Sasha Steensen's 'House of Deer' & other domestic histories
"At home" is not a container but a site and an event.
—Sasha Steensen, "I Couldn't Stop Watching"
The family is the history of the species. The family is the history of love & place & force & naming. The family is a history of home— & if home is both "a site and an event," then the family is a history of what happens. In physics, an "event" is a single occurence of a process, a point in spacetime. When & where, & also how the family moves through, how it is moved by history & how it moves history. The family is expansive— if "at home" is not a container, then the family need not (can not) be contained. In the poem "Election Day" in Sasha Steensen's new book House of Deer she writes, "There are children to clothe and dishes to do, and it's just not / the kind of poem where everything belongs." What kind of poem is the kind of poem where everything— including the clothing of children & the doing of dishes— belongs? I think House of Deer is exactly the kind of capacious poem where this everything belongs.
In "Fragments," which immediately follows "Election Day," Steensen writes :
who has my hat
but the little life giggling in the corner
she's so dear to me my daughter tho she fits
barely in the poem
but I force it
so that she might have a small place among you
damn sentimental [...]
The daughter enters the poem with noise. "I force it," Steensen writes, but the daughter (& her sound, her space) is already in the poem— entered the poem totally organically. The speaker questions what belongs, but the daughter "fits" because she is already part of the process. I'm interested in notions of risk in House of Deer. A specific example : In (the brilliant, scorching, tender) "Personal Poem Including Opium's History" she writes (apparently quoting a friend), "Risk sentimentality or who will care about your damn poem?" There is nothing sentimental about or in House of Deer— so I can't stop thinking about these lines. Like the lines in "Election Day" where the daughter laughing in a corner doesn't "fit" even after she is present in the poem, the anxiety of emotion (an unease that emotion is self-indulgent?) when there is no sentimentality in the poems seems to me to be both a part of the poems' process & an anxiety about reception. It is exciting to read the poem & have this sense of Steensen's mind at work— considering the poem, the writing of it, the reading of it, expectations regarding what "fits," etc. It reminded me of Cathy Wagner's great series "Everyone in the Room is a Representative of the World at Large," all poems written while someone else was in the room with the poet (she has noted that the person was usually her son). Like Wagner's series, the poems in House of Deer shatter a myth of solitary process (though I imagine lots of poets do write in solitude, I can't remember the last time I did, & I am writing this Commentary in a noisy coffeeshop full of people who appear to be writing too, & I will go home to finish it in the presence of other people).
1978I found them newborn
&whimpering in the tall grass
I had to cleanopen
to the world
The family, familiar, is found, too. In "the ditch daisies & olenaders," "the gnarly nest," "the hole that begins this story." & through long experience, we come to knowledge. The family, though familiar, is still not contained. "It was where they learned to ride a bicycle" ("Family"). "Each time a family member leaves, it takes a body out into the world / and brings back a body to enter the family." The structure of the family is common, shared— but it also bodies forth into the world, taking part of itself & returning, changed, to the familial body. In Lyn Hejinian's My Life she writes, "Every family has its own collection of stories, but not every family has someone to tell them." Steensen writes, "its just oneversion of onefamily / but it's ours" ("On Birth"). The family, here, as history, is not unproblematic, not idealized. The family, here, is also a site & an event— it is also a complex set of narrative fragments, or episodes, & images, & tales— & it is also the telling of those tales, that action, & where & when the telling takes place— the family takes place, & takes to a place— & this is "just oneversion of onefamily," & it reverberates its complexity & uncontainable beauty & force.