Poems by John Hoppenthaler
|Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2015
Reviewed by Emily Mohn-Slate
John Hoppenthaler’s Domestic Garden begins with a ghost switching the names of roses in a garden, and ends with a speaker at a Chinese buffet who’s “given in…to desire so that [he] might die fat in your arms.” In between, we encounter boy scouts, a traveling circus, an immigrant uncle, a modern Lazarus, Pekin ducks, and even Jesus.
Here we have poems spoken in real voices set to a lyric of domestic life. But the epigraph from Keetje Kuipers gives us a clue that what Hoppenthaler is up to is anything but ordinary: “If the garden / is not a garden, and if its tiny lamps illuminate only / their own darknesses, we must hold ourselves inside / forever.” This book complicates the domestic, asking us to think again about what we consider “intimate, familiar, at home.”
Hoppenthaler is at his best in a poem like “Home Movie,” in which the narrative and lyric impulses work together with their different energies to lead us somewhere new. Clipped sentences set the scene of the poem: “I watch a Super 8 saved from the attic / when Mom moved to Florida.” Structured in neat quatrains, the form attempts to contain the chaos of the central subject: a beloved uncle who died suddenly while chainsawing trees. The speaker encounters his still-alive Uncle Eddie through a home movie shot by his Dad’s “shaking” hand: “Uncle Eddie clamps five / lead split shots to line’s end. I’m casting / into the road. One month later he was dead.” He tells us what he remembers beyond the frames, the figure of his “grieving mother / almost losing her grip” but lingers in the film, focusing on a place where the film catches:
There’s a point, a splice
more than halfway in, where the film
catches a little. I’ve watched the movie
six times through — and lost, each time,
those images back to where the end slides
out, slaps like a razor strop.
He keeps threading the film through again each time it catches, to these moments just before Uncle Eddie died, a recursive resurrection bringing him back each time: “I’ll slowly reel it in again, sinkers / stealing through the uncut grass.”
In “Side Porch of the Elizabeth Bishop House,” Hoppenthaler explores how the death of Uncle Eddie ravaged his mother, altering the universe of his childhood: “When policemen came to the door and she began to scream, // real horror shivered my eight-year-old back…and it seemed suddenly / that the world was ending, some vital part of it.” Hoppenthaler holds us in the horrible grief, moving us deliberately along with his long couplets:
my mother whimpered as they let him down.
I tossed a fistful of cut flowers in the hole
while an aunt and uncle held up my mother,
muscled her back to the gray limousine.
Elizabeth Bishop’s childhood memories color the speaker’s memories, as the scream becomes disembodied, emanating from an unknown patient in a distant hallway of the nursing home. The speaker is with his mother, suffering from dementia, “wheeled up / to a dayroom table, spinning wild narratives / and taking no prisoners.” This poem haunts the collection, showing what Hoppenthaler can do with the longer, more associational narrative. As the speaker in the poem tells us, “Everyone else / is someone, too, but never quite themselves.” That slippery sense of identity delivered in a direct voice is key to this collection, to its sense of play and authority.
A buoyant spirit runs throughout Domestic Garden, despite the loneliness, mortality, and darkness it often tells. The third section is comprised of love poems. The strongest poem, “The Weather Down Here,” is grounded in a particular place, Washington, North Carolina, and uses sharp local details, “a quick stop at Food Lion for beer & whole wheat buns, / then Hog Heaven for pints of barbecue, baked beans, / & slaw.” We learn “In Beaufort County, storms are upon us in minutes; roiling / cells shear through the skillet-flat fields of tobacco & cotton.” A storm could strike at any time, the speaker tells us, “they startle me like you do, dear,” as the poem moves to its “To His Coy Mistress” moment:
Come gather after; slip
your hand into my pocket & kiss my sunburned neck.
Recite with me again the capricious
nature of our Carolina weather.
Hoppenthaler woos us with his easy, conversational rhythms and sounds, as the speaker revels in the unpredictable.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that a male poet using the title Domestic Garden, one so clearly associated with the feminine, would explore masculinity directly at some point in the collection. In “Some Men,” we meet a variety of men, some pitiable, some lonely, some just trying to make a living: “Men who’ve been barbers / of the dead and were happy for the work, // men who’ve become what they’ve microwaved, / who overvalue the quality of their erections // and fawn over them as they do the town’s new Walmart.” This poem tells a narrative but elliptically, lending an eerie power to this cadre of men “who’ll trim their nose hair // at your sink.” Hoppenthaler implicates the male perspective, creating an anthem of sad, sneaky characters who complicate the other male speakers in the collection.
Hoppenthaler’s garden is lush, straightforward, and slippery. It leaps unexpectedly from voice to voice and place to place. Hoppenthaler’s poems, like the subject of “Anna’s Garden,” “enable the garden’s / growth in all directions and ask no pardon.”