The Transparent Dinner
By Christine Hamm
Mayapple Press 2006
The title poem is so uncanny that it gets canny again, which I believe is a strategy of many of these poems, to come out the other side of “stranged.” Tactics and themes of Gothic and Surreal writing are pressed until their stitches begin to show, and it is at that point that the poems acknowledge their real agenda, looking the reader in the eye and forcing the reader to look back.
The title poem is also the first poem in the book, and it provides an accurate introduction to the themes and domestic landscapes that follow. Mothers are suspect, suspicious, dangerous, important, monstrous, manic. Food is tied directly to its before and after, what it came from and what it will be. Violence is suggested when you expect it to be overt, overt when you expect it to be suggested. Much is grotesque. Sex is a dark cloud and a hot poke in the eye. And every thing and every body just keeps rolling along, complicit.
Poems like “Once Upon a Time” borrow their notion of the uncanny from fairytales, while poems like “Christmas in Hell” end with dry punch lines, make us move beyond the humor to find the real joke. “My Mother’s Basement” forces us beyond metaphorical thinking, into something more literal and bleak:
Since that man broke your neck
you had trouble dipping your
chin or seeing anyone under four feet tall;
On the other side of uncanny, everyone’s always saying, “no really,” and it’s a question that I keep asking and answering for myself throughout these poems, not because it matters where they come from, but because biography and autobiography become such a necessary aspect of the poems. In poems like “Signs You’re Ovulating,” a collage of languages and images tells us to beware, there’s no one true voice here, while other poems, like “Diary of a Thief,” seem to rely on creating a character, a person or persona that can provide contrast for itself, its actions. “Sex Ed” focuses on the self-conscious act of narration, autobiographical definition, while “American Dream” makes the act of making, of narrating, seem haphazard, a slip of the tongue. The reference to “me, Christine” in “The Weight of the World, the very last poem, creates a new tension in which the rest of the poems must necessarily exist and be revisited. No, really?
The final section, “A Walk in the Park,” is my favorite, because Christine and I, we are finally looking at each other, seeing things whole-heartedly if not wholly, assuming wholly never happens, not even—especially not—in poems. The first poem in this section, “The Clinic,” ends:
the electric wheelchairs are corralled
in the lobby
occasionally one tries
to escape, bust through the ropes
they hum to themselves and click
here people talk and there is silence
each office is the same size
each of us is the same, talking
And in another of the final section’s poems, “Joy School,” Hamm’s Cornell-inspired suggestion that joy is “tiny and dark with delicate moving parts…made of straw/ and teeth,/ with a few white feathers” sends me back to the beginning of this volume, looking closer at the evidence of its love.