THE FIRST HOUSE by Stephen  Wallin


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Collected poems that speak of worlds haunted by ghosts of the past, myth, and memory.

In this slender debut, Wallin brings together 21 poems ranging in length from haiku to single-page, multipart, and longer works. Some were previously published in literary magazines, such as The Portland Review and Zyzzyva. The title poem opens the book, establishing a speaker who’s exquisitely aware of damage: “It begins here, the glass air raw in your lungs.” The diphthong in “raw” is repeated in the third line, like so many contained screams: The night’s “small law gnaws you wrong.” The reason for this sense of horror is hinted at by two people who taught the speaker, presumably parents, with references to a “gruesome arm” and a mother’s “blood on the wood / of the first house.” Packing up this house and sitting on the porch at night, the speaker sees a frightening world of supernatural danger: “Branches twist into witches”; “Elms spook you, / one glove clinched stiff in thistle roots,” like the last remnant of someone swallowed up. Perseus—a figure developed at length in a later poem, “Perseus Speaks”—reminds the speaker that “No hero saved you then.” Bewildered by mythic shadows, the narrator searches to find the reality of these memories, “a garden laced in chains / or vines.” As in other works here, Wallin’s originality and compression are notable; though elliptical, the sentence “A hawk and mouse made red” is easy to grasp.

On occasion, though, it’s more difficult to connect with Wallin’s lines, as in “Cigarettes Poked Up Your Pinocchio Nose,” which imagines a man either as or operating a ghoulish marionette. “Skulls howl in an / odd box. / Slam them!” This is cryptic; a marionette could be kept in a box, or a coffin could be an “odd box,” but who or what would slam them, and how is that force related to the dancing Pinocchio figure’s “light trot”? Similarly puzzling are the lines “The dead sleep in a ba- / by’s lake” and “Sun’s in the / blubber.” Many poems demonstrate Wallin’s musical sense of language; for example, “My bike clicked chrome” (“May, and Again May”) and “Papa’s cot is a locket of sod” (“The Absence of White”). In particular, “Perseus Speaks” takes on the rocking rhythm of the wooden chest cast into the sea containing Danaë and her child, Perseus—mimicking “how they sway. / Mother, son / Mother, son.” These rhythms are accompanied by images of flighted creatures (seabirds, swans, Icarus, Perseus himself); as in the title poem, the speaker struggles to distinguish myth and reality: “Swans were dreams / Fly lit. I wanted them, / their suchness.” In the final work, “The First House, Later,” the speaker resolves his sense of mystery, deciding that darkness is “ontic,” “open,” and finally “mundane.” But a question is left open as the speaker goes to bed, the line trailing off in a manner suggestive of sleep and dreams.

Lyrical, searching poems of darkness and flight, violence and rescue.

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 2018
ISBN: 978-1-7321802-0-8
Page count: 60pp
Publisher: Self
Program: Kirkus Indie
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15th, 2018


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