THE TULIP-FLAME, by Chloe Honum, is the well-deserved winner of the 2013 Cleveland State University Poetry Center First Book Prize.
The poems in this collection stay open to multiple levels of interpretation and meaning, while nonetheless being clear and bright, and without a hint of deliberate obfuscation. Dance, the love of nature, the ability to see deeply, and image and language at her fingertips, seem to be what has saved the author despite repeated loss.
From the first poem, Spring, which begins, “Mother tried to take her life,” Honum announces her theme of loss without a trace of self-pity. And without dwelling on this overtly, she shifts to images of spring, ordinarily associated with renewal and hope. But lest we be lulled, comes this line – “All that falls is caught,” followed by a breathtaking image and notion –“ unless/ it doesn’t stop, like moonlight/ which has no pace to speak of . . . .”
As these lines reveal, Honum has a unique way of thinking about nature. While she practices grand jetes in Ballerina in Winter, “[s]ometimes the sky is violet above a jury of/birds.” Doesn’t that image ring true? Picture citizens seated in a jury box.
In that poem and several others in the book, Honum effectively uses the prose poem form, as if some lines are simply too fragile to break at any point. In Visiting Hours, her mother is hospitalized and promises Honum she wants to live. While “[b]irds flew like white scarves in the wind,” the author’s love ”was a knife against her [mother’s] throat.” Honum juxtaposes the scarf image with the knife. Scarves – the wool or silk we wrap around our necks, our throats, to warm or adorn ourselves.
Is it her mother the author sees in another prose poem, The Seated Dancer in Profile, a painting by Degas? Unreachable, unable, unwilling to be held. “To love her is to accept that she will never turn around.” After all, she writes “silence/ a kind of love between us.” (Alone with Mother).
Honum suffers other losses. Fever is extraordinary in its power to depict the end of a love affair. And what an ending for the poem: “Blinking through sweat, I imagine you’ve just left and will come/ back for me soon, a bouquet of ice in your arms.”
December, another prose poem, begins “I have learned that shock is a kind of mercy. I stayed/ there a long time.” Does anyone doubt that she has earned that opening wisdom line? It is out of character for Honum to give two lines to her pain before switching, yet very effective. But switch she does, to the seemingly mundane, describing preschool children bringing her “[a] pebble, a small piece of bark, a dirty feather.” Honum trusts us to sense the children gave these as gifts to cheer her, offerings at the altar of her grief.
Ten years have passed since Honum’s mother has died, in Crossing the Three-Rope Bridge, “and not/ Like that.” Can you hear the finger-snap? Remembering when she slipped, crossing this bridge while her mother watched – hardly accidental – Honum writes, “The world forgave your attempts, but I held out.” Not one to linger, she returns to the passage of time – “The birds start up again. It’s been forever.”
And in Dressing Room, Honum blends the experience of seeing her friend’s body in the morgue and readying for a ballet performance. In the space of two lines, she moves from the small, cold morgue to “You won’t, the/ ballet master said, when I asked what to do if I forgot.”
Not just her friend, not just her lover, not just her mother – Honum remembers them all in moving language that resonates with care and beauty. And we should not forget Honum. Surely she has many more books, beyond this prize-winning first, within her.