“Listen, then.” Our House Was on Fire, the second collection of poems by Laura Van Prooyen, begins with a calm but firm declaration. I can appreciate the sentiment. Our days are outlined in prose, so the experience of poetry requires a revision of pacing and an increase in patience. Van Prooyen is able to maintain this duality of softness and confidence in an impressive manner. Her poems occupy sharp, absolute moments.
Our House Was on Fire is split between shorter poems focused on these single moments, and longer pieces that stretch both forward and backward in time. A consideration of her collection is best started with the former type of poem. “Migration,” the first poem of the book, creates a moment as quiet “As the moment / she held her breath to see the man who touched her / all night was not the one next to her sleeping.” The narration is tense, because much is clothed in this silent moment. The speaker thinks of the “man she met in the woods / with whom she stood knee-deep in mayapple / naming one hundred birds.” Although that man is long gone, “even within a dream, she knew / to put her plume in his hand was never to go back.”
I held my breath through many of Van Prooyen’s poems, in part because they were terse enough to carry a thought toward its exhale. “This Child” is a wonderful example of how poetry can create suspense. As often in her verse, the moment begins with a dream; this time, it is the speaker’s daughter, who dreamed of gathering knives in the kitchen:
was planning to cut
and eat me. This, she
said, is what bad people do.
The speaker is initially taken aback: “Now, how do I begin / to worry about / this?” Although they “keep / telling the other, I love you,” still “we both know / where the knives are.” This daughter returns in “Undoing Her Hair,” in which the mother thinks “back to the first fever / and spinal tap,” the daughter “curled up, delirious” as the disease arrives. Van Prooyen splits the sadness to arrive at understanding:
the body fails, the more
the girl speaks of what
the mother cannot see.
This theme of disconnect appears most often as a form of romantic longing. In “Understory,” a narrator remembers a man pointing to a “fly poised on a bloom.” The man tells her to come and look closer. Van Prooyen’s poetry is not interested in the arc of a romance, but rather something more precise and difficult to sketch: the exact moment of attraction. “I pulled in near to the curve of your shoulder, / to your pushed-up sleeves and branch-nicked / forearms, to the hush of your breath.” In “Happiness,” the speaker describes a “postman / [who] blew me a kiss while I raked the leaves.” She thinks back to an earlier flirtation, a night she drank herself asleep and woke with a “mysterious bruise.” Somehow, for her, “that was what I called happiness. Not // the bruise, but the not knowing. Anything can happen. / I like it like that.” She craves the experience of the unknown, even when the unknown causes emotional pain. She tells someone new that “I can’t quite say no. / And neither can you.” She wonders what the point of fear is when “you’re not really sure what you might lose.”
The repetition of poems about longing might wear thin, but Van Prooyen’s poems can carry the weight, and soon transition to the tension of the present. The speaker’s true love, the father of her children, is first introduced equally as someone both sensitive and enticing: “I remember thinking you / would be easy to bite and bruise.” When in another poem, “Repair,” the man is fixing a pantry door, she thinks “you never look better / than when you’re undoing someone’s mistake.”
It might be optimistic to think that great poetry can undo the mistakes of empty language and everyday cliché, but I do think Van Prooyen’s verse is the type that can reach such accomplishment. “Our Story in Snow” is one of the most gorgeous, measured love poems I have ever read. The speaker thinks that allowing her husband to sleep while she shovels the driveway “might show you I love you.” She has been thinking about how the “sharp beauty” of icicles might be “like a metaphor for the years / I did you wrong,” when she thought they would not last. She remembers how they became closest during her labor:
When my body pushed and I shattered
like a mess of stars, or a windshield, or—
I could never describe it, —you stayed
beside me, eyes shining with fear.
She thinks of those heavy but quiet moments while “in my mis-matched / long-johns with unbrushed teeth . . . clearing this blast of snow from our stairs.” If Our House Was on Fire begins in a place of longing, it ends in a place of acceptance, a space where the narrator feels fully alive. Even if she has suffered along with those she loves, she knows “the world can be broken, / yet beautiful.”
Nick Ripatrazone is a staff writer for The Millions. His most recent books of fiction are Ember Days and Good People.
Our House Was on Fire
by Laura Van Prooyen
The Ashland Poetry Press, 2015
$15.95, ISBN: 978-0-912592-79-4