REVIEW: Houses by Nikki Wallschlaeger

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by Eric Sneathen

But what if your house is already haunted or under siege? This is where Nikki Wallschlaeger’s Houses begins, with homes already populated with ghosts and buckling under regimes of effacement.

A kind of walking tour, Wallschlaeger’s debut collection charts a path through a neighborhood of prose poems, or “houses,” wherein each poem-house is named by a different color. At first the colors are familiar, seemingly inspired by a ten-pack of Crayola crayons—“Pink House,” “Red House,” “Yellow House,” “Green House.” But such familiarity soon expires as we explore hues only available in the larger, more expensive packs of crayons—“Gold House,” “Mint Green House,” “Taupe House”—finally wending our way into territory ever farther from our Crayola-ized antecedents—“Fandango House,” “Smoke House,” “Willpower Orange House.”

Certainly there’s a movement here from the familiar to the unfamiliar, from simplicity to complexity, from what’s near the center of color to what’s at its outskirts. And this movement also registers at the level of the construction of Wallschlaeger’s poems, many of which incorporate a large amount of repetition. This is especially, though not exclusively, evident toward the beginning of the book, where the colors are most familiar, simple, central. The opening poem, “Pink House,” illustrates this: “Pink houses are nice. A nice house. A red worm shitting berries. A baby magnolia tree. A homing marrow. An arduous alley twirl. New pink hightops, we have a new neighbor.” Especially compared to later poems, the sentences of “Pink House” are short, even quaint, often domestic. But this domesticity speaks to the domestication of what the structure of the house-as-poem—here, its list-likeness, its fragmentation arising from heavy use of nouns without verbs, subjects frozen without action—must disavow: the long history of subjugation that has brought us home to the twenty-first century. This reading of structures of disavowal is especially biting in the poem’s final stanza: “Certainly a homebody. Certainly an estranged somebody, tearing pink in the spring. I cannot post how flowers yell, but how was my baby’s day at school? Brown/pink cheeks of children in weather. A crisis messed mother, but moving right along.” This mother hurries through the house briskly—a woman swept along with the disjunctive quicksilvering of “Pink House,” she’s only briefly glimpsed, caught as but one image in flood of snapshots.

This disjunctive character of the poems grows in quality and quantity. For example, I find the initial stanzas from “Beau Blue House,” one of the final poems in Houses, more mysterious than the stanzas of earlier poems: “Well I declare. Rebranded coliseums, Mazdas for the Romans. I smell gas on your breath. It’s never too early for colanders of hairshirt powder. / I smell very strong in the afternoon, on my showering fast. Without it, I’d be an indifferent passerby wearing Laura Ashley organdie, / for my folks at the Dixie-Doxie club.” There’s a greater density of allusions here; the tone has been pitched toward camp, the diction distinctly more Southern. It’s here, in this description of “Beau Blue House,” that I find myself pausing to challenge a reading of Houses as a collection that represents a mere progression of complexity. While strolling through Houses, often I am permitted to peek into homes I do not understand, and sometimes into others of which I think, I might love it here, but my intimacy with the varied logics and images of individual houses may actually reveal to me my own complicities and notions of comfort. Houses often seems to flip the relationship of audience-art object-artist, reading the reader and his notions of home. In the case of “Beau Blue House, I feel compelled to recognize the alienness of its diction and tone as the consequence of what I’m at home with, what’s in my house. If I read the colors of Houses as a progression or disintegration from center to periphery, I reveal something about myself.

To reveal something about myself: I felt comfortable—okay, a little uneasy, but mostly comfortable—when I first read the ending of “Pink House,” but now, after re-reading it for this review, I feel nauseated: “And a nice house for you, a pink house, two family house, nice yard, a chokecherry tree in back for the kids to climb.” Attending to Wallschlaeger’s more prominent use of allusion later in the book, this poem’s final image of the chokecherry recalls for me the ghastly scene from Toni Morrison’s Beloved, in which the main character, Sethe, who has escaped from slavery in Kentucky, reveals to her lover a constellation of scars that she refers to as her “chokecherry tree.” I read the kids of “Pink House” as figures of so-called progress, climbing up that ghastly embodiment of Sethe’s dehumanization at Sweet Home, the name of the plantation where she was enslaved and raped by its owner and his two sons. That is, in “Pink House,” I read an allegory of the project of American civilization, in the guise of an innocent climb through the canopy, built upon slavery, violence, and immiseration.

In moments such as these, where the dissonance between mere image and allusion, not to mention personal resonance, becomes most fraught, Houses reveals Wallschlaeger at her most potent. She has constructed in her poems trapdoors and alleyways through history, where the roof of one house is revealed to be buried under by the floor of another, the gorgeousness of this stanza is bought by the jaggedness of that one. Or, as it is put in “Orange House,” a moment I’d like to read as Wallschlaeger’s statement of ars poetica, “I am gondolier from a family of gondoliers, he said, it’s a tradition, a creative tradition, for us to navigate what you take for granted.” In the tradition of Harryette Mullen’s Trimmings and S*PeRM**K*T and Lyn Hejinian’s “Rejection of Closure,” Houses speaks back to and strikes out hegemonic myths of origin and originality, telos and teleology. Houses refuses to flee from the “irrevocable condition” of home sweet home, instead it holds fast, as we read in the final poem of the collection, “My House”: “Holding what I’m really saying. Holding how I cuddle my cat. Holding how I hold it together. Holding another paycheck, a ghost homespun from spools of watery veal, / Holding all the residual toeholds that are telling me to do this.”

Eric Sneathen is a poet and PhD student who splits his time between Oakland and Santa Cruz. He is the author of Snail Poems, forthcoming from Krupskaya in 2016.

Horse Less Press (2015): $15.00

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