Mansion of Memory, poems by Helen Losse. Rank Stranger Press, 2012. $11
This is an expanded (by about a third) and reissued chapbook of poems, the proceeds of which will go to the Joplin Bright Futures Tornado Recovery program. As Losse, explains in the preface, the tornado hit her hometown in May, 2011. The ‘mansion of memory’, Losse’s mother’s house, was spared, but a great deal of damage was done to much of Joplin. The poems are set in Joplin, and, in Losse’s words, “showcase a few of the reasons Joplin is worth rebuilding.”
Losse begins with a brief poem, “Before Definition,” which paints a vivid portrait of a young girl bathing, “I love to twirl my wash cloth,//make it slow-dance/across deep, soapy water, content in/the claw-footed tub, my mother singing.” (lines 2-6). Losse’s language is clear and purposeful. The memories she shares are compelling. “At Roaring River” describes a pastoral scene of a trout hatchery, a still pond, “yet there are/ripples beneath lily pads,/and all the better, if one views them/with the kind of eyes that find the genuine/in the mythic” (1-5). Likewise, there is a mythic quality in the genuineness of Losse’s language and scenes, and there are ripples beneath the surface which betray deeper meaning than simple scenes of the natural world.
One of my favorite poems is “The Cabin,” which describes a family vacation cabin. Losse begins with a description of their boat, kept “in the gully/between the Cabin/and the crude outhouse” (1-3). She continues, “Likely the heavy green boat was/worthless, except to us. Someone/stole it, anyhow.” (6-8). Losse explains that her father built it and named it after the kids; “I wonder if the thief loved that boar/as much as we did.” (15-16). It’s a subtle admonishment. She describes Fourth of July firecrackers and childhood memories. She concludes by jumping into the future, after someone has burned the Cabin down. “I wonder why some fool thought/a mere stranger could destroy/the Cabin/by setting it ablaze.” (page 2, 12-15). The poem becomes a portrait of the inhumanities of strangers, and yet, the purity of treasured memories survives. A similar theme is explored in “The Trouble Behind Us Is a House,” which is a lament against humanity encroaching on nature. In section 2, she lays it out, “The house behind us seems too close,” (1). The memories Losse holds remain, though the changes of the present push these memories further and further away from reality.
There’s something immensely appealing about a poet whose name evokes 'Loss'. But her poems are the antithesis of maudlin. Losse has captured a wonderful memory book of growing up in Joplin. There is, of course, horror right outside the door, but the little girl in these poems is mostly unaware. She’s too concerned with the flowers that grow on the railroad track, the beauty of the world, as children should be. Losse’s poems are intimate and accessible, but profound and full of hidden depths. I’ve enjoyed her full-length collections (Seriously Dangerous and Better with Friends) and I’m pleased as punch to have a chance to see this expanded chapbook – which frankly resonates with the life of a full-length collection.
-Reviewed by CL Bledsoe