The House Is on Fire

  • Karin Cope
    What We're Doing To Stay Afloat. Pottersfield Press (purchase at
  • Angeline Schellenberg
    Tell Them It Was Mozart. Brick Books (purchase at
Reviewed by Ian Williams

The title of Karin Cope’s collection, What We’re Doing to Stay Afloat, stirs survivalist impulses that continue into the poems of its first marked section: “The daily disaster”; “Of want and wit born,” where Hunger and Misery watch Survivor; “Pocket full of rusty nails”; “Things gone wrong”; “The house is on fire”; and, most precarious of all—“Real estate speculation.” Cope is tracing daily domestic disasters, to be sure, but shades these with a system of imagery that portends physical danger in the natural world. Edges, ice, and ice-edges figure menacingly. Without descending into cliché, she invokes familiar expressions of being on edge/on the edge/on thin ice.

Cope’s collection is divided into five sections of five to ten poems each. It proceeds cautiously at first (some early poems are so controlled they could be scanned metrically), then becomes bolder and more adventurous in the last half. Poems get bigger, lines longer, more charged. They accumulate life and give free rein to worry.

William Carlos Williams famously asserts that

                                      It is difficult

to get the news from poems

yet men die miserably every day

for lack

of what is found there.

Cope accepts the challenge. She reports and predicts the internal weather of the Western middle class with reasonable accuracy, and she occasionally breaks headline news, as in “The house is on fire,” where we observe her collection in miniature:

Why is poetry an emergency?

Our hearts knock

against a stubborn world. Inside,

forever, the house is on fire.

Angeline Schellenberg would concur. How does one write about one’s children, knowing on one hand that they may have their feelings bruised by one’s honesty and on the other that strangers aren’t terribly interested in a stream of cute anecdotes? Schellenberg in her debut collection—a sturdy production printed on Brick’s characteristic toothy paper—opts for honesty over protecting herself from the moral judgment of mommy bloggers, thereby circuitously securing the reader’s respect and aegis.

Schellenberg courts the reader. The collection’s second poem, “X,” reads as a primer on the genetics of autism. “Posthumously Diagnosed” presents a hall of fame of the eccentricities of historical figures. Other poems address shame and shaming, the cyclical frustration of medication and early intervention services, the harrowing experience of feeling unloved by one’s child.

She agitates entrenched expectations of parent-child relations, that love in both directions is spontaneous, automatic, and natural (see Alice Miller’s work), by writing as one who refuses to lose the right to her feelings in her role as mother. In “Watching him sleep 2,” the speaker admits “that for just one second, / I loved her [the other child] better.”

Of course, there is love in these poems, particularly the endearing, tender-hearted ones that cast the son as a diminutive professor. Such love is rendered all the more credible because it is complicated by the speaker’s desires for and idealizations of the ones she loves.

The record of love is also a record of disappointments.

This review “The House Is on Fire” originally appeared in Meanwhile, Home. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 232 (Spring 2017): 137-138.

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