Why We Chose It

Maggie Smith
January 9, 2017
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“Portrait of the Mother: 1985,” “I Am Twenty-One,” and “In the Black Forest,” poems by Erin Adair-Hodges, appear in the Jan/Feb 2017 issue of the Kenyon Review.

In the current issue of KR, you’ll find three poems by Erin Adair-Hodges. The poems are from her forthcoming first book, Let’s All Die Happy, which won the 2016 Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize and will be published in 2017 as part of the Pitt Poetry Series.

Adair-Hodges’s poems explore a kind of dark domesticity. In “Portrait of the Mother: 1985,” the speaker is a woman who is doing her best with what she has:

First there was the word and the word was OK.
          OK the apartment’s rented floor, new child
                    laid over eyelashes and skin’s salt on shag.

OK the sleeplessness; OK the mash-mouthed hunger
          and greed, crust of milk and blood,
                    pink lips pealing cooed chimes . . .

As the poem gains momentum down the page, the syntax begins to unravel and turn in on itself. The pleasures in this poem are many: the repetition; the line breaks, which are masterful but never too clever or fussy; and the details that feel just right. The poem is a piling-up of the deliciously specific trappings of a life:

                                         . . . The OK coupon shoebox,

chicken dragged through saltines, hamburger meat in milk,
          cable in the bedroom, community college class at night that once
                    where is the dinner OK . . .

“OK” is a getting-by word. The poem explores what it is to live poor, and eat poor, and the pain in it—the “Piggly Wiggly cart’s broken wheel unlatching its throat to warble out / its weary song of lamentation.” The poem is full of these imagistic, sonically rich moments.

In “I Am Twenty-One,” a young adult speaker is sharing a small apartment with a man in what is clearly a cohabitation of convenience, one necessitated by the cost of rent. But Adair-Hodges avoids the enemy of the lyric poem: exposition. From the sheet hanging to divide the two spaces to the roommate sleeping “in a plaid of streetlights / strained through bars,” she skillfully allows the details to release the meaning:

. . . We’ve forgotten to pay
for everything—our lives candles
on cardboard boxes, hot wax bleeding

through the slits. There’s lipstick
on the wine bottle, jizz and toast
in the sink . . .

Everything about the scene—the unpaid electric bill, the cardboard-box tables, the mess of candle wax, the wine drunk straight from the bottle, the “jizz and toast / in the sink”—shows us, in only six short lines, a woman who’s just learning to be an adult on her own.

Domestic anxieties persist in “In the Black Forest,” a coming-of-age poem spoken by a woman who was a child in one century, a mother in the next. The tension is amplified by both the fairytale-like setting and the spareness of the couplets. This poem speaks to a kind of erasure that comes with mothering: “Some weeks / no one says my first name, no one’s / tongue flicks the last letter out.” Adair-Hodges has a keen eye for the poetic moment and she sees it through.

These three poems by Erin Adair-Hodges are poems we trust—they carry their authority both in voice and form. The work is original, richly textured, and deftly executed; it sparks on the page. Perhaps most importantly, her poems remind us that intimacy and imagination are paths to empathy—ways of understanding one another, and ourselves.

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