Review of Inventory from a One-hour Room by Elizabyth A. Hiscox, Finishing Line Press 2009.
By Sarah Vap
I love this debut collection by Elizabyth Hiscox.
To begin, the language of the poems is alive and pushed-- it is incantatory, as if calling spells. It is pushed for the love of sound and for the sincerity and gorgeous peculiarities Hiscox’s writing voice and writing purpose. The language is in turn warm, clever, scathing, sharp, accurate, generously rich and exuberant, angry, and, ultimately…. her poems reach the space of a pure and simultaneous sorrow and joy.
This collection could also have been titled “screamchild in the sun.”
This book is yellow and gold. Yellow and gold abound, literally and in tone. “There is a listening in the sun” she writes in “Early Artichokes.” There are egg yolks, whiskey, paint that is “yellow under the palette knife,” “orange-round grins,” pumpkins, and sun-ups. There are lemonades, sunhats, photographs that are “time-touched yellow,” mornings, stars, torches and daffodils. Yellow is everywhere! From the goldish orange artwork on the cover of the book, “Abstract Orange I, Berlin 2007” by Oliver Godow, to the whitegold hair of Hiscox in her author photo on the back page-- there is yellow. From the poignancy and clarity of the scenes she evokes, to the faded-newspaper-yellow and “sad brown sun” of a time she has lost-- there is yellow in these poems.
And when there is no yellow, there is blood.
There is the heart-wrenching illness and dying of her mother, which we learn about in the first poem.
When the joy flips to sorrow, then there is the red. The lesions, the pumping heart, the irises “planted deep,” the sickness that “thickens blood to blood,” morticians and lab coats and lipstick for “lips of the gone” that is “Desert Rose, yes, her/ favorite.”
And in these poems, when there is no red, there is night.
There are “nightmares pulling/ toward an open ocean,” and “in the night: the approach of glaciers,’ veined with blues like gold, sky, death/ far into themselves.” There is Halloween night, just before, we know, the Day of the Dead.
And when there is no yellow, no red, and no night-- then there are remnants of pieces of art. A grandmother’s miniature animals, dusted every day. The paint being mixed. Egyptian carvings of mothers. And, in “The River’s Mouth”, there is
Ptah, in his feathered costume
of a cast out delta religion,
awash in a protestant nation’s
The museum can’t know what passionately alive and powerful treasure it holds when:
… ’Implements to mouth’ a placard sedately
relates a calling out of spells to restore.
The spells Ptah uttered that have the power to restore-- those, Hiscox lets us know, are the alive and the living. The museum that houses the “feathered costume”-- that is what is dead and uncomprehending. It is these two ends of an expressive spectrum that Hiscox identifies, and easily chooses, for herself, the living option of casting spells with her words.
In “Shot, Front-row Happy”, Hiscox describes a photograph in the newspaper in which she, in the front row, is smiling while the Jaws of Life demonstration takes place. “The photographer caught me the moment/ they cut a car in half, no gold spilling.” It is this exact moment that pervades the poems of this collection-- a childhood’s joyfulness, and its simultaneous catastrophe.
It is not a museum poem, nor an artifact, that Hiscox is writing. Hiscox’s poems of grieving and joy in this collection-- these are her spells to restore. These are poems of a mother, filled with motherliness and nativities, and ending with her mother’s final dream, “pulling toward an open ocean”.
Yet after the yellow, the red, the night, and the fragments of art struggling to resolve… what are we left with? We are left, purely, with what is identical of sorrow and of joy…. we are left with pain.
Ends Hiscox: “Start embroidering your pain on the back of my neck.”
Poems by Elizabyth A. Hiscox and Sarah Vap appear in HFR issue #44. Here to order a copy of Inventory From a One-hour Room.