It seems a bit fitting that I just finished reading Amy M. Clark’s Stray Home, when I am still finding my way around our new home. Just the other day, I found a box of stuff I had not yet unpacked. When I opened the box up, I had no idea why I even kept some of the junk inside. *Sigh*
Now on to my review: I have a love/hate relationship with poetic form. I love reading poets’ works when they excel at form, especially the sonnet and the sestina. Once, I even had a student who wrote a funny sonnet about his landlord. I, however, struggle with form, and the only form poem I have ever written (and been happy with…) is the pantoum.
So, I was delighted to come across Stray Home, Amy M. Clark’s first book of poetry and the winner of the 2009 Vassar Miller Prize in Poetry. Maura Stanton, in her backcover blurb, states that “Clark doesn’t hesitate to look at ‘the treasury of muck’ between the stove and the cupboard or uncover the uneasy feeling you have when someone hands you a new baby or you feed your dog a biscuit when you know she’s scheduled to die in the morning.” And certainly, there is a darkness in Clark’s work, that blackness that is found in so many everyday life events and scenes. For instance, in “Daughter for My Prayer” the speaker cheers on a daughter saying “I spot my daughter on the stage and blush/with love. She is my own scrub weed among/other curious shoots.” However, at the end of the poem we learn the truth about what turned out to be an imagined scene: “Unwind this song I’ve sung/I have no daughter. She could be anyone.”
However, what I was most impressed with was the way that Clark plays with form. Many of her poems are sonnets, and my favorite work titled “First Thing This Morning” is one where the persona examines her kitchen in the morning. What does she find? While cleaning the floor she states, “I can see clear into that awful half-inch slot/between the stove and the cupboard, a treasury/of muck. I sit. All these years/together, we haven’t been cleaning. Merely/rearranging.”
The title poem, “Stray Home” is found in the center of the collection and is composed of several smaller sonnets, most exploring the speaker’s relationship with the women in her family and with womanhood in general, especially with the body. For instance, in one of the poetic sequences, the speaker explains that as a child she “lay face down/on my bed, scissoring my thighs like angel wings/calling ‘Mom! Try this. It feels so good”/She singed me to the core: ‘Don’t do that/anymore. I didn’t. For a good long time.” In another part, the speaker compares her body with the bodies of her mother’s and grandmother’s, saying “We were three candle boats — my grandmother/mother, and me — moored, we bobbed together.”
Another favorite poem is not a sonnet, but has a form all of its own. In “Dumb” the persona retells a childhood incident in rhyme: “But the babysitter said, ‘Lick/the porch railing.’ We watched her flick/an ash onto the snow, air thick//with her mouth’s steam. Sugary frost/laced the black rail. My brother crossed/his arms. ‘Girls first,” he said. I lost//right from wrong. I put my tongue/on the ice-hot iron/Tears stung/my eyelids.” Certainly, the rhythm may sound like a light nursery rhyme, but the theme and underlying message is anything but.
Make no mistake — this collection is not a work of pure form. Several poems, including “Looking for Z–” and “How to Be the Lady of the House.” (In fact, another poem, “The Grizzly Bear in February” somehow reminds me of Suzanne Vega’s song, “Tom’s Diner” ) follow a more prose poem form. Still, because of common themes that hold this collection together, these more “prosey” poems never seem to be out of place.
Stray Home is a great read. The poetic form found in its pages never feels forced or full of clichés. Whether you are a fan of formal verse or just like to “dabble”, Stray Home is a collection to pick up this summer.