeger’s project: how can one simultaneously bask in the extravagance of vulnerability, while the threat of violation – because one is a black woman; because one is acquainted with distress – is a steadfast feature of one’s life? If emotional vulnerability offers us a kind of sublimity, a respite from the self and time, then sensing that one is in continual danger is a different kind of vulnerability, one from which fear arises out of, making transcendence an illusion. In other words, being afraid makes us pathologically self-aware. To be moved operates paradoxically then: it can exonerate us from reality, but also be the source of it.

This conundrum, so cruel in nature because it both promises and betrays, is reflected in nearly every poem in Houses. What’s remarkable is that the poet ultimately makes a sacrifice, for the reader no less: by reading Houses, we see what we look like when we’ve been moved.     

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