by Jenna Le | Contributing Writer
Bull City Press, 2017
The chapbook Then Winter is New-Zealand-born, Texas-based poet Chloe Honum’s first collection since her 2014 full-length debut, The Tulip-Flame, which concerned the aftermath of a mother’s suicide. Much of the acclaim for The Tulip-Flame focused on its balletic poise and meticulous use of formal elements: most reviews praising the book were crisp with adjectives like “deliberate” and “exacting,” nouns like “technique” and “rigor,” and the title poem exemplified the collection’s conscious deployment of craft by perfectly embodying the formal requirements of an iambic pentameter villanelle.
It is a bit surprising, then, to find Then Winter marked by such a fluid, organic, unobtrusive relationship with form. In nearly every poem in this new collection, form and content meld into a seamless whole, as if they were—to borrow a phrase from Honum’s poem “Group Therapy”—“two sides of one pearl.” Though Honum already demonstrated an inclination toward prose poetry in such pieces in The Tulip-Flame as “Visiting Hours” and “To the Anorexic,” the prose poem becomes the dominant form in Then Winter, shaping 12 out of 22 poems. And whereas the prose poems in The Tulip-Flame, such as “December” with its mannered short sentences (“The days were short. It was snowing.”), occasionally had a self-conscious air of artifice, there is no unnatural stiffness in the prose poems of Then Winter, which tumble headlong down the page with a colloquial voice that shifts easily between varying levels of intimacy, between sidelong glances and direct eye contact with the reader, as in “Offerings”:
I am about as convincing as the child playing the sun in the school recital. But I have rain in my hair. This much is true. Let me bring it to you.
Some of Honum’s most masterful prose poems are composed in an inventive triptych form, consisting of three paragraphs with “big leaps” in time and space between successive sections. One such poem in The Tulip-Flame was “Dressing Room,” and Then Winter contains two more poems in this form: “Lunch Break at the Psychiatric Ward” and “Group Therapy.” “Lunch Break” agilely shifts scenes between the speaker’s childhood memories of her mother (“my feet became birds in the golden leaves of her hair”) and a fish tank in the hospital hallway in the present moment (“A box of wonder—we are trusted not to throw ourselves against it”). It is “Group Therapy,” however, that is the fulcrum of the text: it is the only poem to delve into the specifics of the ailment for which the speaker is hospitalized (“For five days each month, my blood came as bright as plum juice”), and it hints at an ambivalence toward the idea of family that is one of the most intriguing ideas contained in these pages: “Now that I see a family, I can breathe. The leaves are crimson. I have something to tear down.” That the reader cannot be sure whether the speaker longs to tear down the crimson leaves, or the idea of family, or both, is a testament to Honum’s verbal dexterity.
The themes of bereavement and mental illness, which Honum began exploring in The Tulip-Flame, are reprised in Then Winter, in which the poems are tightly linked by a narrative arc that unfolds in a psychiatric ward, where the speaker is a patient. This narrative has recurring characters: e.g., two fellow patients whom the speaker befriends, to whom she refers simply as “the boy with the twisted body” and “the Vietnam vet.” These characters have internal complexities that become increasingly visible as the narrative progresses, such that when the Vietnam vet’s name is revealed near the narrative’s end, it feels like a natural step forward in the progression of an intimacy.
Mental illness is a frequently discussed topic in poetry, and approaches to the subject are diverse and multifaceted as the subject itself. Some poets, such as Anhvu Buchanan in The Disordered, favor a somewhat medicalized approach, emphasizing DSM definitions and nomenclature; others, like the late Max Ritvo, in his poems about his therapists in Four Reincarnations, seem mainly interested in psychiatry as a launching-pad from which to hurl oneself at the starry mysteries of metaphysics. What distinguishes Honum’s approach is how empoweringly non-medicalized it is, how her poetry treats people with mental illness not as jargon-tagged curios but as humans with the divine breath of life in them, with agency and creativity, their souls too fluid to withstand being boxed neatly into textbook categories. In place of the sterility of medical shop-talk, Honum opts for a floridly romantic, simile-rich lyricism. Then Winter is one of few recent texts on mental illness that I can recall using the word “souls” proudly and unironically, in “On the Stairs Outside the Psychiatric Ward” (p. 6):
[S]tarlings are holding tight on a telephone wire,
heads tucked in the cold. And the boy
and the Vietnam vet, who has just joined us,
and I are looking up with yearning, as though
we could solve that string of bird and sky arithmetic
and know the ages of our souls.
The chapbook’s first poem, “The Angel,” also embodies this approach, depicting the onset of the speaker’s illness as an encounter with an Old-Testament-esque angel, whom the speaker takes the initiative to rescue and care for:
I bathed her and clothed her…. Since then, she has gone everywhere with me. Occasionally, people see her and startle. They ask her if she’s all right, but she speaks only to me, as if I were the translator of her ancient mottled language.
The use of the active voice in “April in the Berkshires” is likewise empowering, heightening the reader’s awareness of the poem’s speaker as someone who, for all that she suffers from mental illness, is nonetheless God-gifted with agency, sensuality, and strength: “I could roll over and wrap / my arms around the rain” (p. 5). In our era in which people outside the neurotypical mainstream lead lives endangered by prejudice and misunderstanding, Honum’s words are a powerful counterweight.
Jenna Le, a daughter of Vietnamese refugees, lives and works as a physician and educator in New Hampshire. She is the author of two full-length poetry collections, Six Rivers (NYQ Books, 2011) and A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora (Anchor & Plume, 2016). Her poetry has appeared in AGNI Online, The Best of the Raintown Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Denver Quarterly, The Los Angeles Review, and Massachusetts Review, while her essays and criticism have been published by Avatar Review, Burrow Press, Fanzine, Pleiades, Poetry Northwest, The Rumpus, and SPECS. Her website is jennalewriting.com.