Chloe Honum, The Tulip-Flame

Publisher: Cleveland State University Poetry Center

2014, 51 pages, Paperback, $16

A DEEPLY MOVING and powerful first book, Chloe Honum’s The Tulip-Flame captivates its audience with the tour de force energy of a prima ballerina. Each image, each line is expertly choreographed, evoking a strong undercurrent of feeling and a complete immersion in the music that carries throughout each of the book’s four sections. Honum exercises a command of form with an organic, personal voice that interweaves images of music and dancing with a lush natural world full of vitality.

The speaker’s sense of loss, most notably of her dead mother, haunts each poem. The opening poem of the collection, “Spring,” establishes a poignant tone with the first line: “Mother tried to take her life.” This tone carries through each poem until images such as “watching a sparrow / splash in a basin” filled with “emerald water, spindly leaves, feathers” become connected with the loss of the speaker’s mother. Honum even intertwines images of death with luscious nature, describing ballerinas in white tutus as “roses standing naked / on a coffin.” Because of the juxtaposition of natural imagery and death, images of tulips and even the leaves of trees become not just poetic acknowledgements of beauty, but symbols by which the speaker may connect with her lost mother. In “Spring II,” Honum describes a scene in her garden, a location irrevocably connected with the speaker’s memory:

            Almost before my eyes, spring
            spits daffodils on the lawn.
            Still, I stand stiffly,

            remembering Mother, her slim
            form alone at the end of the garden,
            the fruit trees newly in bloom

            and how I, frightened or jealous
            of their song, would call and call
            without a thing to tell her.

In these tercets, Honum manages to convey a sense of connection with the world as well as separation. By establishing this ambivalence, Honum not only entwines reflections of loss with images that celebrate the vitality that surrounds us every day, but demonstrates the complexity of life; even in moments of darkness, beauty still “sings” to the speaker. Music, one of the most important motifs in the collection, permeates everything upon which Honum sets her eye, or ear. Even the trees described by Honum create a melody that both torments and comforts the speaker.

Honum’s attention to form has as important a role in her poetry as her images. In the title poem of the collection, “The Tulip-Flame,” the speaker describes her sister painting:

            She rolls her brush through gray and adds the rain
            in tiny flicks, glinting arrows of cold.
            My sister’s painting this: a hill, a lane.

            Last year our mother died, as was her plan.
            It’s simpler to imagine something could
            have intervened. The centered tulip-flame…

With a clearly established meter, Honum employs a rigid form upon which she improvises with the use of slant rhymes. Like a ballerina taking ownership of a dance number, Honum establishes a form for the poem, then makes it fresh and wholly her own. While her voice feels natural, her mastery over line and rhyme propels the poem forward and holds it together. Yet, in many places, the speaker expresses a feeling that she has lost control, exclaiming: “I cannot grasp my life.” The speaker’s expressed lack of control contrasts with the poet’s control of every aspect of her craft. This contradiction imbues Honum’s poetry with richness, subtlety, and a multiplicity of meaning.

When handling a heavy subject like the loss of a mother, any poet runs the risk of reverting to melodrama. Honum artfully avoids any direct address of the mother’s death, relying instead on inference and silence. Honum’s silence is powerful; by allowing the speaker’s persistent awareness of her mother’s death to inhabit the white spaces of her poetry, she gives it more thematic weight. The mother’s absence acts as a starting point from which Honum reaches outward, hoping for a way forward.  

In line with the speaker’s search for a way forward from her mother’s death, each of Honum’s poems ends with the beginning of a new action. Even in the final poem of the collection, “Come Back,” the speaker, describing the horses she observes, concludes with the line: “I can’t see all of any horse at once— / they multiply, and shiver in the dusk.” In the place of closure, Honum leaves readers with a sense of getting left on the verge of something new, that her poems extend beyond what the page provides.

While Honum leaves a lot unsaid, the beauty of her work comes from a voice that is both confessional and withholding. In “Seated Dancer in Profile,” Honum quietly provides the reader with a way to approach her work: “To love her is to accept she will never turn around.” What we find in The Tulip-Flame is a poet coming to terms with herself and performing in solitude a dance through words. Just as her poems end with a sense of anticipation, this collection leaves readers enthralled and eager for more.

—Daniel Barton