May 18th, 2008

Review by Carol McCarthy

by Elizabeth Hughey

University of Iowa Press
Iowa City, IA 52242
ISBN 978-1-58729-528-7
70 pages, $16.00

Winner of the 2006 Iowa Poetry Prize, Elizabeth Hughey's first book of poems, Sunday Houses the Sunday House, displays a collection that asks the question, "What am I to make of this life, this self?" The poems are about sorting through the duality of self, picking apart feelings of contentment and discontentment, sifting through memory and imagination. Her poems question what exactly is at stake with ideals and traditions, such as woman, self, and the place for imagination.
The title of the book uses the word "house" as a verb and plays with the idea that something or some day is harboring the concept of a "Sunday house." The titular poem, though syntactically challenging, suggests details of a Sunday house: "Every room opens/ to Kathy. The heart from homestead./ The map to go too far." There is a desire to release the truth of the homestead, turning over its contents, its "womanly opposites," to expose some truth the speaker is grappling with.
The book opens with three prose poems that depict place, person, and how things come to be through names. In the poem, The Naming of 1500, the speaker describes a period of time as "rather botanic," suggesting that the history that has often been told was not told as precisely or as historically as it could have been. The hidden history is further examined when the speaker notes that elders can hear "occasional eruptions of spindle berries" as though these botanical creations suggest the hiding of things untold. Botany and flora permeate this collection and the introduction of the botanical in the beginning of the book is crucial for understanding the metaphor of growth and self, although Hughey does so in a fresh and unobtrusive way.
Hughey examines the notion of discontentment in the poem How Much Longer, where what one literally can see no longer satisfies. The speaker feels restless in her current surroundings, always looking for the absent or the new in the presence of the existing. She examines language and comments on sentence construction as "noun, verb the adjective, adjective noun," viewing the existing form as monotonous and droning.
The illusion of contentment is explored in the poem, Housewife, where the speaker aligns herself with the image of another, the "her," possibly the housewife as the title suggests, who "covered [the speaker] like squid ink." The speaker takes on a second self, almost becoming the other as well as separating herself from the housewife at times. The speaker and the housewife buth feel unfinished in what they do. I thought this was an effective poem about the duality of self, exploring how one can be both content and dissatisfied. And although this poem conjures up William Carlos Williams' The Young Housewife in its theme and content, Hughey has gone a step further in examining the housewife by becoming her, whereas Williams only observes the housewife from a distance.
Memory and imagination are two themes that resurface in many of Hughey's poems. In Son on a Hill, the speaker seems to be searching for something she once had, a son she once saw. The poem borders on delirium as the speaker describes how she has found a new son, and tries to find order in the disorder of the moment, giving the retort, "because I am your mother," as a way to show that control. The speaker has, in fact, only created this image before her--in her mind, or possibly as a sketch on paper. The notion of desire and its effects on one's psyche is examined in this poem and, for me, it is one of the strongest in Hughey's collection. This poem is both sad and tender, filled with unmitigated abstractions and images such as a siren splitting "the day into two lungs."
The recurring image of the phantom son continues in the poem, Son at the Swimming Pool, where the speaker, again, seems to be dealing with memory and desire in her imagined relationship with her son. He asks her where they are and she channels the spiritual leader, Swami Vivekananda. The power of the poem is in its ending as the speaker comes to grips with how or what can be defined as happiness or fun, noting that "there is a contest for diving/ into the water." However, one has yet to make "climbing out" of the pool rewarding as well. The speaker is commenting on what has been generally accepted in society, possibly inventing a child that she does not have as a way to show how her place as a woman has been historically determined.
The final poems in her collection deal with the speaker's choice to come to terms with her power to "change the purpose" of life as it happens. In Intersection of Oak and Linden, the speaker ponders on the "what ifs" only to realize the power of the imagination as the driving force in nature and in life, where one can "combine the acorn squash/ with a sea lion" to get a bird. We are reminded that the speaker is "not the architect of anything" in part three of this longer poem, but is instead "life made better," because of the way the speaker unravels and breaks apart expectations, extracting "color from the rocks" through imagination and examination of self.
Throughout the book, the poet mostly uses the prose form, suggesting her desire to break away from tradition. The desire to re-envision form in her collection works concurrently with the theme. She challenges traditional diction and syntax, as well, and although the book in thin in size, it is thick in content and imagination, asking the reader to "cobble [her] a motorbike and [she] will rev it."


Carol McCarthy lives in New Orleans. Her poetry has appeared in Pebble Lake Review, Natural Bridge, eratio postmodern, and Marginalia, among others.




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