Sunday Houses the Sunday House

by Elizabeth Hughey
University of Iowa Press 2007
Reviewed by David Sewell


Good Enough

hughey cover

I have no special insight into the cost-revenue ratio employed in the publishing of poetry books, whether the page count determines the cover price or whether there’s any sort of consistency in this regard throughout the industry. Is it laughable to introduce the concept of profit margins when talking about poetry books? Is that $14 price tag a phantom number, something picked blindly out of an overturned beret? Are profits being actively maximized (a necessity with such low volume?), or are publishers just barely keeping the lights on? No matter. What I really wonder is whether a poet who is publishing his/her first book is likely to be given fewer pages by the publisher or whether he/she is just likely to have at his/her disposal fewer pages of poems the publisher is willing to print under its imprimatur. I wonder because it seems that first books lately (or the ones I’ve been reading, anyway) have been slight on page counts. But more disturbing than this page-count modesty is that many of these collections, often of about 50 pages of poems, still contain what might—perhaps too harshly, perhaps perfectly fairly—be called filler.

Which, long way round, is how we arrive at Sunday Houses the Sunday House by Elizabeth Hughey, winner of the 2007 Iowa Poetry Prize. Hughey is a strong poet, but this is not an exceptionally strong book. The good poems in it are quite good. But strip out the lesser poems, which to me seem not nearly half as good as the book’s best poems, and you’re left with only 30 or so pages. Not a lot, really. But I don’t blame Hughey for this. It is more the poetry-prize process, the editor responsible for the shape of the book (am I being naïve here?), and the poetry-industrial complex that deserve the blame.

To be clearer, I think Hughey has a really good book in her, perhaps just over the horizon. Sunday Houses, though, is only about half-way home. Poems like “A One and A,” for example, show a strong, inventive voice with masterful control. Here are the last four lines:

With that, the party that I skipped eight years ago finally ends.
Tony wakes in the kitchen chair, Adam calls a taxi, Katherine
takes off her purple dress, and Dave and Allison move to Austin
with their terrier.

As in this poem, Hughey is often interested in temporality, in troubling linear time by traveling back and forth and all around it. This suspension of events or a line of thought or whatever, this artful time travel is not just a poetic gimmick: it really gets to the seemingly haphazard organizing that goes on in our minds, the time-space relationship in general, the almost arbitrariness of many aspects of ourselves and our lives, and, especially, the relationships and the physical and emotional wounds that just won’t seem to heal no matter how much time has elapsed. Does anything actually stop happening, she seems to be asking, or does our attention just shift? The only problem is that she uses this blueprint more than a few times. In a longer book, maybe this is fine; in a book this length, with poems this length (short), the foundation starts to look less solid.

She takes us backwards in time in “The Long Hello” (“I am going to live this whole thing backwards next time”), to arrive at the really good closing line, “After years of eating saffron, I will know nothing about saffron.” But then we have “Country Song” and “Happiest Hours” later in the book, on facing pages. From “Country Song”: “When I received a letter / from you, I had already read it.” From “Happiest Hours”: “I walk back through the / years, knock on George’s door, and find him on the couch.” The book isn’t chiefly about traveling backwards in time, which would, perhaps, justify repeated sorties in this direction. And it’s short, so three or four instances of the exact same engine in a relatively small space come across less like a theme than a lack of inspiration. On their own, though, these poems are strong. The closing of “Happiest Hours” is almost worth the price of admission:

They’ll have a baby named after a common flower. Some hot
nights, George will sleep naked on the kitchen floor. It gets pretty
bad again after that, so I tell him that I’ll stop for now. He says to
get from his apartment to a cornfield, you have to do much more
than go left.

But the strength of the individual poems is weakened by the reality of the book, and that’s a real shame, and is unfair to the poems and to their writer. It’s an old complaint, but it’s still true that if you set the bar high for yourself, and Hughey clearly does, every attempt that fails to achieve such a height will be especially clear. Whether this is fair doesn’t really matter. 

I’m not arguing for a book as a sort of monolith, for a book full of the same sort of poems. Like every word, every line, every poem…every book is its own little monster, and it’d be idiotic (a mode I’m surely not above), to argue for some blueprint or other. I’m only saying that, in the book that I have here to review, the temporally complicated, world-upside-down, event- or character-driven poems (which often appear in prose blocks, or at least long-lined poems) are infinitely more successful than the other poems, which vary in their exact form (lineated usually, in couplets sometimes) but are, as a whole, more image driven, much shorter, and lacking the spark that seems responsible for the better poems.

In “Looks Skyward in Coastal Counties,” we have, apparently, answers to questions we’re not privy to: “A blue ribbon, James. / The Great Lakes, Richard.” Such lines, and the poems they compose, seem like not much more than ballast. “Warnings to Be Heeded” lists warnings to be heeded. We might read something biographical in the things listed, but even then, there’s not a lot there. “Subjects Not Suitable for Autofocus, Fuji Instruction Manual / Love, by Guy De Maupassant” is a strange and clever found poem, contrasting lines from a camera manual with lines from the syphilitic Frenchman. There’s a “telephone play”, a poem called “Tied for Impiety” that lists examples of things or people who are tied for impiety…my point is that these poems seem more inspired by the need to write a poem than by something burning hot inside the poet. And, at the risk of repeating myself, this is a first book, and I can’t help but believe that a first book should be a big, unified artistic/poetic/aesthetic/personal statement, not a sometimes-really-good-sometimes-just-okay compilation.

The other lesser poems, I’m not so sure what they’re up to—mainly they ruminate or riff on an image for not very long, racing, it seems, to get to the end (the last five lines of the 11-line “Egg, Egg,” for instance). Often these are very short poems, more imagistic and more abstract. “Look Skyward in Coastal Counties,” “Not to Mention the Trees Coming Up to My Waist,” and “What Bird,” for example, seem to operate on a level of mysteriousness that neither benefits the poems nor is earned by the lines that are present in them. Other poems (“Afternoon,” “Dogwood, David, Dogwood”) are perhaps too clearly and too strongly driven by the concept behind them (and, though, in truth, I find “Dogwood, David, Dogwood” to be a strange choice for the last poem in this collection, it does have its charms).   

But anyway. The dissolution of constructs—whether linear time or the domestic order or actual houses and people—is a lot of what’s happening in these poems. It’s an interesting viewpoint, a real attempt to examine, like an even more articulate Demian, the life around us by taking it apart, by walking all over it. Indeed, it seems that it’s domesticity that Hughey has her most trenchant observations about—and where she most consistently shines. Though the author photo belies the sentiment somewhat, lines like “I am no across- / the-room beauty” and “I play the woman / as cool as an open refrigerator” show a talented poet with an intriguing personal point of view, and lines like “Nothing is left unfucked in this world” and “The wrecked world is mending itself like a starfish” take that beyond the personal. And in a really interesting way.

It seems, though, that Hughey is really only able to strut her stuff in a certain type of poem, the ones I’ve been talking about as being successful. While I can hear the opposing viewpoint, that shorter, lighter, somehow different poems add levity and balance and make for a better book, in this case, I’m not buying it. And that is, basically, my argument for why one half of this book is better than the other half—the less-good poems seem less important not just to me or to the imaginary reader, but to the writer.

But this is starting to feel like I’m grinding a personal axe, which is less the case than that I feel the need to approach this review in a way that interests me as well as, hopefully, you. The mystery inherent in good poetry, I think, makes a lot of reviewing beside the point anyway. As I’ve said, these are many good poems here, but good is not always (if ever) good enough. Sunday Houses the Sunday House was good enough for the Iowa Poetry Prize, but was the Iowa Poetry Prize good enough to Sunday Houses the Sunday House? Hard to say.