Molly Spencer’s starkly lovely collection of poems, If the House, speaks from an undeniably domestic perspective, but her subjects range from the deeply personal to the global and widely felt. Poems navigate the line between memory and presence and explore many kinds of absence: stillness, silence, white space, the foreclosure of a house, the dissolution of a marriage, among others. Leafless woods, ice-crusted creeks, and snow meadows conjure a bleak winter atmosphere that echoes throughout the collection, which, in many ways, is itself like a winter, as buried under all these absences is a resilience that slowly, unquestioningly finds its way to the surface. One poem, “Even so, the first bird,” describes this way life remains relentless in the face of devastation: “Today is Wednesday. My body // adds itself again to the unfolding / room of time, / foot on the stair. This is how to go on // breaking / with the broken world—”
If the House, which won the 2019 Brittingham Prize and was published by the University of Wisconsin Press last week, is Spencer’s début collection. A second collection, Hinge, won the 2019 Crab Orchard Open Competition and is forthcoming from SIU Press in 2020. Molly’s recent poetry has appeared in Blackbird, Copper Nickel, FIELD, The Georgia Review, Gettysburg Review, New England Review, Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, and Issue 28 of Memorious. Her critical writing has appeared at Colorado Review, The Georgia Review, Kenyon Review online, and The Rumpus, where she is a senior poetry editor. Molly teaches at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.
The “Disclosure” poems, about selling a long-time house to strangers, meditates on the familiar intimacy of a home, its flaws and comforts, and at times compares the house and the body. Other poems speak to the overwhelming vastness of nature (sea and shore, winter woods, evening meadows). Could you talk about how you translate space into poetry?
I’m not sure I translate it exactly. What I think is true, though, is that I feel a deep, nearly physical, connection to certain places on the earth: a few beloved beaches, a particular dune, the hillside meadow I grew up next to, the house of my girlhood. I think this is because those physical spaces invite me into a different version of consciousness—a kind of time-out-of-time—and give me access to my own mind in ways that are important to my inner life and my poems. It’s also true that these places tug at me, cling to me, in a way that’s not always comfortable, and so some of the poems are me both honoring that attachment and trying to get free.
Although this collection seems to encompass a wide expanse of time, the book seems rooted firmly in winter and conjures frequent winter imagery: snowfalls, freezing rivers, tending fires, leafless woods, nights alone that seem unending. At times, the winter seems like a threat, a season of survival, but also entrancing. What does winter mean for this book?
Well, for one thing, winter where I live is a season when things are revealed, when things become unavoidable. What I mean is that the land and the landscape are exposed: the trees are bare and solitary; the bones of the deer that died in the ditch are no longer covered by marsh grass; you can see through the stand of trees to the lake; you can see the house across the lake that was hidden by trees all spring, summer, and fall; see how vulnerable it looks on the bald hillside. That seems important to me—the idea that, in winter (whether literal or metaphorical) you can no longer avoid seeing the true shapes of things. I suppose this metaphor breaks down once there’s enough snow to soften and obscure, but for the most part I feel like winter is the earth and our lives saying: look—this is what remains when everything lush and temporary is stripped away.
“Interior with a Woman Peeling Oranges, Snapping Beans,” which touches on the fall of Aleppo in 2016, weighs the guilt and awareness of privilege (in the form of out-of-season fruits and vegetables) with the suffering in the world. One haunting image that stuck with me was how the woman snapping beans began to imagine breaking finger bones. In contrast to the other, more localized poems, this poem seemed global in a laser-focused way. With six parts, it’s also one of the longest poems in the book. How did this poem come together?
I often have to mull over an image or trouble a scrap of language for months, sometimes years, before a poem starts to take shape, but I began writing this poem—jotting down notes, images, lines—as I stood in my kitchen making dinner and listening to NPR’s live coverage of the fall of Aleppo in December of 2016. I could hardly grasp enormity of the gap between what I was doing—snapping beans before I cooked them—while across the world bombs were splintering people’s homes and bodies. And I knew that the gap was, and is, nearly as large between my life and the life of people who live in my own community, or near it—people going hungry or without medical care; people without access to safe water; people with nowhere to live. The poem is one small attempt to reckon with injustice, and the truth is, I still don’t know how to make sense of it. In some ways, writing the poem was a selfish act: it made me feel better to write it, but it fixed—and fixes—nothing.
“If” is a frequent refrain throughout the collection: the title, If the House, which is taken from the “Disclosure” poems, and the opening poem, “If I tell you everything, maybe as the day fades,” to name a few. These ifs seem to acknowledge possibility, even though the tone implies they may never happen. What drew you to this refrain?
I think more than possibility, these poems were reaching for hypotheticals: If I tell you everything… will that change anything? If I said blue …would you remember it the way I remember it? If the house is built on the hillside… is it still a good place to try to make a life? I think for these poems, the answer to these “ifs” is usually no, or is silence; and yet, in these poems, it seems crucial to ask, to consider the hypothetical, to gesture toward an outcome that likely will not come to pass.
The series of “Conversation” poems focus on miscommunications and missed communications between a couple who never seem to sync up. Line breaks and a lack of punctuation encourage speech and thought to run together in a way that seems both seamless and broken. In “Conversation with Distance and Shaking,” however, the woman begins to voice a thought about freezing slowly to death. This moment felt liberating, like a turning point in the woman’s story. Could you talk about how you wrote these two characters?
I know some people find confessional poetry patently distasteful, but the truth is those characters are based on my life, my own marriage (which has since ended), although the conversations themselves are largely imagined. “Conversation with Distance and Shaking” is definitely a turning point for the speaker in these poems, who is not quite me, but who can speak for anyone who has felt barely visible to someone who is supposed to love them. At another level, the poem engages with facing a metaphorical death: the death of one’s spirit. It asks us to consider the times in our lives when our alive bodies are out of sync with our (to use an old-fashioned word) souls. I hope it also asks us, without quite asking, to do something about that; to change it.
I’m really most interested in reading and writing poetry that begins in lived experience, in a human body with a human mind (versus, say, poetry whose aim is to manipulate language apart from lived experience). Under this definition, so much of poetry is confessional. What are poets doing if not confessing the contents and workings of our minds and imaginations on the page?
With poem titles like “Translation,” “Litany,” the “Conversation,” “Elegy” and “Disclosure” poems (among others), language and communication are clearly central to this collection. What role does silence play in these poems?
I think there are a few different kinds of silence in these poems. Some are those lonely silences where we wish there were sound—someone not saying something we want to hear; someone whose voice is put out of range by death or other distances. And some of them are the silences that are the answer to the unanswerable questions of life: Can we really ever know another person? Why does suffering exist? How is it that I am in my kitchen snapping beans while bombs obliterate Aleppo? And then, some are the remembered silences of my girlhood and the way those silences made a place in me for poetry.
My idea about any poem or book of poems is that there is silence all around it—always vastly more silence than words. And that the poem happens when the silence is no longer tenable for the poet. It’s also true that these poems are interested in the ways language can and cannot fill silence, and how the even a failed attempt to say something—anything—has value.
Lastly, what’s next for you?
Well, I have three teenagers who’ll be fledging the nest over the next few years, so I’m pretty focused on just being present to them and cherishing the time we have left at home together (even though mothering teens is not always a cakewalk!).
I’ll be doing readings here and there with If the House, and my second collection will come out in about a year.
And one thing that’s always next for me is reading the next poem, writing the next poem. So I’ll be doing that.
Interviewer Madeline Jo Grigg is the blog editor for Memorious. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Nimrod, The Merrimack Review, Barely South Review, and others.