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 01-20-2014
 

 
Chloe Honum
 
June in Arkansas

I gaze at moths, spiders, and horned beetles
     and recall pieces of my dreams: his voice here,
his hand there. Later, I sweep the porch.
     Rivulets of sweat run down my throat and chest.
Who am I shining for? Phantom rain comes first,
     then real rain pours. Every day I weep.
Light returns: a silver haze, chaperoned by crows.
     I read for hours, sleep and wake; a string
of ants ties itself around my wrist. I wait
     to feel in my heart the moment when day turns
toward night, and the trees become like children
     walking home, asleep on their feet.

 

Dressing Room

At the hospital morgue, I put on purple gloves, which made my hands look like fish beneath the surface of a pond. A man unzipped the bag so I could see my friend's face.

The dancers change into costume, stretch. A curling iron heats up on a table. Pairs of false eyelashes wait in their plastic kits. Around the edge of the mirror, a few light bulbs are always out, like the dim regions on a map.

It is natural to look for yourself first in a picture. To reassure yourself that you are there. The morgue was small and cold. The chemical smell made it suddenly hard to breathe. You won't, the ballet master said, when I asked what to do if I forgot.

Bright Death

I knew that it was true.
The sound of light falling.

The gray sky pinning
a single planet in its hair.

Days later, I lay in the grass
and woke to dusk, a moth

writing erasing writing
in quick, looping cursive.

A tattered scrap of a thing.
My voice. Its see-through wings.

 

                      -from The Tulip-Flame

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Poems - Bio - Essay - Review - Interviews

Chloe Honum was born in Santa Monica, California, and was raised in Auckland, New Zealand. Her writing has appeared in The Missouri Review, Orion, The Paris Review, Poetry, and The Southern Review, among other journals. Her first collection of poems, The Tulip-Flame, was selected by Tracy K. Smith as winner of the 2013 Cleveland State University Poetry Center First Book Prize. She is the recipient of a Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, as well as residency fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Kerouac House of Orlando, and Djerassi. She holds a B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College and an M.F.A. from the University of Arkansas. Chloe currently lives and writes in Lenox, Massachusetts. 

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Poems - Bio - Essay - Review - Interviews

 

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Click here read an essay by Chloe Honum about her poetry at Poetry Society of America

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Poems - Bio - Essay - Review - Interviews

A Review of Chloe Honum's The Tulip-Flame by Casey Thayer, first published by The Rumpus

Chloe Honum’s debut collection The Tulip-Flame, winner of the 2013 Cleveland State University Poetry Center First Book Prize, is a tight, finely wrought elegy focusing on the death of the speaker’s mother. But perhaps, this is too reductive a tagline. Although this central grief organizes the collection, Honum explores, on a deeper level, the way our interests—in this collection, ballet—allow us to process life’s changes. Numbering only 55 pages, the book pulls no punches, diving immediately into the tension that weaves to some degree through all the poems that follow. The book opens with the short sentence, “Mother tried to take her life,” a line illustrating the directness that marks much of the language in the collection (“Spring”).

It’s a shocking opening line that in lesser hands could pander to lurid curiosity. However, Honum is aware of this risk and mitigates it by developing the rest of the poem around descriptions of thawing icicles, windfall from the trees, and browning fruits, moving away from the mother to declare that “all that falls is caught” except for that “which has no pace to speak of” (“Spring”). Throughout the collection, she uses such description to balance plainspoken, direct statement, and her deftness in creating memorable, stark imagery is one of the book’s strongest elements. Consider the opening lines of “Dress Rehearsal” where branches “etch the film of ice / on the studio window” or “The Last of the Ballerina I Was,” which ends with a bird:

whose sudden
ascension
strands its
shadow
on the shore.

Honum also has a talent for the well-chosen simile. At the morgue, the speaker pulls on purple gloves, transforming her hands into “fish beneath the surface of a pond” (“Dressing Room”). The trees in “June in Arkansas” become “like children / walking home, asleep on their feet.” In “Visiting Hours,” love is compared to a knife “held against her [mother’s] throat.”

Most poems in the first two sections struggle with the tension that ends “Visiting Hours.” The speaker attempts to find love and understanding for her mother, who hollowly promises, after an apparent suicide attempt, that “she was happy she hadn’t died” (“Visiting Hours). In “Thirteen,” the speaker realizes that the mother “wanted to move away / from us, I knew, / and I’d have let her,” but she can’t bring herself to let her mother go. In “Alone with Mother,” the two sit in a car, “the keys a silver / starfish in her lap, silence // a kind of love between us.”

Despite the speaker’s failed attempts to hold onto her mother, there is reason to hope. In “Leaving the Hospital,” the nurses even say that the “mother…would be all right and could / come home tomorrow.” But this hope dissolves in the title poem, the emotional and literal center of the book. Buried in the middle of “The Tulip-Flame,” the speaker admits, “Last year our mother died, as was her plan.” The rest of the collection attempts to process this loss, coupling it with the dissolution of a romantic relationship and the death of a friend, and with ballet.

Ballet becomes the speaker’s main vehicle in the collection for processing change. It reflects her confusion over her coming-of-age, her discomfort with motherhood, and her nostalgia for earlier, seemingly simpler periods of her life. Ultimately, it functions as a coping mechanism, helping the speaker process her mother’s illness. Pulling a triple pirouette feels “like disappearing” (“Ballerina at Dawn”), the stage allows her “to shape a single story, and in “Danse des Petits Cygnes,” ballet brings home the inevitability of death:

Rehearsals ran late.
Night swayed on its green stem

and I couldn’t comprehend
we’d ever be clipped from it.

Even the style and structure of the book bring to mind ballet: poems are poised and consciously composed; the book reads light and quick—none of the poems exceed one page—but it leaves readers feeling weighted down and deeply touched by loss. This brevity and restraint allows Honum to explore her subjects while avoiding the tropes and clichés common in book-length elegies. While the poems might have benefited from more sound work (as the lines that use repetition and rhyme are some of the book’s most exciting, unexpected, and imaginative), the directness of Honum’s style serves to disarm readers and focus us more squarely on her use of image and simile.

Since most poems invoke a rain-soaked environment, share a handful of common images (birds and branches are two favorites), and revolve around the central narrative, the collection achieves a coherence and impact often missing in first books. In a debut, one expects to encounter (and forgive) missteps, an insecurity in vision, or a lack of totality or uniform polish. Readers will find none of that in this collection. The consistent clarity and strength of Honum’s writing is striking and frankly, impressive. She writes with the confidence and assuredness of a poet who has multiple books to her credit. This is a collection to read and cherish, but it also stands as a harbinger of Honum’s potential, an indication that this is only the first of what will be many more triumphs.

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Poems - Bio - Essay - Review - Interviews

An Interview with Chloe Honum by Christopher Linforth, first published at Blurbed

Christopher Linforth: Congratulations of the publication of your first book of poems. The Tulip-Flame has been getting luminous reviews. Tell us about the collection, its origins and development.

Chloe Honum: Thanks so much. The poems in The Tulip-Flame were written between 2006 and 2013. Early on, three central subject matters emerged: ballet, my mother’s suicide, and failed love. I allowed myself to follow my obsessions. In drawing upon personal experience, I heeded Yusef Komunyakaa’s advice: “Don’t write what you know. Write what you are willing to discover.”

CL: When did you start becoming interested in poetry? What sorts of books were in your house when you were growing up?

CH: Books played an important role in my childhood home. My mother, my sister, and I all read voraciously. My mother loved Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf, and Norman Rush. My tastes were not so refined. I read The Baby-sitters Club books by the truckload. The important thing was that I learned early that I could turn to books.

When I was sixteen, my favorite uncle gave me The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson. I was immediately rapt.

CL: Who would you cite as your influences?

CH: There are so many. Sometimes a single poem will have a deep effect on my writing. The following poets have been very important to me: Emily Dickinson, Franz Wright, Lucille Clifton, Louise Glück, Sylvia Plath, Henri Cole.

CL: Who are the contemporary poets we should be looking out for?

CH: I love the work of Richie Hoffman, Corrie Williamson, Lisa Fay Coutley, and Malachi Black, all of whom have first books coming out soon.

CL: Can you lead us through the steps of your writing process?

CH: It varies from poem to poem, but I’ll share a couple of things that changed my writing. The first is that I started free writing. When I sit down to write poetry, the first thing I do is fill at least three notebook pages with whatever comes. This practice is not about trying to write anything “good.” In fact, a lot of it is incoherent. I free write as a way to clear the lint from my head. Get the dusty words out. Start fresh. Now and again, though, I’ll touch on a line or an image that will eventually make its way into a poem.

The second thing is that I started experimenting with my writing schedule. I go through phases in which I wake at 3:00 or 4:00am, write for a few hours, and go back to bed. There’s something special about the space between sleep and wakefulness. I find the dark and the quiet—the sleep on either side of the work—very helpful.

 

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Click here read an interview with Chloe Honum at The Toronto Quarterly

 Poems - Bio - Essay - Review - Interviews

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