Houses are Fields joins the fast-growing genre of illness memoirs in verse. (In the last week alone, I’ve encountered no fewer than three such books published in 2010. And I am aware that there are many more.) Silverman’s poems treat the subject of a mother’s brain tumor, exploring relationships between a child and her dying (mother) and well (father) parents; the meaning of death; the nature of illness; and the power—and limits—of memory.
These poems are written in simple, sometimes spare, even understated, language (“Then the cheek and the swelled skin / under, and the pink chin, trembling”). They are fraught with emotion, yet often restrained (“When we imagine someone asking us / the answer is sadness”). They are frequently poignant (“At night in the swept yellow gleam of the kitchen / I sit with my father and watch while he eats // I offer a secret or ask for a story”); sometimes anxious (“Someone is singing, somewhere else. I hear things. / I could not ever leave the house”); and infrequently, but understandably, angry (“And here in the mirror / my mother’s face / is a ball of dough. Who / the fuck. Do you know / you’re you, I asked, underneath it. No?”) It’s the rhyming (dough/know/no) that keeps these lines from “Fugue” from becoming simply ranting or anger out of control, and which demonstrates Silverman’s competence and care as a poet.
A series of “Little by Little” poems is quite lyrically satisfying, as is a long poem “Poem to Keep What I Love,” the penultimate in the book, which contains lovely lines that are less conversational than the style of many of the poems and which change the pace in useful ways. In the book’s final poem, “The Spring Before Spring,” the poet draws the entire collection to a loving and hopeful conclusion: “We are grateful for your love, my mother said. / It makes your heart strong.” These poems will make you hurt, more so if you have dealt with the devastating illness of a loved one, but they may also help you heal.