Reviewed by Sonja Johanson
Then Winter by Chloe Honum
Paperback: 36 Pages
Available for $12 at Bully City Press
“The sky, the snow, and the smoke pass gray, white, and silver around in a circle. In an hour, we will go back into the building. We’ll climb the narrow stairs, as if venturing into the attics of our lives.” from “Lunch Break at the Psychiatric Ward”
Chloe Honum’s chapbook, then winter, guides us through her speaker’s struggle to emerge from the miasma of mental illness. Honum’s tightly woven poems center on an interminable season spent as a day patient in a psychiatric ward. The spare, clean writing is approachable, but is haunted by recurring metaphors and symbols that tie us to the speaker’s experience.
Honum shapes her collection in simple forms—prose poems, linked prose stanzas, tercets, and quatrains. These forms do not call attention to themselves, or pull focus from the verse; they are the frames for Honum’s content. The opening prose poem, “Angel”, serves as an epigraph, prefacing the journey we are about to witness. The speaker’s unnamed illness manifests as this celestial being—fierce and beautiful, solitary and broken. The teen-aged speaker becomes a vessel for the angel, “the translator for her ancient, mottled language.” The ethereal figure is a fitting metaphor for the terror and awe of neurodiversity, “silk floating down and severing itself on a sword.” Honum never directly reveals the exact nature of her speaker’s illness, and ultimately the specifics do not matter. Honum is crafting a story relevant to anyone seeking to understand mental crisis and recovery. In “Offerings”, she tells us “…I have rain in my hair. This much is true. Let me bring it to you.” Still, her visions are tantalizing. They drive the reader to search for clarity as the book progresses, and inspire close reading and speculation.
Wings, whether from angel or bird, are a symbol Honum employs throughout the book. In “Lunch Break at the Psychiatric Ward”, the speaker is, herself, the flying creature. In her childhood memory, she “grew very light, hovering above myself” and “my feet became birds…”. Initially, these references to flight are magical; we experience a child’s fantastical interpretation of her world. As the book progresses, though, we begin to see flight, wings, and rising as representing escape from the present. In “Early Winter at the Psychiatric Ward” the speaker watches “geese introduce themselves to dusk/with ragged cries. Winter at their backs,/ they heave upward.” The speaker’s longing to follow them is tangible, but she acknowledges that she must learn to contend with earthliness. “My native bird is flightless…it and the sky have reached no agreement.”
Honum’s speaker moves on to describe her descent into crisis, embodied by weather. In “April in the Berkshires”, “the rain climbs into my bed/like a lover,” and “the wardrobe steps forward,/ like a coffin-mother, to embrace me.” From that mystical beginning, we are thrust downward into the sterile, human world of the psychiatric hospital. The speaker embarks on daily visits to the confines of linoleum, steel, cardboard, and formica. Illuminated by the raw glare of fluorescent lights, she is “vetted for some terrible migration,” and what was once an angel, “Her wings…crossed at violent angles” is reduced to “dead flies on their backs, their wings at crisp diagonals.”
The bulk of the poems take place here, in the day ward, and Honum’s descriptions force us to experience the hard labour, the monotony, of working through recovery. Pointless music blares from speakers, “the psychiatrist has a face like an old dictionary,” an “upbeat counselor/ passes around a basket/ of rocks.” The patients talk among themselves of “side effects, night sweats, and low libidos,” remember their traumas, and discuss the merits of shock therapy. The speaker meets her companions for this journey—a twisted boy, a Vietnam vet, a would be magician. Escape is somewhere else now, “beyond the window” or “in the ward above,” a place “you don’t want to go.” Instead of her angel, the speaker has visions of a “hooded woman” who “carries a gladiola like a spine in bloom.” Over time, her weather, her metaphors, shift—“something shimmering and tear streaked begins to turn.” Honum sprinkles references to flowers, intimating the faint possibility of spring. Her speaker finds grounding and comfort in the weight of her dog’s “warm, happy skull” on her lap.
As the collection closes, Honum leads us out of the hospital and back into the world. We travel with her to motels and cheap inns, “an ugly place to miss you from,” “a blurry number inside a drop of rain.” The rain, the speaker’s illness, remains, but now it is only “The mist…gone undercover at the end of summer.”
Honum concludes the collection in a juvenile detention center, where her speaker is teaching young inmates to express themselves through poetry. The detention center resembles the psychiatric ward, with fluorescent lights and steely gray walls. The speaker has now morphed from inmate to counselor; she and the boys look for hope not in angels or the clean release of snow, but in a tiny, flightless flea, “anything/that travels in big leaps.”
then winter is simultaneously a monochrome, austere descriptor of mental illness and recovery, and a window into the weather system of the spirit. Honum’s imagery can be breathtaking and frightening; for me these poems are a reminder that the non-linear parts of the mind can both fuel creativity and feed despair. The collection does not shy from exploring the latter path. Acting as a sort of Pandora, then winter unpacks suffering for us, but this small book is also Honum’s “box of wonder.” She contends we can only find our way forward by examining all of its contents.
Chloe Honum was raised in Auckland, New Zealand. Her first collection, The Tulip-Flame (2014), was selected by Tracy K. Smith for the Cleveland State University Poetry Center First Book Prize, won the Foreword Poetry Book of the Year Award and a Texas Institute of Letters Award, and was named a finalist for the PEN Center USA Literary Award. She’s also the author of a chapbook, Then Winter (Bull City Press, 2017). Her poems have appeared in The Paris Review, Poetry, and The Southern Review, and her awards include a Ruth Lilly Fellowship and a Pushcart Prize. She is currently an assistant professor at Baylor University.
Sonja Johanson has recent work appearing in the Best American Poetry blog, BOAAT, Ninth Letter, and The Writer’s Almanac. She is a contributing editor at the Eastern Iowa Review, and the author of Impossible Dovetail (IDES, Silver Birch Press), all those ragged scars (Choose the Sword Press), and Trees in Our Dooryards (Redbird Chapbooks). Sonja divides her time between work in Massachusetts and her home in the mountains of western Maine. You can follow her work at sonjajohanson.net.