Then Winter by Chloe Honum
(Bull City Press, 2017)
Review by Barbara Bailey
Chloe Honum was raised in Auckland, New Zealand. She is the author of numerous poetry collections and is the recipient of many awards.
Tracy K. Smith selected her book, The Tulip- Flame (which I’d previously reviewed for NZ Poetry Society in 2016), for the 2013 Cleveland State University Poetry Centre’s First Book Prize.
Honum’s work has appeared in The Paris Review, Poetry, The Volta, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of a Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation and a Pushcart Prize.
Chloe holds a B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College, an M.F.A. from the University of Arkansas, and a Ph.D. from Texas Tech University. She is currently an Assistant Professor of English in Creative Writing at Baylor University.
Chloe Honum’s Then Winter is a chapbook containing work from her entry in the 2016 Frost Place Chapbook Competition.
The collection is small, as is traditional with chapbooks, and focuses on a specific theme, another chapbook characteristic.
Each perfect poem in Then Winter is steeped in sadness and images etched within are crystal-clear. Then Winter traces the poet’s experiences in an outpatient programme of a psychiatric treatment facility. Faced with losing herself in the silence, Honum turns to the natural world observed through the facility’s windows. The everyday things she sees mirror her experiences, and inspire.
The prose poem “Blossoms in the Psychiatric Ward” (p.15), describes a group counselling session.
Turning from the group participants, Honum observes:
Beyond the window, there’s a
pause in the rain. Something shimmering and
begins to turn
This poem has quiet moments, and a jarring contrast to “Late Afternoon in the Psychiatric Ward”, (p.11), where a fly becomes a metaphor for the speaker’s deteriorating mental state.
Now a fly throws itself
down on the formica table
and buzzes and spins
on its back, quickening
the poison. It resembles
a word scribbled out.
Won’t do, won’t do.
With grief and loss as its central theme in Honum’s previous poetry collection, The Tulip Tree, similar tensions weave through this new collection.
It seems that the time spent in a psychiatric unit is a result of earlier tragedies.
In Then Winter, direct statements are balanced with descriptions of commonplace things.
In “April in the Berkshires” (p.5), she writes, ‘I sob / and the wardrobe steps forward, / like a coffin- mother/ at the back door, a coyote cross my vision on a wave of snow.’
In this poem, Honum introduces a figure, perhaps a lover, to whom she reaches out throughout the chapbook: ‘you slid up behind me.’ This character becomes a motif and links the poet’s voice to a safer world, later on the outside world.
This collection is a portrait of a place and time, with recurring characters and stories that shed light into dark corners. Honum’s character portraits are beautifully drawn. There is, for example, the Vietnam veteran: ‘His torso is hard like an old-fashioned suitcase / The psychiatrist has a face like / an old dictionary’.
There are blocks of prose throughout this book providing a contrast to formal poem formats. The prose triggers an empathy with the writer’s situation.
Knowing Honum was raised in Glenfield, Auckland, I find her poem “Kiwi” particularly moving, springing from this cold environment with its ‘fluorescent lights / smells of sweat and medicine / day patients / overnighters / dead flies’.
The fluorescent light in the group therapy room is vetting
me some terrible migration. I ask the counsellor to turn
it off. My native bird is flightless. It’s a cousin to the moa: a
brown hut of a bird. The boy with the twisted body is talking
and dabbing sweat from his brow with a handkerchief. The
lights go off, and suddenly it’s late afternoon and cloudy. The
Vietnam vet says his violent father was the fire chief, and
that’s why no one believed his mother. He shakes his head
and blinks. My native bird is nocturnal. Though it has lived
fifty million years, it and the sky have reached an agreement.
This bittersweet collection is haunting, and contained within are poems to cherish.