“What’s New from the Lighthouse”: Review of Chloe Honum’s The Lantern Room, by Ellen Elder

In a recent article from The New Yorker (“The Key to Me,” Jan. 3 & 10, 2022), critic Parul Sehgal ruminates on our zeitgeist’s current obsession with trauma as plot:

But in deft hands the trauma plot is taken only as a beginning—with a middle and an end to be sought elsewhere. With a wider aperture, we move out of the therapeutic register and into a generational, social and political one. It becomes a portal into history and into a common language. 

That common language—where writing and reading about trauma can be meaningfully applied outside ourselves to the world’s misadventures in general—is one reason why poets are trusted with the language of grief. Yet, if most of us come from the land of health, there’s something tedious about reading poems—even superb ones—chronicling the fluorescent headaches, interminable afternoons and protective predictability of days in a psychiatric ward, part of the setting in poet Chloe Honum’s newest collection, The Lantern Room (2022). Honum’s first collection, the award-winning The Tulip-Flame (2014), was about the suicide of her mother. (A chapbook Then Winter, published in 2017, also makes up the central section of The Lantern Room.) This second full collection returns to the subject of death—but this time via healing—and Honum’s poems are again sculpted with self-possession and moral authority.

As a graduate student—new to the lyric—I once agreed with theories like Al Alvarez’s in The Savage God: A Study of Suicide and Kay Redfield Jamison’s in Touched with Fire: Manic Depression Illness and the Artistic Sentiment that artists had a propensity towards depression or madness. Colleagues staged an opposing view: perhaps people who found themselves depressed or unstable simply found solace in artistic expression. It now seems a trite argument, or perhaps, as examined in Sehgal’s article, trauma has become so ubiquitous even in art that it nearly underscores every plot—so we expect it, or have become inured to it. Honum—who was raised in New Zealand and is currently Assistant Professor at Baylor University—was 17 at the time of her mother’s death. The Tulip-Flame opens with an epigraph by no other than Sylvia Plath (“Love, love, my season”). The poems can be read in one breath, or while holding one’s breath. The poem “Alone with Mother” encapsulates in just ten lines ambivalent feelings about a distant mother’s love:

  In the car, we sat a long time,

  the keys a silver

   starfish in her lap, silence

a kind of love between us.

Honum’s speaker identifies with the need for transcendence, or transgression: “Like runaways, we were free of the house and its babble://pill bottle labels, shopping lists.”

In her newest collection, Honum’s speakers are still searching for those freedoms. The cover of The Lantern Room features repeated photographs of a lighthouse perched on a large rock, filtered through various hues. One cannot help but think of another book about a lighthouse. In Virginia Woolf’s great novel about family and loss it’s not just the beloved mother who dies at the end, but also the daughter. In The Lantern Room the reader is swept away from family into what we must often resort to as substitutes: work (here, writing); friends (here, fellow patients); spouses (here, former lovers). Honum’s poems ebb and flow between short-lined poems, uncluttered prose poems, or long-lined, interwoven couplets à la C. K. Williams, all chiseled deftly onto the page, anchored with universal images of beauty (fabrics, objets d’art, dance) and evocative images of season and nature (rain, birds, insects).

The opening poem “The Angel” harkens back to a time before the mother’s death, as if the speaker is still carrying that grief, but will carry it—however broken, however dangerous—elegantly:

Her wings were crossed at violent angles. She was naked and her

  bruises were so bright that I ran my fingers along them to check if

  the skin was broken. [...]

  [s]he speaks only to me, as if I were the translator of her ancient,

  mottled language.

Whether that language is grief, or health, or how to be healthy in a body choreographed by grief, is what buoys the reader through the collection. In the first section, “Luna Moth at Night,” the speaker mythologizes the reader as moth: “Your enemies are bats, owls,/and hornets. Mine are men/ who lunged at my life//in both fast and slow motion.” This matter-of-fact inventory is also purposeful and organic; many Honum poems reference some photosynthetic process or physical change: fertile growth, moonlight, flora and fauna in flux. Rain is a frequent character. The mood is insular, nostalgic and changeable, soothingly tender. “Did I recognize your touch or your voice?” the speaker asks in the poem “April in New England.” “I sleep with the windows open and the rain climbs into my bed//like a lover naked beneath the quilt.”

The lantern room is the name given to the topmost part of a lighthouse that harbors the “beacon” of light—it is essentially a glass cage. The beacon is created by a Fresnel lens that reflects concentrated light for up to twenty miles out to sea. If the glass breaks—which it often does—what’s important is that the lantern stays lit. Awareness of such matter-of-factness is also one of Honum’s strengths, as is her elucidation of the process of lyric craft, not unlike the processing of grief: “I wonder if writing/and erasing is one of my//creaturely instincts.”

The second section, “The Common Room,” takes its title from the room where all the patients gather for group therapy. Despite the dour setting, there are regenerative, at times humorous observations. In “Group Therapy” the speaker reads the room, choosing who stands in as the mother among them, who the son, “The ner-/vous old lady is the baby. The counselor is the meddling neighbor./Now that I see a family, I can breath.” But this safe world seems circumspect; someone, or something, is missing. A Vietnam veteran becomes a friend, and appears as a sort of partner in crime in several poems: “I knew I wasn’t going to be smart//so boy I was going to be tough,” to which the speaker thinks, “All his sentences are like that, clean as autumn.” At times when the speaker regresses—”Empty, the cup is so light it’s hard to hold”—her friend reminds her that no, she doesn’t want to be admitted as an overnight patient. Like many working through the loss of a loved one or PTSD (known in Woolf’s time as “shell shock” or, earlier still, as “railroad spine,” as Sehgal attests), it is common to yearn to retreat and undo what caused it, but that prevents one from living in the moment, so survivors constantly have one ear tuned to the past and one to the present, creating a sort of ongoing disequilibrium. Honum’s poems inhabit this liminal place: for example, from “Stairway”: “I would side with winter—if it/would free me, I would stay.” From “Lunch Break in the Day Patient Ward”: “We’ll climb the narrow stairs, as if venturing into the attics of our lives.” From “The Ward Above” (about the speaker’s dog): “I speak to her. I carry her warm, happy skull through the night.” From “Group Therapy”: “as if sleeping and waking were two sides of one pearl.”

The third and final section takes its title—”Self-Portrait with Praying Mantis”—from the collection’s closing poems. So why the praying mantis? Cannibalism and disguise aside, it’s the mantis’ exquisite form that perhaps appeals to Honum. In French folklore, the mantis is also said to point a lost child home. (In Honum’s avian ecosystem, a praying mantis wouldn’t survive long). So it’s fitting that there’s some unrest in the last section: the speaker is constantly in transit, moving through hotels in Arkansas or on a bus in Europe, regretting how she treated a lover, or arguing with her sister. The territory is still emotionally charged, and rain is as constant as a lighthouse beam. In the poem “Birthday at a Motel 6” the speaker wonders, “And my question endures another year, lit by tiny stars [...] How will I live without her?” That “her” jolts the reader—we are now metamorphosized into the fabric of Honum’s lyric; we are part of her search. If Honum uses the lyric to make things whole it is only to disassemble them again, and in this way she becomes more intimate with the language of grief, which is also that of dignity. Her elegance with language sustains the poems, and sustains the reader:

Hours turn like pages, moving a plot deeper into heat,

filled with petals and flowers and, now and then,

a praying mantis, which strikes me as a model of dignity,

with its big green stillness, like a mind that will not be sent scuttling

into the past. Extend the lines of the body, my ballet teacher

would say, but that was long ago, and I am trying to stay here among

the storms, dust, and hardy plants.

Trying to stay here, for it’s the only place to stay.

In closing, a digression—I was 20 when my mother died, two when she left. If one reads biography onto mother poems, one sees perhaps an attempt (here Honum succeeds) to make the pain of mother loss real. Mothers who abandon their children or take their own lives—essentially performing madness—are terrible, yet they are still our mothers; they are still the lighthouse to our stumbling negotiation of life’s undulations without them. Honum—once the ballet dancer—has an enviable quality of channeling heightened emotion that doesn’t feel rehearsed, and without losing dramatic appeal. You could say she unplaths Plath. For all its fragility, The Lantern Room is deceivingly anchored in health and strength. For a poetry collection published at the beginning of 2022—before the world changed (again)—it’s worth noting how we need art that aspires to health and grace while simultaneously acknowledging the common denominator of all our trauma (whether death or war). As the poet William Carlos Williams famously quipped:

      It is difficult

  to get the news from poems

             yet men die miserably every day

                                             for lack

            of what is found there.

Speaking of news and honesty (the last word of the collection), Honum’s poem “Offerings” brings us back to our forever present:

[...] With my fingers 

I will emulate moonlight resting on a field of violets. I am about as 

convincing as the child playing the sun in the school recital. But  

         I have rain in my hair. This much is true. Let me bring it to you.