In her debut collection, Chloe Honum takes the popular theme of springtime and rebirth, and turns it on its head. Or rather, she digs deeper. Rebirth is only possible—only has meaning and significance—because of the reality of death.
Every year my sister and I
sifted through the clutter
of early spring,
of what the warm earth
coughed up: fresh death,
She describes the time between seasons when, in order to make room for new growth, last year’s dead is brought to the surface. Having been preserved by the frozen ground, the brown leaves and insect exoskeletons are “coughed up” with the approach of warmer weather. Thus, while spring is a time of new life, it is also a time of “fresh death.” This comparison is set against the more specific theme of the sickness and eventual death of the poet’s mother.
The first poem, “Spring,” begins: Mother tried to take her life. / The icicles thawed. Many of the poems explore this unusual juxtaposition, in the poet’s attempt at reconciliation with her mother’s eventual success. As the mother recovers from her initial suicide attempt, the mother-daughter relationship undergoes a revolution. The poet becomes caretaker, worrier—mother. Sitting on the edge of her hospital bed, she says, I spoke in whispers yet my voice had never been so loud. Because I asked her to, she said she wanted to live.
The role of nurturing, life-giving mother has been abandoned and is taken up by the daughter. Yet it is not welcomed by her patient, and therein lies the tension: My love was a knife against her throat. Sadly, ironically, the poet realizes that her concern and need for her mother are more threat than inspiration for her mother to go on living.
In “Dress Rehearsal,” she describes dancing in a ballet studio.
Branches etch the film of ice
on the studio window. A crow looks in,
hopping and shrieking when I dance
in my black tutu trimmed with silver.
The ballet master says, You are its mother.
This recalls Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight,” in which the speaker describes sitting alone, save that at my side / my cradled infant slumbers peacefully. As he sits in quietude, he observes “the secret ministry of frost” as it creeps over all things exposed. Coleridge and Honum describe similar situations, therefore, but for the fact that Coleridge’s speaker has an actual child while Honum’s speaker, at this point still a child herself, is identified as the “mother” of a crow. This unnatural relationship, similar to the poet’s role reversal with her mother, is both unwanted and unwonted.
Coleridge’s poem is a benediction of sorts, with the speaker addressing his son: Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee. But for Honum’s speaker, the “blackest / cold-wet air” of midwinter is foreboding. No season can be sweet to her because she cannot escape the pain of abandonment.
Throughout the collection, Honum skilfully employs imagery and symbolism to convey the sense of being untethered:
All that falls is caught. Unless
it doesn’t stop, like moonlight,
which has no pace to speak of,
falling through the cedar limbs,
falling through the rock.
With no mother to guide her—indeed, with that mother the very source of her pain—she is in a free-fall of grief. In one poem, she describes how a large moth collided / with my throat and shuddered / there, as if attached to me, / trapped in a wheel of air. The image of the moth, which appears elsewhere, is especially powerful because of the moth’s obvious disorientation: Presumably attracted by the light on the porch where the speaker is standing, the moth becomes “trapped” and flutters around in circles. Yet why are moths attracted to artificial light? Some scientists believe that moths are typically guided by the light of the moon, and in the absence of moonlight, or in the presence of a more distracting light, moths can be misled, often at the risk of being burned.