Reviewed by Emma Bolden
The Yellow House, Robin Behn's blisteringly brilliant fifth collection of poetry, shows the reader how the inner space of a woman moves as she moves through her life—through loss and love, creation, death, and recreation—with the metaphor of a yellow house, a house which “is the dream of the woman”—the self known and recognized—and at the same time “the dream about the woman / another woman, her/not her, / woke in the middle of, and wept.” The collection is, in one sense, narrative: as one moves through the poems, one moves through the shifting spaces of the house and comes to discover the events of the woman's life which create these spaces, and how the house itself reacts, becomes “a place they could actually live in / and let their stories story it / so they would never die.” In “Old Distance Woman Has Asked the Yellow House for a Book,” Behn directly reveals the plot behind the poems:
[…]She heard the beautiful yellow voice (moi) come out of nowhere […] She had a beautiful Other war kilt so that that. […] She had the woman well baby of course then years nice years. Then her man go off to mysty war in mister brain. Letters home then not. So she start painting paint. Of flowers staying still.
However, this poem—and therefore the outline of the plot itself—appears on page 62, emphasizing the fact that the real story here is not so much the plot itself as it is the revelation of that plot, the process of how “stories story” the woman's interior life, scaffolding and re-scaffolding a self. Just as all of our selves shift—from year to year, stage to stage, second to second—so too do the images and words in Behn's poems. “Part” becomes “parting,” “[a]board” becomes “abroad,” and “[e]very tangent outward / boomeranged back in.”
Behn's poems are challenging and take some time to put together, but this challenge is essential to the subject: the shifting nature of the self and the difficulty of understanding not just others' but our own souls—ideas which are unmistakably challenging. “[N]o one in the yellow house / knows its thwarted dreams,” Behn writes in “Aspirations of the Yellow House,” lines which signify that just as we lack awareness of the spaces around us, the spaces in which we make our lives, so too do we lack awareness of the space inside of us, in which our lives are made. Our most intimate moments, as Behn implies in “The Floating Room,” are often unknowable even to ourselves, much less to others: “No one else in any sort of world will ever know this / swanning and unswanning.” The poems build upon each other to build this process, and the reader who follows the poems through, though “now all the smug particulars are gone,” will find within them an “ache that recognized ache,” an echo of their own selves in the yellow house. The story—of being and building, of falling and rebuilding—is all of our stories. The house is the shifting yet steadfast space inside each of us, bright as “[a] league of ochre-throated feathers,” and long after closing the covers, readers of Behn's book will find that “[l]ike a bee in amber, something of you stays” with the poems, and the poems stay with you as “the hum of you keeps climbing.” July 2011
Emma Bolden is the author of three chapbooks of poetry and an assistant professor of Creative Writing at Georgia Southern University.