André T. Demers
In Ellen Kaufman’s House Music, the reader is invited to come in, have a seat, and get comfortable. There are no grandiose declarations or flighty vagaries to spin the reader off into the cosmos; Kaufman’s use of plain, honest verse and precise language establishes order and a warm sense of familiarity to her subjects and places. Kaufman treats us to her company and wit without imposition, as the readers become guests beneath the roof of her memories and imagination. Much of the poetic landscape is dominated by free verse, but Kaufman demonstrates a technical mastery that bespeaks her experience in reviewing poetry, using many traditional poetic forms and patterns while keeping to mainly contemporary subjects. Family, places, and particular objects factor greatly in her creativity, reinforced by the familiarity (perhaps a painful sort, to grudging students of poetry) of the villanelle and the sonnet. She glides between these forms without the stiffness and artificiality that can accompany attempts to render such typically rigid structures. Do not let this pronouncement lead you to believe that this body of work is completely bound to classical forms; many of the choicest poems are written in free verse, and never without a rhythm that betrays the poet’s learning.
A jewel of the collection is “Bonnet Contest,” ripe with lyrical lines and coupled with loose rhymes. Read silently or aloud, the reader can be endlessly entertained by the playful and adept use of assonance and alliteration.
Beyond indifferent daffodils
and bleary cherries, dollops
and fillips of tulips
girding the garden,
the willows are willing
In contrast to the dancing syllables seen here are foreboding images of sickness cast on birds and parents. These juxtapositions give the reader a glimpse into the house as it exists in Kaufman’s realm of metaphors, a place filled with an awareness of the imminent future and the fading past.
This awareness extends to poems throughout House Music, exemplified in “Sakura Park,” where the “living words” of a friend continue on after her death, outlasting the time cried out by bells and other noises in “the cacophony of blather.” Again, in these lines, Kaufman shapes and guides her concepts with rhymes that lend a musical tone to the story-telling. Just as sickness accompanies the growth and renewal of “Bonnet Contest,” so do the bells in this short memorial poem ring sour; in every house there is loss.
Along with loss are strong thematic elements of the fleeting nature of life and those objects in our shared world that outlast it. The establishing line of “Waves,” the first poem, declares, “Permanent should be forever,” a claim that lingers and reemerges in especially poignant poems such as “Thieves”: a cry out over the loss of generational treasures and the sentiments that remain in their stead. The essential struggle of this theme is displayed in the concluding couplet: “Who can distinguish life from things? // One night of weeping on the train to Queens.” The house is real, the treasures are real, and the delicate features of even the most innocuous-seeming poem in this collection belie the deep concerns of our humanity.
Have no fear that Ellen Kaufman will lead you wandering on a pointless journey. Her word choices are unerring and her aim is true. Each poem is a finely tuned instrument that plays a different chord in the heart, some slow sadness, and some lilting with joy and fond remembrances. Without a sour note, Kaufman’s House Music will have you tuned in from the first page until the last line.