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Published

November 6, 2019

Review of Molly Spencer's If the House

In If the House, published in October by the University of Wisconsin Press, Molly Spencer makes clear how a home and its environs can serve as rich ground to explore the inner lives and intimacies of the people who dwell there. These poems give readers a chance to consider how our own lives have been molded by where we’ve planted ourselves and who or what surrounds us. 

Spencer draws us in right away with her call to small details of the home and with the emotional urgency of the remembered events that take place within its walls. Articulating both what leaves and what remains, she alternatingly evokes the voices of absence and presence, of the “washed-over-and-still-here,” of “stone, stone, and again, stone.” Spencer calls to home—both the domestic space and the natural world around it—as another limb, another aspect of the self, as in “Bridging,” in which she writes, “The father / grew into tall pine, the mother / made of her body a sail.” She balances memory and metaphor precisely, each phrase curling around the other, cradling and pushing the next image into being. Describing a fishing trip in “Meditation at Fishtown,” for example, Spencer shows us the barb sinking deep into the rose-trail of blood down the father’s chin. When the father cuts himself free, the boats in the distance, named GLORIA and JOY, seem to signal a return to calm.

As the collection unfolds, Spencer leads us to understand “the meaning of both / collapse and endure,” causing readers to consider intimacy as it falls apart and what it means to try and reconnect as those intimacies falter. This kind of loss and attempted reconciliation is dramatized by the most quotidian of details; snipping a loose thread from the crotch of a thong, for example, calls to unspoken strains between spouses. Or in “Silences: snowfall,” quiet suggests the final moments of connection: 

This is how she learned the truth
of skin. Not its thinness
but its animal thirst—
the last time
he touched her
and she felt touched. 

Again and again in these poems, Spencer goes beyond passive noticing of how memory pulls and recedes; she works actively to uncover the past, illustrating the act of remembering as if it were a cross between striking notes on a piano and flexing a bow toward its target. Spencer is somehow both deliberate and dove-like as her narrator reflects on an old fence in “Because I want to give them more than the small, gray stone,” with phrases that instill their own hush: "they no longer remember, I tell them: It was shadow-boxed, silvered, / worn soft by long years of storm."

Memory is a “falling fence,” a “gentle white pine you will never climb again.” Memory, in If the House, is characterized not just as a series of recalled events but as a force or entity, and the same can be said of place. The house and its surroundings don’t merely set the scene; they are characters in their own right, and Spencer’s articulation, while deliberate, isn’t forceful. Instead, it’s gentle and conversational, communicating a longing and wariness aimed at understanding life’s meadow, life’s snowstorm. In “Vestige,” the daylight arrives “scraped and on its knees, through the skeletal tree.” Given that, two stanzas earlier, the you appears in shadow despite being sunlit, the reader can’t help but connect what becomes of the daylight to the unraveling of the speaker’s relationship. 

Spencer frequently offers us images that nest or echo in this way, so that an emotional or physical experience can be located both in the body and in the landscape. In this way, she dramatizes the complex relationship human beings have with home, reminding the reader that while places shape us, we also shape them. Her images evoke both home and distance, permanence and loss, making clear that “our lives are still ours. / And were never ours.” In “I Talk Myself through the Facts of Each Day,” the verb to climb winds up meaning to go up—by clinging, so holding on and moving forward exist hand-in-hand. Spencer teaches readers to search for silence and listen. She trains our ear to the memories she has gathered for her reader, so this “tight fist of apple” can “become something for [us] to get by on.” This transparency about the complicated nature of human experience is precisely what makes If the House so engaging and compelling.