by Jennifer Rose
Ohio University Press 2006
Reviewed by Sharon
Memory of Place
Jennifer Rose follows a deceptively simple concept with her second collection: poems written as “postcards” describing a variety of destinations across the U.S. and abroad. While this sounds like an appealing project for any writer, Rose, a city planner and skilled poet, complicates the snapshot of each locale by interweaving rich figurative language into real and imagined histories. Winner of the 2004 Hollis Summers Poetry Prize, Hometown for an Hour presents a keen understanding of the particulars of place— a collage of images and memories that reveal how quickly one traverses the line between wanderlust and displacement.
The arrangement of the book charts the narrator’s travels by way of association rather than geography. The first half includes poems about places familiar to Rose, such as the shores of her Massachusetts home; she also indulges memories relative to her childhood in the Midwest. These poems alternate between moments of joy and sudden pain, as in “Evanston Postcard” where she writes of a visit to her native Illinois: “I saw the garage where my mother died. / I don’t think she knew how her suicide / would change us.” The poems meander west, south, then to eastern Europe — seemingly random shifts connected by surprising irony, as in the series of poems linking the Civil War with World War II. In “Virginia Postcard,” the apparently patriotic speaker describes a visit to Appomatox:
Daughters of the Confederacy had left fresh flowers
and flags for their heroes. (I suppose German attics
are full of swastikas.) I wept for the one
Union soldier buried there.
The next poem, “Lipik Postcard,” positions the narrator in Croatia searching another well-tended graveyard for the headstone of her great-grandfather, a Jewish innkeeper’s son shot and killed by Nazis. In Lipik, however, the one enemy soldier buried alone has no mourners: “Only one grave here has been forgotten:/ a German grave, overgrown with weeds.” The shared experiences of war thus unite disparate geographies with lingering grief and grievances.
Rose’s attention to sound and mastery of form also distinguish this collection. The book abounds with poetic forms, including sonnets and terza rima, though rhymed quatrains dominate — neat blocks of verse that suit the photos, buildings, windows and other spaces framing the worlds that Rose evokes. Playful sound adds highlights (“Waitresses in lace pour demitasse / from a silver samovar, and there’s local / whitefish caviar. The musicians play old repertoire”) that ignite unexpected rhythms:
is it too cliché, too busman’s holiday,
to come here and stare at the ocean, as I do?
Would you get blasé, trading its trinkets all summer?
Although the majority of these rhymes offer nice flourishes, Rose occasionally gets carried away, producing a sound dangerously close to singsong:
What frock will July wear today
and would she like fog’s tulle or not?
The cardinal’s livery—just outré!
(At least that’s what the house wren thought.)
The book also references cicadas, crickets, hermit crabs and foghorns in fully a third of the poems—a preponderance which begins to feel less like deliberate repetition and more like the poet’s personal clichés. Several poems get caught up in their own cleverness, mixing metaphors and spinning puns which ultimately add up to little more than a list of flowers and insects. At times, the postcard conceit, too, feels forced—even disappears abruptly with the collection’s sole prose work, “Letter from Orahovica.” This piece stands out not only for its format (a letter), but also for the sudden departure from the poems’ primary narrator to a new one: a German soldier who witnessed a fellow soldier sacrificing himself alongside a village of Croatian prisoners. While the soldier’s letter tells a fascinating tale, this story feels a bit awkwardly wedged in with the rest of the collection.
Despite these occasional distractions, Hometown for an Hour shines most in its surprising connections between place and memory. Ultimately, the book reads less as a series of postcards than as passages from the journal of a highly observant traveler, one taking a journey to escape some private loss yet finding echoes of it everywhere. At their best, these poems explore the lingering grief of history or else induce a deep longing — the weary traveler’s desire for love and home.