Prose Feature: Domestic Commotion: A Review of Lilah Hegnauer’s PANTRY (Hub City Press, 2014), by Cassie Pruyn

April 3, 2015

Though the setting of Pantry is undoubtedly the kitchen, the metonym and microcosm of the domestic sphere, there is nothing precious or mundane about Lilah Hegnauer’s poems. Her use of language—whip-smart and elegant—pulls the reader immediately into the realm of the uncertain; right away, we are careening down the page, with the first title also serving as the collection’s first line: “‘Pie Bird’” // Was round again. / Was the reins and bridle // in hand, was saddled.” The book’s tone shifts from poem to poem, alternately sexy (“I want you standing in a hot shower / with an apple brandy perched on the edge of the tub”), emphatic (“I want personality, // and I want it now. / I’m not your schoolmarm. // I’m not your run of the mill”), and tender (“What are there but aprons, popeyed / lace trim, tittuping generations / cinching the bow, now gone, now still here”). Her language is musically and rhythmically sophisticated. “In the slack-shuttered camera, in hibiscus, / in Prussa, Cuba, Cuba, in a linen-covered / duvet which is based on the corners I covet: // me,” she writes in “Pitcher.” Here, her use of repetition and short consonant sounds—“slack-shuttered,” “camera,” “hibiscus” “Cuba,” “covet”—instill the poem with urgency. As I read through the book’s five sections, I found myself bobbing my head to the beat.

Hegnauer does well to pin her dynamic language to a single setting: doing so gives the reader a place to touch her feet down as she transitions from one kitchen object to the next, where each is a wild ride of confession and abstraction. There is nothing comfortable about the domestic in this book; it acts according to its own, almost synesthetic, logic, twisting and pivoting at will. In the poem “Vase,” Hegnauer writes:

                    Peonies arcing their pink bellies
above me, dahlias in the side yard, tight-lipped heliotrope snug to the bamboo.

I dreamed we were undressed and manic.
You lit the pilot and I tossed the greens and you threw the leeks

into a hot skillet and watched them hiss.

Through Hegnauer’s employment of strong, almost violent, verbs (“lit,” “threw,” “hiss”) and because, as with many other poems in the book, it is difficult to discern who is speaking, we get a sense of real agitation here. Hegnauer’s employment of scale also contributes to the poems’ confusion of speakers. Inside of objects we find narratives of other objects; frames within frames; long, descending tunnels stretching from object, through association and memory, back to object again. If one understands the titles (“Bowl,” “Rolling Pin,” “Double Broiler,” etc.) as demarcations of perspective—defining the poem as either originating from the object, or describing the object, or performing the object’s “persona”—then the places Hegnauer takes us to within the poems disrupt this very notion of proximity. In “Pie Bird,” she writes:

‘Pie Bird’
. . . . . . . .
Was cutting butter,
was tiny, one galosh, two ears, a hide

of pure tin. Wasn’t far. Wasn’t yours.

or plum; was yours.

As readers, we keep coming back to the pie bird as the sentence’s subject and the poem’s title, but we constantly travel away from it, into and among different scenes and images, in order to arrive back where we began. In their disorientation, each poem serves, then, as a kind of map, an attempt at orientation.

After reading through Pantry four or five times, I remain uncertain about who the speakers are, or even whether the speakers change from poem to poem, or from section to section. At times I feel certain the speaker is human, and that each poem is a meditation on the object at hand or else a metaphorical channeling of the object’s essence. In “Linen”:

Early September, & I’m gone for
miles this morning—all over nowhere, you say.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
My mind might be nowhere—a sparse

thicket spinning, flotsam of evening,
but it’s strung to yours.

Here, we see the speaker’s (presumably) human mind “stringing” itself to the mind of the “you” like a clothesline, as if her thoughts were linen pinned up in the breeze. Other poems, though, read like persona poems, performances of the objects themselves, as in “Skillet”: “Rally, joy, here. Weep here. / I am not lettered. I ferry / an even raft across your // pantry shelves: jimberry, jamberry, / red beans and black.” The verb “ferry,” in particular, evokes that shallow vehicle of the skillet, its “raft”-like shape. Most times, however, I find I can’t even go this far in determining the nature of a given poem’s voice. In “Trivet,” Hegnauer writes, “I can turn boggy in the minstrel heat. I can / coppice and counter. // I can grow coarse and sweaty / as elves, asking for nothing but you.” The poem reads as the monologue of a lusty trivet, and also, perhaps, of a human speaker addressing some mysterious “you” by channeling the burning trivet’s presence in this “lush and slippery world.” The confusion of speakers, and Hegnauer’s skillful shifting between emotional and tonal registers, results in a kind of identity-slippage, where human becomes kitchen implement becomes human. And because we never quite know from which perspective we are looking, we end up occupying the space between. We hover in the associative universe between the observer and the observed, never quite sure of our footing. Pantry asks that we dwell in this uncertainty, with the kitchen and its assortment of charming and nostalgic accessories acting as a “home base” of sorts, our point of departure. Perhaps the poems should be thought of as persona poems in the voice of uncertainty itself—uncertainty in the face of loss, love, change, and desire, themes the poems deftly navigate.

When asked about her first book Dark Under Kiganda Stars (published when she was just 22 years old) in an interview with Front Porch, Hegnauer discusses her evolution toward “a less narrative, more lyrical voice” in Pantry, which she attributes, in part, “to the flexibility of the short lyric . . . because it taps into a kind of incantatory power that reaches beyond narrative.” Although Dark Under Kiganda Stars displays Hegnauer’s strong sense of the poetic line—units of rhythm and their tension and resolution down the page—it is in the short lyric where she is clearly at her best. Take, for example, Pantry’s “Spoon Rest,” which exemplifies Hegnauer’s use of enjambment and a collage-like layering of images to establish pace and urgency:

Milkfish in the laundered night,
     swept bare, these boards, listel
and lather, rugs upended in the slim
     antechamber—barrow of pine
split small, your parka and boots
     still dripping on the bricks.
And you, inside: once, I felt
     a joy that was as old as a two
knees knocking, as a woodstove
     ticking hot, as its stovepipe
about to ignite. Once I entered
     a room on fire to read. If it is time,
anchor your heart and pack it
     in your impossible cavity, lung,
lung, ribs, and veins. And keep the
     kettle hot for me, and limber up.

It didn’t surprise me to learn that Emily Dickinson is one of her favorite poets; like Dickinson’s, Hegnauer’s poems fly swiftly toward their destinations, employing rhythmic starts and stops—and unexpected angles—along the way. As opposed to the incremental building of a narrative-based poem, the “flexibility” of the short lyric, and how it allows the reader to linger between multiple places through associative layering, fulfills perfectly what I take to be Pantry’s thematic intentions in construing uncertainty.

Although the book’s organization (five unnamed, numbered sections) does not take away from its overall impact, it is not clear to me what purpose the different sections serve, or how each section differs from the others. Though numbered, they do not seem to express a chronological, linear, or even non-linear evolution. The white space of the section breaks—each marked with an endearing line drawing of a Ball jar or a whisk, for example—perhaps aim only to provide the reader with a quick breath before diving into the next section. But especially given the pleasurable disorientation of the poems themselves, I long for the sections to have a clear purpose if they are going to exist at all. This structural complaint is a minor one, however, given Hegnauer’s artful modulation within each poem between the tangible—a tea strainer, a bowl—and the wildly abstract: “what stuck to roundness,” or “a solemn tincture of compulsion.” Pantry asks us to step outside of everything we know, all without leaving the comfort of our own homes.

—Cassie Pruyn

Cassie Pruyn

Cassie Pruyn is a New Orleans-based poet born and raised in Portland, Maine. She is a graduate of the Bennington Writing Seminars. Her work appears or is forthcoming in AGNI Online, Entropy, The Double Dealer, and The Normal School. She was a finalist in the 2013 and 2014 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition, and a finalist in the 2013 Indiana Review 1/2K Prize.

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