Laura Van Prooyen: Review by Kjerstin Anne Kauffman
van Prooyen Cover

Coming Back: A Review of Laura Van Prooyen’s Our House Was on Fire (Ashland Poetry Press)

     A friend of mine noted recently that she’s been writing about leaving as a way to weigh the worth of what she’s holding onto. This seems an insightful bit of self-knowledge to me. Some lines from Edna St. Vincent Millay come to mind:


                        My heart is full with friends I’ve made

                        And better friends I’ll not be knowing;

                        Still, there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take

                        No matter where it’s going.


A feeling like this pervades Laura Van Prooyen’s second book, Our House Was on Fire. “The point is,” one of the poems admits, “I can’t quite say no.” In almost every case, the speaker of these poems is a wife and mother, one who accepts the tie to her family, and the weight of her life decisions. And yet van Prooyen is particularly good at relaying the realization that things could have been otherwise. A women planting flowers sees “for the first time in years / someone I once loved.” She pauses, and


                        It is then I wonder

                        What would have happened

                        If I rose from bed thinking: tiger

                        Or lily. Or if

                        I had stayed

                        That one night long ago.


                        But I’m here.


Lost in what might have been, she is drawn back to the present only by her daughter, “eyes bright like daisies, / asking what I saw.”

     Ruminating on what might have been is common enough. But this poetic voice, apt to linger in the past, pulls forward time and again so fiercely and so idiosyncratically that what’s lost—someone once beloved, a former way of life—can’t easily be dismissed. A piece intelligently placed toward the beginning of the volume speaks to the desire straining in these poems, one which echoes the fearless spirit of Millay:


                        Remember how fierce the churning? The water

                                    littered and loud? Last spring


                        they found the body of a man

                                    and across his belly the gothic-lettered tattoo:


                        Cremate me. That’s what I want: a message

                                    and a journey. Like that, but not exactly.


                        Do you see? I cannot be the only one who noticed

                                    that hawk. Or how it perched in the oak


                        Before it ambushed something by our garage. Tell me

                                    You want to know what’s wrong.


The tattooed drowned man, the “something” ambushed by the hawk—it’s these unsettling insertions into domestic life that remind the speaker (and reader) that we are driven, at times, by insatiable, unpredictable forces.

     But these are not, ultimately, poems of regret. Granted, they are infused with an absent “you,” making heavy use of the word “dream,” returning again and again to the image of a bird in flight, and often leading to a slant question with a slant answer like, “I resist the urge to answer when you ask / if I think I can see you.” But as the book progresses the poems turn more and more toward a present “you,” one which is decidedly flesh-and-blood:


                        But now, you dip me in the kitchen.

                        Your thigh pressed to my thigh


                        makes me think of chicken,

                        and how boys laugh


                        when they say, breast. You hold me

                        and you kiss mine, so that


                        however much by day I forget your body

                        I find my way back.


The arc of the collection is toward affirmation, commitment, and the persona’s actual, rather than imagined, life. This does not result in an easy sense of resolution, though. In fact, the persona’s actual life includes actual pain:


                        My daughter sits by the life-size nudes.

                                                               I note the contour


                        of her back. She doesn’t know

                                   I brace for loss, though


                        I suspect

                        she knows her body fails.


                        Last week I saw her draw herself,


                                    a pack of bees in swarm about

                                                a butterfly and its girl.


The speaker is responding here to what appears to be, based on several poems in the collection, her daughter’s diagnosis of diabetes. The irregular, indented lineation is notable. There seems less to desire to land firmly on the subject matter, or to isolate it into various rooms and corridors (stanzas). Poems about mothering this daughter are shorter, more compressed. While the speaker retains some of her characteristic frankness, she also skirts the central emotion, relying instead on understatement and image. A pine tree and snow recur: the speaker describes her heart as “full of needles” and as“pine cone . . . / dangling / from the swingset” in relation to her progeny. These are powerful, painful poems.

     In addition, there is a great deal of effort given to unsettle scenes of domestic bliss. Maybe the speaker is overlooked or misunderstood by those whose ties shape her sense of self. Maybe she is actually cruel. “Orchard” explores this:


                        This is not our first time in the orchard. Not

                        the first time our daughters run from us

                        among the trees. We are not here so much for apples as to be


                       where we’ve been before. Where,

                       with your father, we once gathered bushels of fruit

                       and you pulled the girls in the wagon while he rested

                                                                                 on a crate between rows.


                        The night your father died,

                        You drew a bath and invited me into the water.


                        Your response was flesh,

                        And when your shoulder pressed against my mouth,

                        I remember thinking you

                                                            would be easy to bite and bruise.


This piece is one of the stand-outs of the collection, joining in thirteen lines two dissimilar scenes and two generations of family, and balancing large-scale loss against reassuring images of apples, wagons, crates, and a warm bath. What satisfying tension: the speaker chooses to resist an urge without diminishing her own sense of power.

     In the best poems, then, the ambushing hawk by the garage is something inherent in the scene, a piece of nastiness uncovered by the poet—a failing body, a cruel urge, a painful memory—the shadow which delineates the light. At times, though, one feels too forcefully the resistance to happiness. It is as though the poet thinks you can’t write a successful poem about motherhood unless you put a knife in it. Perhaps she’s right. Motherhood does contain far more violence than it’s often allowed. And in order to choose love, this has to be confronted. But sometimes the poems strike me as cut off, as though they wanted to soften, to embrace the sumptuous body and not just the electrified one, as though the surprise might have been peace. But the poet wouldn’t yet allow it. “In the Gallery,” and “Orchard” both end with a jab, yet I wonder if they stand out as excellent because they are also willing to keep the warmth of human relations less at bay.

     The book itself is a quick read. These are disarming, rather than demanding poems, and tend to propel the reader forward rather than inviting pause. About halfway through, I began to feel that there was a certain predictability to the movement of the poems—that jab at the end, for example. If she could structure the syntax to end with a blade (“Solstice”), a nail (“Repair”), bones (“October”) or a bruise (“Orchard”), the poet inevitably would. At times, too, certain images felt overused. Birds, pine trees, snow, and braided hair recur, in some cases more deftly handled than others. Still, the pacing is so careful, the lineation so intuitive, and the themes so compelling, that you begin to trust the poet’s hand. These poems have weight. And by the end of the book, you feel as though you’ve emerged from winter into the early days of spring, and somehow during that introspective, sibilating hibernation, you’ve gained a more solid sense of self.

     In his preface to Amy Lowell’s work, Frost famously wrote, “The most exciting movement in nature is not progress, advance, but expansion and contraction, the opening and shutting of the eye, the hand, the heart, the mind. We throw our arms wide with a gesture of religion to the universe; we close them around a person. We explore and adventure for a while and then we draw in to consolidate our gains.” This is what Van Prooyen’s work does. The poems expand into what might be regret, or bitterness, or the urge to leave. But they don’t dwell there. They come back home. And we readers feel her gain.


Kjerstin Anne Kauffman holds an MFA from The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University, where she taught literature and creative writing. Her poetry and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in various journals, including American Poetry Review, Gulf Coast, and 32 Poems