Little House, Big House (Now How I Am An American)
By Liz Waldner
Reviewed by Samantha Seto
Liz Waldner's collection of poems, Little House, Big House, tells a narrative of American life with themes close to her heart—language, culture, history, and places in her homeland. The speaker describes her experiences of living in America, yet it is clear that she has a keen sense of universal knowledge. In the poem "Now How I Am An American," the American traditions evident in her life are grounded in place. Her identity is deeply rooted in respect, love, and patriotism for the nation. Finding a place in the world aligns with the speaker's reflections on her own life throughout the book.
Waldner's poems regularly create a second layer of meaning. In "Love's Letter Lost," the speaker comments on her own writing: "How Elizabethan my diction." She personifies death, "Yet somebody in here always hopes– / hence a living shoulder / for Death to look over –." Allusions to writers like Shakespeare and Donne abound—" between wherefore art thou and Death, be not proud"—and she pays homage to the old traditions and the elder writers of English. Waldner also expresses her mastery of translation from German to English in "Lexicon / Teknikon" by writing "welt," meaning "world," and "(O my orphaned German Oma)," which translates to grandmother. The speaker also uses French in "Pathetic Fallacy" as she states "leaving (bien sûr) literacy to the trees" and "trop de Baudelaire for me." She ultimately gives an opinion about the French language in "Upon Lately Reading T–." Comparing a French term to its English translation, the speaker elaborates, "French is so often for me the language where / one hears most clearly how most closely / kin 'blessing' and 'wound' are," ("bénédiction" means "blessing" and "blessure" means "wound").
American traditions gradually build an identity. In "Now How I Am An American," the speaker mentions, "Thanksgiving hymn in a church: Sing praises to his name he forgets not his own." The poem reflects on the earth, her cat, and distant places such as British Columbia and Canada. In "Whim (Public Works)," Waldner depicts a modernized American society with core feminist values. Even small, commonplace activities present a clichéd American pastime. For example, in "Squirrel. Piece of Bread," the speaker observes a squirrel eating bread as if carrying a book in its mouth. In "Let There Be Light," the speaker describes the world around her, observing her ordinary life as she knows it in the eternal climate: "of August gloom and chilly NW rain / and considering I'm considering staying—/ having waked the dance pants once black / (Pacific Northwest Ballet)."
Waldner also discusses moments of history, exploring the ways her life as a contemporary American might compare to the rest of the world. In "Another Hope of Great Rome!" she reflects on classical history that dates back to the Roman empire. The poem begins with a list of definitions as she first analyzes the Latin root of a word, "magist-," which means masters. In "Royauté," Waldner refers to Princess Margaret, Queen Elizabeth II of England's sister, and her frowned-upon relationship with Mr. Peter Townsend, a divorcée and commoner, circa 1942. The poem is written in the form of couplets, which mirrors the content of the two lovers. She states, "Last night the royal equerry / loved (in 1942) the royal princess Margaret. / She chose (I reckon) rankly: pomp, / not the handsome Mr. Townsend. / The narrator spoke of 'duty.'" The allusion to forbidden love seems to have been a struggle for the princess and is a fascinating story in history for the reader to learn.
Each place that the speaker presents in the collection is deeply meaningful to her. Waldner includes two poems about Sacramento, which suggests that city's deep personal significance. In "Sacramento Just So Story," she explains her malaise: "it is cold– I am cold– / in Sacramento and no sleep—no home." She clearly does not feel at home. In contrast, she finds gratitude in living in "Sacramento O No." The speaker repeats "thank you" as she feels thankful to the earth for all the good that she experiences. She declares, "the experience of this / is my food and my sleep," which functions as the antithesis of her sentiment in the earlier poem. Yet both the "Sacramento" poems capture her full reflective thoughts on the place. In "Map: I Sight-see Vancouver I.," the speaker discusses using "Google maps" to direct her travels. She mentions a "Souvenir of Holland," creating a beautiful image of a "tea towel" decorated with "blue tulips and windmills." She connects with the Netherlands and visually stimulates the reader to imagine a historical icon of the windmills knitted into "blue on white linen." Similarly, in "Terroir," she describes a portrait, focusing on the physical appearance, and introduces the German subject. She asks, "'Or is it just / The general, germane, German-ness / my blood is made of?' / ('the caustic energy / Of Weimar art:' encaustic, rather, says I.)" She clearly analyzes the details of the German art. In "Optic as Haptic," she paints a teacup, flower, flashlight, and moon remarkably using visual sensory images that captivate the reader: "I pretend it is tea. / It has a color. / This flower has fixed me with an undeniable look."
Lastly, Little House, Big House threads Biblical imagery throughout its poems. In "Creation Story II," the speaker alludes to the Garden of Eden and the holy city of Bethlehem. The story of Adam and Eve is present in "In the latter the apple goes / from green to red / (person, dis- or re-placed) / In the former, I wear my red shift / on Eden's greens' sleeve." She uses a biblical allusion to give historical and theological context to the beginning of mankind. The symbols of "Bethlehem" and "cradle of steel" clearly refer to Jesus Christ. In "With the Jar of Janesalt, the Jar of Dulse Flakes, the Mason Jar of Nutritional Yeast in the Night," she experiments by setting the poem in "cold rain" and "night" and uses the prophetic element of a "dream." It is curious that throughout the poem, the speaker repeats "Selah," a word at the end of many Psalms. The metaphysical concept of the soul that is supposedly judged by God after death as earthly beings transform into angels is present in "Prayer." She explains, "by some greater angel who knows / as the reader knows that it is not my soul / that suffers the indignities of ignobility." In "Beelzebub and Baby J Atop Windham Hill, Vermont," she creates the character of "baby j," which is the Christ child. Symbols with biblical meaning proliferate throughout the collection to include the "rolled away the stone" and "empty tomb," "grace," and angels with "smoking flesh in heaven."
Little House, Big House shares hopeful insight into a unique American life. Waldner's poems are full of captivating images and are genuinely well-written. The poems open the eyes of the reader to the world. Waldner includes notes to clarify language in a few of the poems at the end of the book. The reader learns about what makes an American. The intellectual creativity amidst geography and culture is truly admirable.