Poetry for Grownups: The Responsible Self in Molly Spencer’s If the House

Alexandra Barylski on Molly Spencer

Molly Spencer. If the house. University of Wisconsin Press, 2019. pp.75. $16.96.

Well-deserved winner of the Brittingham Prize selected by Carl Phillips, If the house bears the mark of all Molly Spencer’s best individually published poems. Her poetry often renders the familiar close to the strange and places the domestic beside the wild. Such arrangements remind us that the self and the world are not as we hope to make them. But we are responsible nonetheless.

Spencer’s first book is a powerful collection, in part because it offers a clear narrative about what it means to live inside the life you choose. This speaker does not shy away from the long tally of hours, the growth and ruin that time will inevitably bring with each turn of the year’s wheel. She does not shy away from the consequence of the days she has lived. Time collapses and expands around her — wife, mother, girl— as seasons shape her through October birds, snow storms, spring meadows, and summer’s ripe fruit. Speaker, I say, because Molly Spencer’s poetry is the art of one long at their craft, which produces a voice I believe we must distinguish from the poet herself since many poets do not often find this way of communicating. People’s individual lives, too raw on the page, produce artless art. Without time and reflection, few of one’s personal experiences can be rendered into something transfigured. So more importantly, Spencer’s poetry is the accomplishment of one who has reflected where she can on how to master the art of living, which is to say losing, and the difficult work of being reborn from pain. Spencer’s speaker dares to risk a missed note or two in the loud and terrifying work of accounting for one’s life without only blaming another. Individuals are responsible for the choices that shape exteriors and interiors, and these choices are never made in a universe of one.

If there is a God, then the speaker senses we will be made to give an account because our lives do not begin and end in relation to nothing. Like seasons that recur throughout the collection, so tradition is passed down. Perhaps it is for this reason that Spencer is able to look over a life and produce a book that ultimately offers the reader a feeling of wholeness and coherence despite many moments of dissolution. If the first poem teaches us how to enter and navigate the collection, as I believe all good first poems do, then we are given clear directions. The domestic is sign-posted with:

a prayer, milk, and all thy mercies.

Tell you later, bedtime, corner
of the hall, saint in the corner, corner if a girl can dream

of sand and shoreline, drop-off, O indigo
blade. Make us mindful—that’s how it goes. If I wait

From the beginning, there is life and what sustains that life. There is a child, spilled milk, and bedtime. There is the tired voice of a mother. Already the speaker references her own girlhood. This will happen again. It seems likely that The Book of Common Prayer enters this house through that girl’s memory and comes to this table reminding us that domestic life has historically relied on the gods to preserve and protect it. From the start, the speaker in this house has her saint in the corner. If life brings chaos, as life surely does, then the way to order is the difficult work of understanding the world and one’s place within it. Another poem ends  “alter cloth       penance        scalpel        caul,” a litany that moves from holy fabric, to confessing, to a precision blade, to the superstition that a baby born with a veil is luck-blessed. Spencer’s lyric beauty places life on earth in the context of worlds beyond her and above her, whether it’s orthodox religion or midwife lore. “Somewhere in the meadow is everything / You believed in. Saints and worn stones,” she writes. There are traces of God in heaven, but more often a lifeline to the next day belongs to the small gods found at the strand line or in ditches. Spencer’s world is a place of deep faith, a place where life might spring bright from any small corner even as so much grows dim and storms bear down. Belief, whether conventional or not, is what makes much of the pain of building a life cohere into something more than loss.

And there is deep-scar loss. The lover no longer lingers, only passes through looking for car keys; he has long forgotten how to “stoke a fire” in the speaker’s body and will be left to “count the years that bear no trace” of the women whose voice holds together these interiors, who has gathered the walls of many houses into many homes. What I most admire about this woman is that she speaks with such frankness. The first section (of five) closes on the image of children in bed and the image of a mother in front of the fire “listening to shift and fall / staring into flames of your own making.” We might read it as the voice of one gone mad, but it seems more likely that, from the opening movement, there is the acknowledgment and resignation to survive in the environment this speaker has taken, at least in part, upon herself. “Girl, you have burned yourself out,” she sighs in another poem. We follow this speaker into a world where she is dismayed that words meant to bind might break under the soft touch of our own flawed hands:

Love like a thinning
sheet, fitful, knotted
nights in the worn bed
of a life
you can’t take back.

The love that “took its leave of her slowly” was not entirely her fault. But nor do I think the speaker entirely absolved since she does not easily excuse her self. This is the hard truth. To fall in love. To vow. To ripen the fruit of that union and to live for lives beyond one’s own is always a choice, if only partially. These facts, too, are laced throughout the collection, and they are weighed and measured with careful consideration under Spencer’s deft ear for the emotion one can build with the music of language. There is story singing in this book of resurrection. Seasons recur, offering us nature’s cycle of death and life. But there is also the story of a life that will “remember open water and the wound,” a voice that speaks to itself and says, “put yourself back together. Now rise up/ tender and gleam.” But who could come to that part of the tale if one is not willing to spend time in the tomb?.

Spencer’s best poems are willing to enter this darkness without allowing it to overwhelm the reader. In poems such as “Conversation with Glass and Joist,” “Conversation with Distance and Shaking,” and “Conversation with Windows and Green” there are two sides presented, but neither seems wrong or right by any hard line, though each voice is acutely different and distant from the other. The disappointment in these poems is visceral, and yet they are clear and fair. This, I think, is where some intentional or accidental grace enters the work and judgment is suspended. A reader may prefer one person’s way of looking at the world compared to the other, but preference is not the same thing as right or wrong—a distinction we rarely make in our current moment. This effect is worked throughout the collection. The reader will, I think rightly, sympathize with the speaker they are coming to know, but this must not be mistaken for critique. Even in “Silences: Snowfall” when it would be effortless to take a side, one returns to title and wonders if the speaker’s own past silences played a part in dampening the fire. So the heartbreak intensifies. With no one to blame or both speakers to blame, one imagines each life might have been otherwise if only—. Spencer’s ability to transform deep personal disappointment into poems that stand on neutral ground is an extraordinary feat. By this, I mean she is able to take emotionally charged memories and look at them with the artist’s eye. Whatever Molly Spencer thinks about such matters is reserved, and we hear the speaker who crafts a story for us from personal experience. With a few exceptions, the collection is distinguished by this mature and masterful way of turning life into art.

My deepest delight in Spencer’s work is the locality of language that allows such a surefooted standing in the external world. In the milieu of poetry overly obsessed with abstract ideas, Spencer’s ability to shape a speaker that defines interiors through lush diction and depictions of Spencer’s native landscape is adept. The poets I love most mark their work with familiar terrains, familiar to them and sometimes familiar to me. Jack Gilbert and Gerald Stern, to name only two. The knowledge and love of one’s small place on earth, I think, is the center of Spencer’s powerful collection. Her poems voice the land she calls home, so often adoring the meadow:

your loose roots, petals weather and falling
to dust in the bled-vesper light of evening,

faded sheet of you. I, too, want to shine a little
before dying, to sway in the unaccountable

hands of the breeze. O clung-to-diaspora of seeds

To sway in the unaccountable. Therein resides the tension of Spencer’s first book. Freedom is a world of the unaccounted-for hours, the life without duty, chores, obligation, and sacrifice. Words that, so often, mark the interior spaces of women’s lives, spaces wherein women feel small, cramped, closed. But this speaker adores the wild edges of the world and the loosened roots of wild flowers. But even this speaker knows that there will never be a house if there is no soil that we can name our own.

Peoples throughout all time have staked their claim on the land and lost it, have won it back, have lost it again or been forced to leave to other shores and adopt another country, another state, another town, a street whose name will never sound like your mother calling your name. And yet people throughout all time have come to cultivate whatever patch of land becomes their own, come to grow there like a seed flung from the pod. Through the particulars of Michigan, I am taken by the hand through a door. A person can learn to love a new street, slowly. As a proud child of South Jersey, born and raised in the Pine Barrens and a stones-throw from the home of the Jersey Devil, I can revel in Spencer’s skilled weaving of the natural world and the native myths that make it (“Bridging”) even as I have never seen this wild place with a far-too-long winter. And my heart is won by the love of one searching the ditches and the high-tide lines and the meadows I do not know, but I recall the salt-marshes and cranberry bogs of my childhood. And I am home, though West Creek is a place I now ride my bike only in my dreams. In a culture of many moves and job jumping, settling down, settling in and thickening with the vines and branches outside one’s window, simply committing to one life and one landscape for many years (even if it does not last) is an under-sung virtue.

We enter the house in milk and prayer, and we leave in like manner. “I Talk Myself Through the Fact of Each Day” closes where the speaker opened, yet everything is changed. Everything is changed just as the lilac bush by my back door is changed each spring and yet remains the same. There is new fruit, a baby saying Mama, the same woman (or is she?) whose spoken and sung to us these many pages saying:

This table
where I sit all through the slant

amber afternoon—it is a table
I choose
again this morning.

For a moment, I wonder if this truly is the same table with the drop leaf and the “milk-spill,” which is to say, might this woman do it all again knowing what will be taken? I can not and will not say. But to end on life, the image of a child, is to minimally say that with this new season there endures a core of being, some aspect that can not be taken from what she will be. At least I believe this must be the case if a person is live in a house that is not haunted by their own ghost, and I think our speaker knows something “of what has lasted, of the washed-over-and-still-here.” Even when girlhood is gone and marriage bands are dissolved a mother remains to the last. There were shadows in the house, but one senses they have been made at peace, banished by the speaker’s choice to return and keep what she will and let go of what can not last.

Spencer is a poet with a rich vocabulary well used, so I think it no accident that her final word is “lily.” Flower of death. Flower of spring. Flower of resurrection. Flower of Easter Sunday alters, perhaps in a memory recalled in “Meditation at Ice-Out:

There is a story in my mother’s throat
about resurrection.
How we’ll walk the earth again in clement light.  

I hope Spencer will indulge me here and forgive my  poet’s associative way of thinking. Lily is a name long in my memory from a series of books I began at twelve. I wonder if other readers like me will see another mother here, the Lily who performed one of the greatest acts of magic in a story about some extraordinary witches and wizards. I do not think this is what Spencer had in mind, but I enjoy the reminder that a well-chosen word will resonate with a reader to their depths, though that reading should not cloud a critical view. However, I do think Spencer meant for life that comes after a long dying to have the last word.

 We say everyone loves stories, but not everyone tells stories that are worth hearing or reading. When I take up a poet, one of my standards for sharing their words is that they might delight someone who has never encountered poetry. My recommendation is for those who care nothing for unusual syntax or the sophistication of enjambment or the subtleties of caesura (Spencer is noteworthy here) or recognizing the poet’s marked influences and teachers (clear and impressive). If you want to be sung the blues and a lullaby, if you want to hear a writer speak the disaster you can not name, if you want to know that not all contemporary poetry is untransfigured trauma, then you want If the house.

Alexandra Barylski is the Managing Editor of the Marginalia Review of Books, an award-winning poet, and an experienced educator. She is currently completing her last year at Yale Divinity School.