In two recent poetry books by southern female poets, loss of a parent becomes a vehicle for more spacious examination and inhabitation of life. Sarah Carey is a North Carolina native who grew up in Florida and established her present roots in Gainesville. Her book is published as the winner of the Concrete Wolf Poetry Chapbook Series. Jennifer Horne was raised in Arkansas before settling in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and making her home among the magnolias. She serves as Alabama’s State Poet Laureate. Both poets offer us a provocative look at inheritance, what it means, and how it lingers in objects, houses, families, and various forms of light.
Sarah Carey dedicates Accommodations to John Jesse Carey, the father whose death frames this book. Her poems are kinetic, tangible, thickened by images and textures of interior spaces, their resonant objects. Hers is “An Ordinary Life,” she insists in the first poem:
Not uprooted, not hunger-drawn,
never transplanted from my homeland,
I thrive within my native confines,
This book begins by establishing a negative that, I think, Carey undermines slowly but certainly—and I love that. We journey through places the poet has inhabited in order to meet her in the present. At the end of the book, the poet inhabits a much broader home, a freer geographic place which includes ancestry.
Memory is a conjuring, as we see in “The Handkerchief,” where an heirloom hankie serves as carrier for her father’s presence and the “pang of past tense” which allows the poet to “conjure” him. In “Personal Effects,” Carey poems the surprise of grief:
I am unprepared for what I covet:
a stack of hats, a set of stationery,
the passport expired last year,
absent a single stamp.
In “We Gather in Florida To Celebrate My Father’s Life,” Carey describes the mental rearranging and accommodating required by grief:
My father is salt and mineral, crushed bone.
We arrange to arrange to arrange.
There is this sense of motion and rearranging—the way a wren uses her body to smooth and shape the interior of a nest. In a series of poems about house renovations and remodeling, one senses the poet is writing around (and through) the hunger for roots that is part of her inheritance. In “Visualization,” a new oven imagines a “second chance,” an opportunity to see each other past the grief of father and into the “softer light” of stainless steel.
The repetition of the word “ancestors” invokes a distant past in many of these poems; the poet articulates a clear longing for connection and roots beyond the shores of US history. These specific places—Ireland, England, Germany—coalesce into “western Carolina soil,” and the haunting memories of her great uncle’s mysterious death. Family legends, too, are part of our inheritance. In “Personal Care for Consumption,” we see how ancestorship has evolved to include DNA, or how inheritance has been broadened to include what hides in the blood:
to all of us who look for whys in ancestors,
whose ways we might inherit.
I’m fascinated by the new poetics of ancestry that websites and tests have made possible for the ways in which these tests both challenge and expand our understandings of identity and kinship. Although we don’t hear DNA tests mentioned directly, I feel these poems speak into that landscape of hunger for roots, and how this hunger is sated in the present.
In the loss of her father, the poet grows kinned with death itself, the possibility, and what it asks of us in imagining our own. Carey addresses her partner tenderly in “Estate Planning,” where she notes that no estate plan includes the mysterious treasures, “the rare laugh, with its octave of wheezes.” She considers what to bequeath him:
I wish you’d take on my longing,
like a chore left incomplete when a shift
ends and a worker finally clocks out,
I gave all my want to you, and you returned it
with interest, a credit to society, a lot
in life. I’ll leave you my best guess
of usefulness, the protocols and processes
that made my job my job, my life,
my love, My Darling.
Carey’s poems conclude in a journey to visit the European lands of her ancestry, a reclamation of both roots and continuance, an inheritance one senses her father inside.
Jennifer Horne’s Borrowed Light illuminates the varying forms of light in our lives. Framed by “borrowed light,” an architectural term used to describe borrowing light from adjacent hallways for rooms without windows, the poems make use of white space to denote and connote a present absence, a beloved mother. I feel the ghost of Marina Tsvetaeva in Horne’s shifting gaze, the eye that listens intently, an absorbed devotion.
The book begins with a poem addressed to her husband Don Noble, fellow reader, writer, and communicant of hallowed porch space. In “Morning Gift,” their love appears as a shared affinity for poems, anchored in a form of looking that turns wonder into words. Horne calls him to see a heron:
“Two look at one,” you said, then
took the volume of Frost from the shelf.
You read the poem aloud,
your voice hoarsening at the final lines
(I heard, and loved you for it):
“I haven’t read that poem in fifty years.”
I couldn’t stop thinking of Donald Hall’s essay, “The Third Thing,” where he describes the tie between himself and Jane Kenyon as wrought from love of poetry, and the way in which Horne begins in this returning, this looking backwards and forwards towards a heron and a poem simultaneously. This doubled-time characterizes the motion of this book, which alternates between lineated poems and italicized prose poems that remember a mother in past tense, the light she inhabited, the light she brings to the page and gaze.
In this inherited light, we see a mother who was a poet, a creative force, and the inheritance her daughter both assumes and challenges. “Domestic Lessons,” a poem in two parts, uses the second part to repudiate lessons and demand a room of her own “before endless acquiescence / becomes a cage of your own making,” the poet admonishes:
If you say you are the pillow,
you are the pillow.
If you say you’re the sky,
you are the sky.
“Family Story” brings Eve onto the porch space to recite the story of origins, a localized version hallowed by fireflies. The porch appears again and again as a liminal space, a place where intimate truths are conveyed.
Horne’s mother returns throughout the prose poems in flowers and dresses and parties and solitudes that stand in contrast to the unitalicized texts. The borrowed light is the mother’s, and the poems reveal how she was shaped by it. For example, in “A Strand of Hair,” we see the “poet-mother, a mother in favor of imagination” interwoven in the poet’s own hair that possibly lines a bird’s nest, a way of both being seen and sown.
“Ferndale” brings her mother outside the borrowed light of the past tense, italicized poems into ordinary lineation, a story of a child trying to find her way back to her mother’s house “in the far woods.” The poet invokes her mother, promises her first dew, and drums for a moment in that house. This narrator is a lost child, seeking her mother in desperation, and it is heartbreaking.
The tension between remembering and forgetting saturates “Monument,” where Horne returns to the names “necessary for remembrance”:
The names before the names
before the names we have been given
And she asks:
for what is remembering if not a kind of letting
go, setting the mason loose with his tools and getting on
with baking the day’s bread?
Somehow, the mother is always there, in the poems, in the poeming, in her rejections of death, in the raw poem of her living.
While Carey’s poems touch a father’s recent death—the new accommodations it asks of the heart and of the daughter, Horne’s poems reach back towards a mother’s more distant death. There are differences in style and form. Carey uses couplets, tercets, and tight lineation to inhabit the stanzas vigorously. She makes sharp use of enjambments and turns. Horne’s lines are more tenuous, less substantial, inclined towards a metaphysical reverie, given to their origins in
observing light. Yet both poets are rooted in longing and tenderness. Both reach for vision and coherence, whether through light or landscapes or inherited objects, in order to continue loving the parents.
There is a defiance in this grief, in its insistence and perseverance. Horne has inherited her mother’s light while Carey inherited her father’s stories. Both are tender and attentive; both are inhabited by presence, riven by love and rapture.