A Cinder Love Can Still Catch Fire

If This House by Molly Spencer (University of Wisconsin Press, 2019)

Bootstrap love, cinder love, love

that knows everyone’s heart
is the size and shape of a fist.

                          –from “Love Story”

My eyes were still bleary and puffy from sleep when I started Molly Spencer’s If the House. I sat on the back steps of my house in the crisp morning, waiting for my dogs to sniff out everything that had happened in the night, bark at a few early morning squirrels, and give up on getting the cat to play with them. I was feeling bad for myself because, truth be told, I wanted to be sleeping in or giving in to want or wandering alone through a far-away city, not sitting on these cold, concrete steps waiting for the day to unfold. I wanted for someone else to walk the dogs, make breakfast, get the children dressed, deal with the hundreds of squabbles and spills and slipups promised before the sun had fully risen. Instead, I slipped into the cathedral of Spencer’s poems and found in them every holy thing, which it turns out, was every thing that was there all along.

Throughout If the House the ordinary becomes holy, not by luck or ordination, but by the work of the individual. The speaker in Spencer’s poems uses language and light to make for herself a more holy space. The opening poem “If I tell you everything, maybe as day fades,” begins with dusk, the dimming of the day, but the light does not stop there. It becomes fire, become “the sky cracking,” it turns to the “milk-spill” becoming “moonlight shoaling / slow” across the table. Light is cinematic throughout this book, a way of refocusing attention. In the poem “Moving Day” light reframes a memory:

the light through the redwoods reminds you
of a gentle white pine you will never again climb.

This memory finds its way back to the present moment where a house is being packed up, the rooms left in a “shabby cast” of light, and then the camera pans to the movers packing up the bed, where it will be carried, as you see, into daylight and away:

                                                                                              Now they are dismantling
the bed you’ve slept on for years. Their overheard grunts,
the shift and clang of parts coming loose. You’ve lived
this day before. Now is the time to look away
so you won’t have to watch the broken body of it
lugged out into daylight once more—
headboard, footboard, wide golden flanks of its sides.

Amongst all this light, there is the language. The language Spencer employs is exact, honest, charged. The bed becomes sacred with its “broken body” and its “golden flanks.” Nothing here is neutral.

In what may be my favorite poem of the collection, “There is Only One Word for Snow, but I Want More,” language takes center stage in the creation of the holy. In this poem everything becomes holy: “black-boned trees are clothed in white again,” “the meadow blurs and kneels down,” and snow becomes a “crown on the ruins / of blossoms.” Each of these images evokes the religiously holy, but not because it is so, but because the poet has made it so. She wants it and so she makes it. She wants more words for snow, so she makes them. She wants winter to “be holy and precise,” and so she makes it so in the precise language of this poem. She does the work to make it holy. Even when spring tries to bloom its way in to view, to push winter out of this poem, she covers it with a crown of snow. The poem might end there at “crown on the ruins / of blossoms,” but it doesn’t. It goes on to end with these 5 words: “altar cloth  penance scalpel caul.” Things that are set apart, that set apart. To cover and uncover. Here, to make something sacred is not to wait for a miracle, but to work toward it—to take a sharp knife to it, to parse it apart, to examine each piece in the light, to name it, to call it holy.

What delighted me most about this book, and what added to the reverent tone, is the way Spencer can hold dualities together in balance. Those things which are often seen as opposites do not have to be in the house Spencer builds of these poems. Domesticity and desire hold the same amount of space in this home; we see that in the poems “Conversation with Lace Thong and Car Keys,” “Silences: snowfall,” and “Vestige,” among others. Brokenness and wholeness can be seen together in “How to Love the New House,” “Conversation with Windows and Green,” “As if life can go on as it has,” and notably in “Because I want to give them more than the small, gray stone.”

Perhaps this skill is seen best when privilege and pain both inhabit the kitchen in the poem “Interior with a Woman Peeling Oranges, Snapping Beans.” Here dinner is made from the luxury of out of season produce and complaints are made about the plows that don’t show up, while Aleppo falls. This poem could easily preach, could easily demand, could even easily turn away, back towards dinner, but instead, it holds both its privilege and the world’s pain in the same hands, considering what it means, just as the poem ends with a startling image:

Easy enough to remember holding
each orange in my hand at the market, saying,

These are as a big as a baby’s head!
Putting them in a plastic bag,

only five-for-a-dollar.

As startling as the image of oranges as baby’s heads is after the descriptions of ruin and brokenness in the previous sections of the poem, the poem does not preach, but neither does it turn away; it holds the oranges and green beans at the same time as the world breaks while she watches, a witness who still must feed her children. It is not easy to hold two heavy opposites at the same time, but life demands it. Spencer does not leave us alone with the difficulty of such a task, but she shows us in these poems how to continue on in a new and better way. Her poem “Even so, the first bird” contains lines that could easily begin nearly every poem in the collection and seem appropriate here: “This is how to go on // breaking / with the broken world—.” Her poems guide the reader without force, they enlighten the reader without sermonizing, they show the reader it is possible to move forward, even under the weight of oranges that are so much more than oranges.

Many of Spencer’s poems richly capture the daily life of a home without needing to call them something else, she looks at each thing, even the painful things (even the annoying things like having to say again “fold the fucking socks”) for what they are. The poems take place in crumbling homes, behind cracked windows, in the shadows of half-remembered memories, where you have to repeat yourself ad nauseam, where relationships falter and fail, but still they do not reach to be overly intellectual, amusing, or clever to make them palatable to the reader. They are instead, on their own, the proof for the true heartbeat of this collection: love.

Love does not mean the absence of pain, loss, and grief—which these poems also hold—but it means persisting, continuing on through season after season of snow, waiting, as Spencer writes in “Elegy Beginning with a Text from My Brother,” and hoping:

listening for the scrape
of the plow gone by, waiting
for the blade and my body

to change the snow’s tense
from falling and falling
to fell.

Even lying in bed not sleeping all night, there is hope for moving forward, maybe not into a new life, but a new way of being in that life. Winter still comes, but so does the plow. Or the shovel in your own hand as ends the poem “Disclosures | If you are aware of any nuisance animals such as crows, chickens, or barking dogs.”

In the final poem of If the House, Spencer returns again to the table where milk was spilled in the first poem:

This table
where I sit all through the slant
amber afternoon—it is a table
I chose
again this morning

She chooses this table again, where her children will eat, where there will be fights, heartbreak, love, loss, jokes, taunts, and the mundane over and over. (The returning to the table throughout this collection puts in mind the poem “Perhaps the World Ends Here” by Joy Harjo, another love poem.) You can almost hear it: Green beans again, mom? Did you spill the milk again? Why are there dirty socks on the table? Yet, she chooses to be at the table again. Showing up, out of love, with love, for love. What persists in these poems is not the particular address, the furniture, the season, the relationships, or even the memories, but the love driving it all forward. Molly Spencer’s poems do not create a new world, they create a better way of inhabiting it. A way of returning again and again, to love.

And so, I return again too. I take the dogs inside this morning, not the morning I started the book, but a morning just like it; I answer a question from my daughter about the moon still out there even though the sun has risen; I sigh and ask my other daughter, again, to please change her damn underwear; I start the kettle for coffee; I give the dogs treats for all their good sniffing outside, and the bluish winter light casts a new light over it all—and the shadows that fall behind everything, even those become sacred.

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