House and Fire
by Maria Hummel
American Poetry Review, $15, 96pp
“Days you are sick, we get dressed slow”
So begins Maria Hummel’s debut collection of poems, House and Fire. What Hummel achieves in this single line is to establish the collection’s most vital and delicate relationship—that bond which forms between a mother and her chronically ill son. Indeed, the physical and emotional landscape which Hummel crafts in her poems is one which is all at once tender, patient, and filled with the repetitious and cyclical nature of chronic illness. What follows this first line from the opening poem “Station” is an entire collection of poems which makes fully evident the power and purity of a mother’s love.
House and Fire was selected by Fanny Howe as the winner of the 2013 APR/Honickman First Book Prize. In her introduction to the book, Howe writes of Hummel’s poetry, “her relationship to words [is] rooted in necessity…The work is exerted on the poems so the poet can endure a prolonged hardship; it is a record of sanity sustained by practice.” Certainly, what one finds in House and Fire is a mother’s attempt at making sense and creating comfort for herself and her child in the sterile and confusing world of the hospital. In “Quiet Hours,” the mother asks a simple yet heartbreaking question:
How can I get used to this
half-lit room, the tubes, the saw-like cry
of another mother’s child? The kiss
of silence, later, when nurses listen,
then drop their eyes, sleep upright.
How can I get used to this?
If we are to understand the concept of the “urban pastoral” as the tendency of the city to become a normative or “natural” place for the person living in a city, Hummel seems to suggest a similar concept which pushes further—the “medical pastoral” perhaps—so much so that the hospital becomes a kind of second home for mother and child. The hospital, then, performs the duties which the mother wishes herself able to do but ultimately cannot—protecting, healing, even feeding the child. The poem “Strawberries” conveys this relationship perfectly:
Today your arm eats strawberries.
Tomorrow, birthday cake and toast.
The tubes go in, their liquid clear.
As our life at home grows far
and faint, food becomes a ghost.
Today your arm ate strawberries.
House and Fire is arranged in three sections. Largely narrative, the first section establishes the mother’s relationship with her son, the world of plastic tubing and illness they live in, and the seemingly endless cycles of illness and treatment to which they find themselves subject. The book’s second section, on the other hand, takes a highly lyric turn. This middle section, title-less and nine pages in length, introduces a new character—a second child, one who is younger and healthy though whose life is clearly impacted by his older brother’s illness. What this section also develops is a growing sense of the mother’s feelings of guilt and helplessness concerning her son’s illness. The security and protectiveness of the womb stands out against the book’s larger context of hospitals and sickness. The mother’s feelings of implication in producing one healthy and one sick child, then, come clear when she says:
watching him sleep
hooked to tubes
an empty envelope
fills each dawn
with one long love letter
it’s mostly apology