The Tulip-Flame by Chloe Honum

The Tulip-Flame
Chloe Honum
Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2014
55 pp. $15.95 (paperback)
Reviewed by Miriam Bird Greenberg

The Tulip-Flame opens in a quiet world, one in which stillness has fallen. “All that falls is caught. Unless” goes a line in the opening poem, and it presages the book’s trajectory, inhabited by memory of the lost and left behind, told in the voice of a young woman haunted by her own mother’s suicide attempt. This collection, winner of the Cleveland State University Poetry Center First Book Prize in 2013, is striking and subtle, drawing taut the terrible burden the suicide attempt places on its speaker and her sister, then teenage girls. “My love was a knife against her throat,” the speaker says of her mother in “Visiting Hours,” and then a few pages later, “Because I asked her to, she said she wanted to live.”

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Each of the book’s four sections turn around the axis of a loss. Though her mother lives on, writing “Cum Deo [With God] in permanent / marker all around our house,” she occupies the world of the book as if a ghost already; her eventual death is mentioned in the book’s eponymous poem almost in afterthought. The speaker herself, a serious ballerina who practices jetés on the wet spring cement outside their house, gives up dancing and moves on to a different life; in “Last of the Ballerina I Was,” the I transmutes into she, even the self is lost:

I can still hear
the violins
and feel her
last jeté, how
the stage
rippled beneath her
as dusk ripples
in the slipstream
of a bird
whose sudden
ascension
strands its
shadow
on the shore.

One lover leaves, then another. Her friend dies, and in the hospital morgue she peers into her face. Writ smaller, the seasons devour time, springtime flowers blossom, then wilt. Unlike the mother and the ballerina self, the lost lovers and friend occupy space made only of memory in these poems. “You won’t, the / ballet master said, when I asked what to do if I forgot,” she writes. In the prose poem “Nursing Home,” Honum examines the weight memory burdens its bearers with:

My mother takes me to meet you for the first and only time.
We find you in a chair in the garden. You call my mother Alan,
her oldest brother’s name, and she laughs sadly. I know about
you, I want to say. Mean drunk. Molester. I am seven or eight. It
is fall, the Zen season, the trees clearing their minds. Golden sap.
Lavender. Grandfather, where is your memory? I would like to
help you look for it. I would like to see you crawl under the shrubs.

But memory is malleable, it remains when we’d rather it wouldn’t, or fades whether we ask it to or not: “And where // does he go,” she asks, “that shadowy figure / who handles my memories?” the speaker asks in “Directing the Happy Times” (which appeared in Best New Poets 2008 selected by Mark Strand). Perhaps in a sense this book is an elegy to memory—altered, as scientists have long known, by the mere act of recollecting. Every memory, replayed, becomes a memory of itself.

In “Hours” she writes “a large moth collided / with my throat and shuddered / there, as if attached to me, / trapped in a wheel of air.” What remains closest here, though, are not memories of a lover lost, but the symbols of them. In the speaker’s richly layered sorrow we feel a jarring, hyper-sensitive intimacy with the world that one so often encounters in themselves in the wake of loss.

The book closes on a villanelle—a form that can sometimes seem to refute change, instead reframing, further faceting. Though the poem’s title is “Come Back,” its refrain “I can’t see all of any horse at once” seems admission of a world the speaker can’t contain. Its concluding quatrain goes:

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.

Quiet falls, finally, again. Yet this is a book that broadens, its images and syntax becoming more expansive and striking as it progresses. Even the space these poems occupy on the page moves from measured and brief to, occasionally, sprawling. At first glance this is a collection that, in its finely wrought restraint, could feel oversimplified, even plain. Brushing up next to one another, though, it’s an honest, gently wrenching elegy for the lost: those around her, yes, and what they took from within the speaker as they left.

Buy The Tulip-Flame here.

 

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