What is a house? And what does a house hold? Nikki Wallschlaeger both builds and dismantles, props up and tears down, the answers to these questions in Houses, her debut full-length collection of poetry from Horse Less Press. It may be worthwhile to note, before delving into the poetry itself, that the dictionary definition of “houses,” the term that names the book as a whole and repeats itself in each title throughout the book (“Red House,” “Black House,” Mint Green House,” “Marigold House,” and so on until the final poem, “My House”), doesn’t end with a structure composed of stiles, lintels, roof, floor, door. Of course, a house is first and foremost a residence, a place where people live, but it can also connote a household and even, according to one very well-worn copy of the Random House Webster College Dictionary, “a family, including ancestors and descendants.” These latter two definitions remain equally on point for a reading of Houses, a book that tackles not only place (“A blue house where water is responsible for all of our thinking” [from “Blue House”]) but also explores the lives of the people living within the houses, namely of the speaker herself and of her family (“She has about 30 cookie jars now…Someday I will have to sort them. I will do something strange to pay homage to what we couldn’t bridge” [from “Bronze House”]).
But “house” is also a verb, meaning to hold, and for our purposes, as we move through the book, perhaps the most important definition for our reading. Because each “house,” written in prose broken into paragraphs, sometimes hewn in half in the middle of a sentence or at the turn of a clause, works as a scrim that pulls itself over all of the previous houses, adding to our understanding, and in so doing building a collection of layers that manages, simultaneously, to be both finely nuanced (“So I built my first fire where the heads on the wall are stuffed w/glass eyes of the folks who stuffed them” [from “Bole House”]) and boldly declarative (“I want us to be safe // I want us to be safe” [from “Candy Apple Red House”]). As we page through the book, moving from house to house, we witness an accumulation of, the building of, a self. This self is built by the forces described in the poems—race, the sociopolitical stage on against/on which the speaker exists, the weight of the past and the hope of the future, memories of childhood, images of childbirth, and much, much more. Wallschlaeger writes about things, and addresses her subject matter in language that combines various shifts and tones. Look, for example, at these lines from “Harlequin Green House”:
When he calls & asks for the minister of the house the inexhaustible need
to undo myself will answer the lit phone by presenting the opposite moss dire of a language that’s patient. We as members of the ancestral revenge class
to flummox an already undignified nation, deserve no less
Here, Wallschlaeger combines abrupt lyric fluency (“the opposite moss dire of a language that’s patient”) with an infusion of political terminology (“When he calls & asks for the minister of the house”) into a typical household scene—perhaps a call from a telemarketer or, based on the context of the poem, more probably a pollster. By doing so, and by writing the lines that follow, the poet reminds the reader of the old adage, that the personal is political. That a “house” could be political is contextualized by two earlier poems in the book, which deliberately juxtapose each other in terms of the notion of what may be seen: “Black House” (“Invisible house”) and “White House.” The latter, of course, is perhaps the most visible house in the nation, but as the poem reminds us, it was built with black labor: “Our people sure have strong arms, she said. Those Ionic columns forced to hold up that cotton pickin house. That’s why the white house gets repainted every year, they’re afraid the cracks will show. Black cracks.” And thus house, the idea of what a house is, becomes a façade as well, hiding everything that it would show.
Indeed, what lies beneath surface, what exists beneath the veneer as the speaker makes her way in the world—but, we might also consider, bubbles forth in virtual litany—is the theme of the book’s final poem, “My House,” a sprawling list comprised of masterful, thought-provoking, sometimes heart-wrenching statements of all that the speaker is “holding”:
Holding another day, tomorrow, the next day, your days, the calendar home show. Holding all the walls. Holding all the fusty nails I’ve swallowed.
Holding my hands across my chest while sleeping. Holding my hands. Holding popular kulture. Holding the last cop in the world. Holding something I’d actually do.
Houses is a book of done things that confound, in the best possible way, by going further, by building, word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, a book of poems that lends itself to reading and rereading, to hanging on phrase by beautiful phrase, all inhabited by a thoroughly human presence. We find love, “a stranger that plans your future,” in this book (“Puce House”). We find hurt, we find agency, we find pith, we find hope. I give it my highest recommendation.
You can get your copy of Nikki Wallschlaeger’s Houses directly from Horse Less Press here. Scroll down for the link.
Full disclosure: though we’ve never met, I know Nikki Wallschlaeger through Facebook and we’ve both been published by Horse Less Press.