Maria Hummel’s ‘House and Fire’

by JIM WHITESIDE

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 inside me fills each dawn with one long love letter by night it’s mostly apology

The book’s third section takes a necessary break from the hospital and, indeed, from the mother-child dynamic as a whole. In the first few poems of the final section, Hummel’s speaker turns her focus to her own history, her own conception of self. In “New York Selves: An Elegy” the speaker reimagines herself in five different situations, each as a different element of life in New York City. The reader needs this brief respite, not only as a testament to Hummel’s ability to write more broadly, but also not to make the book too daunting or heavy-handed in its intense focus on its otherwise singular subject matter.

Another element which makes this collection both unique and particularly effecting is the way it employs both free verse as well as prescribed forms. In fact, one finds that Hummel is at her best when she takes on old forms and finds ways to make them new. Within the collection, the reader finds a pantoum (“Station”), several villanelles (“Quiet Hours,” “Strawberries,” and “Children’s Ward” chief among them), and two ghazals (“One Life” and “Fog”). Within the constraints of form, it seems, Hummel has found flourish. The repetitious nature of such forms helps her in conveying the nature of the emotions inherent in dealing with chronic illness. In a video on the Stanford University Creative Writing website, Hummel says of “Station,” “I found that this form really echoed for me the experience of chronic illness, where all forward motion is also pulling backwards.” These poems in form make clear the mother’s plight—an undying passion for her son threatened by the seeming endless and repetitive nature of her child’s condition.

If there were a flaw to be found in House and Fire, it is a flaw which eventually one realizes may not be a problem at all. The child’s father never makes an appearance in the book, despite the fact that the poems often refer to “our son.” The father clearly exists, and one wonders what role the father plays in the overall dynamic. However, upon reflecting on this omission, it becomes apparent that the role of the father is outside of the book’s driving force. Hummel is not discounting the role of the father; rather, she is choosing to focus her lens on one relationship—that between mother and son.

In his endorsement on the back of the book, Hummel’s former teacher Stuart Dischell says, “I cannot think of a more powerful first book.” Indeed, when thinking of other debut collections which provide for the reader such an emotionally driving and powerful experience, one which they will return to many times after, Robert Hass’ Field Guide, Beth Bachmann’s Temper, and Richard Siken’s Crush all come to mind. These are poems of such caliber, resonance, and staying power. In House and Fire, Maria Hummel has claimed her place among our most significant and promising young poets.

JIM WHITESIDE is from the town of Cookeville, TN. He is currently in his second yeas as a poetry MFA student at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Before arriving in Greensboro, he attended Vanderbilt University, where he was the recipient of the 2012 Merrill Moore Award for Poetry. He enjoys sweaters, tea, live music, and bosc pears.