by Nin Andrews
BOA Editions 2007
Reviewed by Molly Sutton Kiefer
Nin Andrews’s prose poems are parachutes–little pockets of experience descending upon the reader–fanning out into imaginings and empty rooms, multiple selves and disappearing acts. The poems in Sleeping With Houdini are concerned with a myriad of subjects: the down-to-earth (the body, communication, puberty and sensuality, the ordinary) to the miraculous (angels, ghosts, multiple selves, reflections and refractions), and the ways in which those play off one another (rooms and capacity, world of the familiar versus the world of fantasy). Andrews is interested in both the relics of childhood and the elements of the fantastic. These components collide as she explores the experience of dreaming, the blending of magic, all with urgency.
The opening poem, “Falling” introduces us to “a girl” who, in some variation, carries us through many poems in the book. This girl introduces the concept of innocence–allowing a common experience (a dream of falling, in this particular poem) and setting it in “one world, one town, one farmhouse with yellow curtains, bees circling the ceiling.” We are experiencing the general world, a globe above the earth, something we all see in the cross-hatch of farmland and ridged mountains on any plane ride cross-country, and Andrews then narrows into specific, but still universal or natural details, bees. This familiarity allows the closing of the poem to be more devastating: “… she feels the world drift through her like tiny glass splinters. It is only by lying that she can stay alive.”
This vulnerability of girlhood (and later ties to sensuality, a nod to her previous volume, The Book of Orgasms, as well as Midlife Crisis With Dick and Jane, both full of the body’s experiences and the unexpected) is a huge theme in the book’s early poems, from the (possibly accidental) overdose in “Aspirin” to the experience of first menstruation in “Young Ladies” and “Menses.” These poems in the first section are littered with bric-a-brac meant to ground the reader in childhood: pop bead necklaces, sweet tarts, apples, gum ball machines, with sudden contrasts, such as orange aspirin and teddies as gifts to young girls. This is a childhood fraught with adult issues, the kind where innocence is left to spoil.
Perhaps because of this, Sleeping With Houdini is lined with the motif of escape. There is the obvious, in the third poem, “Houdini”: “But what if he escaped, the girl asked, What if he slipped out of the water when no one was looking? He became an invisible man and is now living his invisible life in the invisible world happily ever after…” But escape takes on a more complex meaning, particularly within the exploration of space. In “Making the Sun Rise,” Andrews writes of the girl whose days are spent with the sun’s “white heat beneath her skin as an electric current” and we find “she was reduced to cinders, slowly climbing the air.” This girl’s life is clearly laden with the ordinary–her mother calls to her daughter’s bedroom–and balanced with the fantastic (drawing up the sun) until finally, “The girl never answered. Instead, she felt all the empty rooms inside her and someone hiding in every one.”
This ending, the sort that prompts the drawing of a little gasp, is typical of a Nin Andrews prose poem. (At the Palm Beach Poetry Festival in 2008, poet Kim Addonizio spoke of the sound of a gerbil orgasm, that gasp, or sigh, we have at the end of a particularly well finished poem–I have a feeling Andrews would appreciate such a comparison.) Her poem “The Game” reflects on the retreat of a young girl: “He wanted to send me back to where I came from, but my mother wouldn’t allow it. My shrieks, he said, could wake the dead. Nothing would calm me. Then one night I went quiet. By morning I had turned into another girl.” This ending, the change of the girl, is not a mere escape, but a kind of violent act, a self preservation, which ties together that precarious balance of burdened reality with the magic of…Houdini.
The book continues on, a narrator grown, facing the gorgeousness and cruelty of adulthood, but maintaining a fascination with the paranormal. In the poem “Crossing,” Andrews begins, “Suppose the dead can’t help looking back, pressing their wings against the glass like giant moths as if they don’t get it, that the flesh is a cell, the light a 50-watt bulb.” Death becomes an object of beauty, with angel-wings and the power of flight, and in the title poem, She ends, “The problem is, everyone falls in love with death. Death is the most seductive lover. Everything a person wants, death has.”
Andrews’s strongest poems are those that focus on the resurrection of childhood and the exploration of multiple or alternate selves. She wonders what her life might have been like had she been named Elizabeth, and the poem opens, “Names, I discovered, have power.” The poem takes on the selection of fruit, the heady scent tucked behind ears and hair bleached in the summer sun; these images of innocence allow the reader to recall similar experiences. In transformation, the poem ends, “And now Elizabeth was living my life, dreaming my dreams, wearing my things.” Again, that violent shift, the ownership of self shifting, being given over, allowing that punchy fate more control.