In Doe Parker’s The Good House & The Bad House, the reader enters a dreamlike past via the memory of a childhood home. Parker depicts a cohesive world that, while dreamlike, presents the vivid reality of his childhood. These poems tap the elusive nature of memory in order to locate the self in the geography of the past.
As if the book is a single poem that acts as the recreated house, it has no page numbers, nor is it composed of a series of titled poems. The traditional markers of page numbers and poem titles are abandoned, and the effect is one of intentional dislocation. Additionally, interspersed throughout the book are floor plan sketches of the different rooms; it’s as if we are literally moving through the house itself. These floor plans only indicate objects: furniture, windows, tiles, wallpaper, but they include small hand-written details like the “purple & white tapestry mom wove of a hand holding a match.” The absence of people in the drawings creates the sensation of looking back in time, yet we are aware that the house is, and was, lived in. It is humanized by “dusty lipstick containers” and “a bookshelf full of yarn.” These maps underscore the narrator’s need to locate the self in the past. They also convey how hard it is to retrieve memory; it’s “like the animal in the corner of the claw crane game that [they] can’t get [their] hand around.”
Like a dream, the physical elements of the house are often shifting and uncertain; Parker writes that “underneath the windows in mom & dad’s room there’s a gap from the house sliding off the foundation.” The amorphous quality of the house emphasizes the difficulty in pinning down the past, and yet these poems are compelled by an urgent need to do so. The past self is found among, and literally made from, the physical elements of the house:
there’s a flower pot over my elbow. my eyes
are grey televisions, mouth is a bathtub, my spine
is drywell. my head is a mixing bowl glued to my torso —
a stove. my feet are couches, hands are pillows,
my hair is spaghetti. i have wallpaper glued
to my arms
i’m making my whole trans body
perpendicular to /
The house represents the landscape of the past self and is thus implicated in the containment, or restriction, of the child. Parker writes that “the house is frozen over & i wish it could be made / all into water.” In some way, the physical memory of the house must be reclaimed in order to free the body in memory.
With a time-capsule feel, Parker captures the limbo state of seeing the past from the vantage of the present; era-specific details (VHS tapes, a kiddie pool with a foot-long slide, learning cursive) exacerbate the sense of stagnation. Often the narrator is two selves: the self in the past being watched by the self revisiting the house via memory:
i’m looking at a window of the house from
the sidewalk & past-myself is sitting on the window
ledge outside of the house with their legs parallel to
the front of the house.
The narrator is both “inside the house & outside the house at the same time” and understands that “safety ≠ containment.”
Just as duality is present in the selves from different time periods, the duality of the house is also central to the idea of memory As indicated by the title, the house is split in two. The narrator identifies “the bad house, / there’s a door to it under a wooden bench” and later states: “i make this the good house.” In the fluid space of the past, the narrator retrieves memories and reshapes them. This haunting sense of doubleness also works to create a kind of agency on the part of the observing narrator. The narrator wants to use the body itself to free them from the bad house:
i want to cut my hand
and throw it outside
the property line so
it can pull me out of this wooden water
The body provides a means of separating, even rescuing, the narrator from a past where they are controlled. Hair, clothing, and naming are all used to control the child. The past-self has long hair and “wasn’t allowed to cut [their] hair.” ; and later, “[their] birth name is said so many times: [they’re] gone / from [their] body...” The narrator reveals the painful failure to please the mother by offering the mother a knitted child to replace the real self:
i will build you a good christian daughter out of yarn. i’ll wear great-grandma’s
dresses, i’ll love ruffles & silverware.....i will leave this yarn-daughter in my bed,
we do not cry in the house,
we serve the lord
Chillingly, the ideal child does not even feel.
From the house and its objects, to the body itself, the identity of things is not static, but exists in a process of being made. There is a recurring theme of assemblage throughout the poems. Both things and people are constructed and taken apart. The narrator loses their tooth “& stick[s] it back into the hole in [their] gum but [..] swallow[s] it.” The narrator picks at a scab on their knee and says “the scab starts to lift with my fingers.” In a dream, “babies are being assembled & [the narrator] look[s] at a bucket of body parts.” Things are depicted in the act of being made: the father shaves a block of wood, the grandma “teaches [the narrator] how to knit.” The knitting motif is literally equated with the knitting of a separate self.
Parker reveals that nothing is fixed in its nature. Not the physical component, not the self, not memory. Everything must be looked at closely. Everything must be broken apart and remade. The act of returning via memory is compelled by this very need to look closely at things.
Parker’s collection captures the complex nature of childhood. The relationships with the mother and father serve as markers for the self because, essentially, a house is characterized by those who inhabit it. The past self is continually controlled by the mother. When the mother, Parker writes, “found out i liked a girl i had to clean the house for hours” and “i asked mom ‘how can you tell if you’re gay’ & she said, ‘don’t worry, you’re not.’” Later, the present self looks poignantly at the dad through their bedroom window with the desire to be seen:
i go through the window & sit with him in memory. i touch
his arm but he can’t feel it. i sit with him & he can’t see me
& i want him to. i leave the room.
The poems are driven by the desire to liberate the past self, and this in part, means that the self in the past must be seen as they truly are. The poems end the geographic isolation of memories and links them to the present.
Ultimately, the act of seeing–even in memory–is an act of love and at the end of the book, this acceptance extends to the self:
...me & my past-myself
holding hands over
the thresholds of ‘
two facing houses.
you like how i look & i like how
brave you are. i hold you until
we’re one person,
Parker’s poems enact the complicated way that memory simultaneously restricts and gives us our existence. This is a stunning debut.
Jessica Cuello is the author of Hunt, a retelling of Moby Dick through the feminine & animal viewpoint, and Pricking. She was awarded The 2017 CNY Book Award (for Pricking), The 2016 Washington Prize (for Hunt), The New Letters Poetry Prize, and most recently, The New Ohio Review Poetry Prize. Her newest poems are forthcoming in Cave Wall, Pleiades, Crab Creek Review, and Barrow Street.