A review of The Lantern Room by Chloe Honum

Reviewed by Lisa Low

The Lantern Room
by Chloe Honum
Tupelo Press
ISBN: 978-1-946482-62-4, Jan 2022, Paperback, 60pp

It would be foolish to start this review by saying these are the most beautiful poems I have ever read, but they are beautiful. From the first infinitely delicate poem where on the eve of turning thirteen, in a revelatory Paul of Tarsus moment, Honum discovers an angel of poetry whose ancient “mottled language” she will now speak, through all the book’s poems that look closely at and identify with small creatures, including butterflies, luna moths, hornets, sparrows, spiders, and sorrows, these are beautiful poems.

Like a triptych, the book is divided into three sections. The first and last sections are shorter and focus largely on sadnesses emerging from family life (fights with her sister; her mother’s addiction and early death) and a persistent grief over lost love, told through nights lived in motels where the rain pounds on the trees and bugs mill around, these are beautiful, melancholy, hopeful poems anchored within specific, usually quotidian, settings. Indeed, settings are a key to these poems, as she identifies in “Note Home,” a letter-poem written from a psychiatric ward to her mother: “Mother, you have never seen such snow, such insistence on setting.”

Reading the Table of Contents alone shows how many of these poems are defined by their settings. Wordsworth wrote “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour, July 13, 1798.”  Honum’s poems are similarly titled, naming a location specifically in connection with composing a poem.  Honum’s locations are more humble, mostly motels, but they include poems written in motels, dollar stores, gas stations, psychiatric wards, and juvenile detention centers; her location poems variously titled from Fayetteville, Arkansas;  Blytheville, Arkansas; Magnolia, Arkansas; Crossett, Arkansas; Barstow, California; and Auckland, New Zealand.  Honum is more on the move than a touring rock star; each poem, especially in section three, seems to bring a new motel into view where she is staying overnight on a cross-America road trip, each motel described in “lush” details with its concrete steps and walks; faded carpets and dusty curtains. From the beds in these motels, she writes life as she sees it from the window, watching the rain fall through the trees, grieving a lost love or the death of her beloved mother, as all variety of bugs crawl up the wall and through the sticky webs of her dreams. 

Honum’s eye is exacting, her touch painterly: the luna moth is “pale green” with “long tails” of “hindwings”; it has “fine veins / and maroon margins / on…broad front wings.”  Clouds swing low, “tasseled” with blackbirds. She emulates moonlight with her fingers, “resting on a field of violets.” She has “rain in her hair” and says “let me bring it to you.” Like a true, gifted poet, she has ingenious perceptions, such as that the waterfall is “a thicker column of sky.” Such perceptions sprinkled seemingly casually throughout as if they were common salt make her a prize winner, I suspect. (She has won the Cleveland State University Poetry Center First Book Prize and was named a finalist for the PEN Center USA Literary Award).

Honum is a feminist, too. In “Read More About Our History” she criticizes New Zealand’s St. Mary’s Home (and similar homes) for unwed mothers, run by the Anglican Church, that in proud published literature describes its history in data-like terms (“twelve cows on average were milked”) but says nothing about the babies it took from unwed mothers immediately after birth. To characterize the depth of the girl mothers’ grief at losing their babies, Honum describes one young unwed mother, stripped of her child, as carrying the family cat in her arms for weeks after the birth. Such suffering, Honum tells us, was caused by a supposedly compassionate institution that remains to this day oblivious to its history of cruelty.

Honum also suffers from a great sadness. As many poems narrate, she has had a boy leave her and she has sobbed over it, a sobbing that begins in the book’s first poems and continues into the last poems, despite the suggestion that it has been eight years since the boy left her. (Why do these brilliant women—one thinks of Mary Wollstonecraft—have such painful, suicide-producing love affairs?). The affair with the boy may be one that ended eight years earlier, for lying in her bed in her motel room in the book’s third section, thinking of him again, the rain picks up “exactly where it left off eight years ago one August morning” and while she is pumping gas at a gas station, she asks why of all voices his keeps coming to her: “who was he that even now / his silence gives the note I tune my voice to?”

The entirety of section two, “The Common Room,” is devoted to describing Honum’s experience as an out-patient in a psychiatric ward in the New England hills hospital, and one is hard pressed not to be reminded of Plath. (Though this poetry, although melancholy, is not as fixated on death). Most of the poems take place in the Common Room where patients gather, socialize, and are guided by counselors toward healing. A few characters are developed in this section: an injured boy who smokes and who walks with a cane; a man from Viet Nam who becomes Honum’s friend. Outside the hospital when the patients stand around talking, the world is colorless: “the sky, the snow, and smoke pass [as if it were a shared cigarette] grey, silver, and white around in a circle.” When they head back inside after their momentary outdoor reprieve, they climb back up the stairs “as if venturing into the attics of our lives.” “Attics” suggests the loneliness of incarceration and the isolation of the mentally ill, both physically and mentally. She does not even have to look up to know that inside the fluorescent lamps on the top floor, where the most serious cases of mental illness are, “dead flies [lie] on their backs, their wings at crisp diagonals.”

The delicacy of Honum’s vision includes constant careful description of grief and fear of death. Honum has family trouble, which emerges throughout the poems. Her mother is addicted to pills and leaves her a note after her death that reads: “Life is hard, not / unbeatable; if I can make it, darlings, so can you. 2 AM.” (but she didn’t make it); and in a group session Honum says that once she has identified everyone in the room as a family member, she can breathe because “Now that I see a family . . . I have something to tear down.” But she loves her mother. From a Motel 6 in Arkansas, Honum writes that a question endures yet another year “lit by tiny stars / striking out across Arkansas. How will I live without her?”; and back in Auckland in 2019, twenty-one years after her mother’s death, she is still asking the same question “why did you have to go” like a bee “working up and down / an ivy-covered brick wall, /as if trying to lift it.”

In part because she has a sense of the integrity of herself as a poet, Honum doesn’t want to participate in the psychiatric ward counselor’s cheesy therapy ideas. He asks the patients to name the happiest thing they can think of; to cut a picture out of a magazine to explain how they feel. On some level, as a poet, Honum feels above it all, but at the same time, she is so cast down, so like a shed that has fallen apart from the inside, that she recognizes that she, too, like the other patients, might choose the picture of the daisy (a cliché) to describe her feelings and that she might choose the lighthouse to “shakily” cut up the “side of the tower” with her scissors, “and around the lantern room.” (The book’s title is also The Lantern Room. I take the “lantern room” to be the radiant, searching, isolated mind from which the well-lit world is clearly seen, despite the dark, by this poet.) These everyday simple acts of participation in life that are meant to calm the patients seem patronizing to Honum, but at the same time she recognizes such simple things may be the very baby steps she needs to climb out of her grief.

In a long (short) humorous paratactic poem called “What I’m Working On Now,” Honum runs through an eschatology of possible titles of poems, most of which reference an experience already described in the “Common Room” section of the book. Taken as a whole, the poem titles offer a kind of cryptic index of lost feelings and experiences, some happy, most sad, that she has passed through in the psychiatric ward. Each title could be the title of another poem that doesn’t make it into the book that she has probably already written and erased. (In an earlier poem Honum describes her ars poetica, as writing poems and erasing them at the same time: “I write life, safe clearing, river, / erase it, then write it again / until it slips like a leaf into morning.”  In such quick iteration and erasure, Honum imitates the brevity and meaninglessness of life and writing; how each experienced moment and each written poem fizzles for a second and is gone, its brief life evaporating quick as a drop of fat flicked sizzling in a hot frying pan.

In the book’s third section, “Self Portrait with Praying Mantis,” Honum returns to the peripatetic theme of the first section, traveling from place to place (unlike in the middle section which all takes place in the psychiatric ward) and recording what she sees and experiences there. In the first poem, “America’s Best Value Inn,” another ars poetica, she questions the value of her poetry saying, “maybe sense is not a place / I want to linger,” for as she follows the “concrete walkway” to the ice machine, “the ground in studded with old chewing gum.”  At the end of the poem, in a seeming reference to Emily Dickinson’s “This is my letter to the world / that never wrote to me,” Honum writes, “All those hot blank pages….who needs them? My phone could ring / at any moment. You could say__________. Mother silence / could appear behind me [].”

Honum is aware of the ugliness of the motels she is staying in, going up the seeming miles of concrete steps to her room in one motel until, she writes, if she were to go one floor further, she could almost have slept “in a palace of violet / and silver clouds.” But “as it was, my room / was an ugly place to miss you from, / with thin carpet and curtains / that seemed to exhale dust.” She seems to go to every discount motel America has to offer: there are poems written from a Day’s Inn; a Motel Six; America’s Best Value Inn.

Often she writes of insects, loving and admiring them for themselves; seeing in their daily mincing activities a simple heroism, but also seeing them as avatars of the human. In “Teaching Poetry at the Juvenile Detention Center in Fayetteville, Arkansas,” a flea lands on her arm and everyone, especially all the juvenile delinquent boys, watches the flea because in a prison, she writes, “hope is anything that travels in big leaps.” In “Self Portrait with Praying Mantis and Rain,” the flies declare triumph in “the wet heat of June.” And again in “Self Portrait with Praying Mantis and Rain,” a praying mantis perches on a railing contemplating a vision and then snaps her wings open and flies “in a clean arc into a wave of blue rain.” For Honum, a praying mantis “is a model of dignity”; it is stable and self-confident, knowing what it can accomplish, like a mind “that will not be sent scuttling into its past.”

Grief is a basso profundo throughout these poems, rooted in the mother’s addiction and death; in her distance from the sister; and in her loss of the one man she seems to love. One has the sense that she has to struggle, despite the beauty around her that she is obviously so keenly sensitive to (wandering bugs; pouring rain; a waterfall that is just “a thicker column of sky”), to stay alive. For example, in the psychiatric ward, she tries to avoid being sent to the top floor where the hard cases lie. But instead of ending on a dark note, each poem; and the book itself, finally ends with the prospect of endurance. In “Self Portrait with Praying Mantis and Endurance,” she quotes her ballet teacher who taught her to “extend the lines of the body,” making a beautiful form that goes beyond the self, but also stays within the reach of self. “But that was long ago,” she writes, in her closing lines, and “I am trying to stay here, among the storms, dust, and hardy plants.” 

The book ends with a pair of companion poems both beginning with the words: “Self Portrait with a Praying Mantis”; in the first of the pair, it is a self-portrait with a “Praying Mantis and Rain”; in the second, it is a self-portrait with a “Praying Mantis and Endurance.” Again these poems show that she could have stayed with the dark side, but she chooses not to. There is a tender poem in the third section about a rat which appears in the courtyard of the Auckland Art Gallery. If Honum were a darker, more depressed poet, the rat would be a symbol of the ultimate horror of the world, but Honum, despite being afraid of the rat, treats the rat kindly, mentioning a boy that stands to watch it, and saying that the rat’s eyes “are gentle, even hopeful in their way.” Still, the rat makes her shiver. When she sees its tail lying flat on the ground, it reminds her of a document with “a place to sign at the end of a long, old unreadable year.” Similarly, the praying mantis is its own ghoulish creature, a female insect that increases her productivity by biting the head off its male mate after making love.

Throughout the book, especially in the first and third sections, Honum mourns the loss of an unnamed and unexplored/undescribed lover who seems to have stopped loving her years ago. It may be that she identifies with the mantis, believing she did something wrong to harm that lover. But she also wants the strength of the mantis, a small insect that has evolved with unique features: praying mantises have 3-D eyes; they are the only insect that can turn their heads without moving their bodies; they are cannibals, and they jump with extreme precision. Identifying with the praying mantis is a deliberate act of survival for Honum, for Honum would rather be the survivor than the victim in a love affair as well as in life. As her mother tells her in her last words, “life is hard, not unbeatable.” To Honum, life has much to offer, if she has the strength and integrity, the 3-D eyes, to survive it. Life’s rich offerings are easily found, like the incense of the three kings, in the commonest places among commonest species. Sitting on a branch in the “Common Room” of the world, like her “model of integrity,” the praying mantis, she will try to stay.