KASEY ELIZABETH JOHNSON Reviews
The Tulip-Flame by Chloe Honum
(Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2014)
[First published in BONE BOUQUET, Vol. 6, Issue 1, Spring 2015, Editor-in-chief Krystal Languell]
In Chloe Honum’s The Tulip-Flame, ballet becomes a thematic conduit for growing up and for grief: we see a young ballet dancer practicing her routine early in the morning, smoking after a performance, and reflecting on memories of violins and jetés against a backdrop of acute loss. Honum’s precise, lyrical poems are attentive to the movement and texture on which all great performances hinge. The exquisite formality of each poem—be it a villanelle, ekphrastic or prose poem, or unrhymed stanzas organized around couplets, tercets, and quatrains—is matched by the emotional force of her subject matter, the loss of a mother to suicide. The staging within these poems, however, is never a substitute for their emotional and descriptive power. It is Honum’s triumph that she is able to establish such a satisfying, cohesive dialectic of emotional entanglement in elegant, compelling prosody.
Divided into four sections, The Tulip-Flame engages with the very archetypes that poets often struggle against—mothers, sisters, and other orbiting members of a family—writing them anew. In the poem, “Silence Is a Mother Tongue,” Honum writes: “Blackbirds walked the clothesline; / their pencil-yellow beaks etched the stillness. Our silences / were like this, something turned over, her eyes assessing it.” The spare quality of the writing precludes sentimentality. Likewise, in “Snow White,” Honum rewrites the staid mythology for a new, more personal one: “Queen, you were starlight / obsessing over an empty cradle,” closing with, “good star, bad mother, lone tree / in a vast field on which the seasons hang / their sheets, wet and colored / with all the illnesses of beauty.” Here the mother—complicated, multitudinous—provides the catalyst for how the speaker comes to understand her own world. In these poems, tragedy intermingles with the natural and quotidian such that trees “become like children / walking home, asleep on their feet” and birds fly past “like white scarves in the wind.” This is also a world where the reverberations of loss never meet a tidy ending, where metaphor is the most precise vehicle for continuing afterward.
Honum works within the elegy; yet, her careful aversion to being taken under by it provides the tension and wisdom of these poems. In “Evening News,” she writes: “Tonight, it crosses my mind / how gone you are, and stars, / if stars say anything, say Otherwise.” This juxtaposition of loss against a backdrop of elegant verse cracks open the category of elegy. What emerges from the fissures are careful, observant poems, such as the eponymous poem, “The Tulip-Flame,” where the speaker observes, “my sister’s painting this: a hill, a lane, / a tulip field, and one astounding flame.” That “one astounding flame” provides a metaphor for the speaker’s experience, particular and ineffable.
The ekphrastic poem, “Seated Dancer in Profile,” is a description of Degas’ famous painting and brings the reader into the worldview of the young dancer-speaker: “She looks away—first from the painter and then the / world. To love her is to accept that she will never turn around.” The “she” in these lines may be the dancer-speaker, the poet, or the mother. Whoever she is, she looks away from the curious gaze of the audience, while inviting the reader to experience the layered alienation and rejection felt by this cast: mother, daughter, dancer, and Degas’ iconic ballerina. In “Ballerina at Dawn,” the dichotomy of spectacle and absence is furthered when she writes: “By then I’d learned / to triple pirouette, / which felt like disappearing.” The lengths to which the young dancer would like to disappear, both as formal control of and escape from the body, emerge plainly in the poem, “To the Anorexic,” where she writes: “Each / time Mother wraps her arms around you, your shoulders are / smaller than she expects—do you enjoy this, that it takes a / moment to find you?”
The third section turns away from representations of childhood, becoming more immediate and present. In the poem, “December,” the speaker declares, “I have learned that to be in shock is a kind of mercy. I stayed / there a long time.” Romantic love and its loss, another kind of death, is explored in the poem, “The Good Kind,” where Honum writes: “The hurt we’d cause / was always there, waiting // like death—the good kind.” The poems in the fourth and final section elaborate and underscore the way in which the shock of grief has many permutations. In these last poems, the poet returns to the figure of the mother: “I tried to sleep but thought of the bridge at camp: / three ropes above a rushing creek, my turn / to cross, you on the far bank wringing your hands … You raised your hands as if to heaven. / The birds start up again. It’s been forever.” In these simple lines the dull pain of memory surfaces, but in exquisite, staged lyricism. The speaker’s grief emerges in these last poems in the fullness of its complexity and irresolution—the final stage direction of this debut collection—pointing the reader to the way one lives among the competing penumbras of memory.
In the final poem, a villanelle plaintively titled “Come Back,” Honum uses spare, ascetic language to reveal both the limits of understanding and the possibility contained within form and movement. Honum writes: “I try to count them, climb up on the fence. / Their foreheads shine with pearly stars, ghost-lit. / I can’t see all of any horse at once— / they multiply, and shiver in the dusk.” If ever there was a debut collection of poems that showed an economy of language and a facility with poetic diction, it is this astounding collection. A critical and lyrical observation of girlhood, of loss, of mothers and sisters, of life and its necessary, painstaking practice, is now available for all of us to read.
Kasey Elizabeth Johnson received a BA in English from Reed College and an MA in English Literature from the University of New Mexico. She works for a healthcare non-profit in Seattle, Washington and is an editorial assistant and book review editor for CALYX, A Journal of Art and Literature by Women. Her work–poetry and prose–has appeared or is forthcoming in Corium Magazine, decomP, The Penumbra Review, Prick of the Spindle, and poet Claudia Rankine’s The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind, among others.