All That Held Us
By Henrietta Goodman
BkMk Press, 2018
66 Pages, $13.95
Review by Naomi Kimbell
The bar is full of wood paneling, lights, and televisions tuned to football, and it’s nearly empty when we arrive, with only a few people in their 60s and 70s watching the away game and eating fries and onion rings. We end up in the attached café at a chunky wood table by the window. Neither of us wants a drink. We look at menus, order pie and coffee, and I remember the first time I ate here the waitress warned me not to order pancakes. “The cook can’t do them,” she said.
I take out my notebook. I place All that Held Us (BkMk Press, 2018) on the table next to me. I’ve read it at least three times, but the mechanics of the poems are invisible to me. I’ve always thought that understanding form is necessary to fully appreciating a poem, but I don’t know how to see the structure in poetry unless the rhymes are obvious, so I always suspect I’m missing something, missing meaning that can only be revealed through examination and analysis, through the governance of shape and flow.
I write prose. I’ve never taken a prosody class. I don’t aspire to write poems, but I want to understand how poets translate storied experience into form, the form then elevating the story into something it could not have become without constraints. All that Held Us, while written within boundaries and rules, is simultaneously not bound and not ruled.
I don’t mean to sound like a sycophant on the first question, but somehow, I manage it. “How did you write a whole book of Italian sonnets?” I ask. The waitress puts pie in front of us and refills our coffee.
“Writing sonnets is easy,” says Henrietta. She takes off her sweater, revealing a tattoo of a plane on her right shoulder, and hangs it across the back of her chair. She said she learned that people naturally tend to speak in iambic rhythm (one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable), and after writing all the sonnets in her book, she began to believe it. The rhythm is natural, and she couldn’t stop. She began to have sonnet-shaped ideas.
All That Held Us, an entire book of sonnet-shaped ideas, begins as a window through the eyes of a bewildered child in the house of two sisters. Henrietta’s mother: proper, distant, and disappointed. Henrietta’s aunt: angry, judgmental, and a hoarder. The sisters have little mutual affection for one another. Their connection is based on a shared history of antagonism, and neither have much visible affection for Henrietta. As a result, the narrator lives her life in a veil of discomfort and mystery as her mother attempts to usher her through the world by keeping her isolated and ignorant.
I try to ask a smart question, but can’t manage to do so. I ask her if a syllable is the same as a beat. I feel foolish, but I cling to the belief that I will develop a deeper understanding of her book if I understand at least a few rules of form. I’m not sure that this is the right approach to this conversation, but it’s what I go with. It’s a place to start.
“If the word only has one syllable,” she says. This is self-evident, of course, but I know a poet who cheats and says a single word can be a beat, even if it has more than one syllable. “Take the word berry,” says Henrietta. “Berry is two beats. It’s trochaic. The stress is on the first syllable. The second is unstressed.”
I fumble for a better question and ask her if every word is either iambic or trochaic. I am not unstressed.
“Only if it has two syllables,” she says. She laughs. I can’t believe these are the questions I’m asking, but soon learn that all two-syllable words are either iambic or trochaic. That’s something, I guess, but it’s clear to me that these are the wrong questions to ask if I want a better understanding of her work. I ask about sonnets. I ask her to tell me what they are.
She puts down her fork and writes the rhyming structure of the Italian sonnet on the paper. ABBAABBA. “That’s the octave. The octave is constrained,” she says. It is not supposed to vary from this pattern.
Following the octave is the sestet, which is less constrained because the rhyming structure is variable. CDCDCD. Or, CDECDE. Or, CDCDEE. In between the octave and the sestet is the volta, the place where the poem turns.
“Nothing controls the first line of the sestet,” she says, tapping at the ninth line. “The biggest moment of freedom in an Italian sonnet is right there. This is where I can say whatever the hell I want. It doesn’t have to rhyme with anything.”
I pause. This also feels revelatory: the structure of an Italian sonnet sounds like a metaphor. I think about my life. I wonder where my own ninth line is. I think about the memoir I once tried to piece together out of a chaos of essays. I gave up. I was tired of reliving the trauma in order to assemble it, and I wonder, if I’d had form to lean on, could I have finished it? Can form be a channel for trauma?
“Your collection is a memoir,” I say. “Did you set out to do that?”
“That was a total accident,” she says. She takes a bite of pie. “I thought, I’m going to write an Italian sonnet because I’d never written one, and the word physique has always really bugged me because that was a word my mom would say: He has a nice physique,” she says. “I hate the word physique…and for some reason I was thinking about it when I wrote that first sonnet, and when I finished, I realized I wasn’t done…and I decided I’m either going to keep going with this or I have to stop.”
My mother said he has a nice physique
sometimes, about some man we didn’t know.
She meant, of course, his broad shoulders, narrow
hips, the opposite of us. That antique
Southern world—not sexual, her oblique
praise, not even female. We didn’t know
any men at all. I should feel sorrow
instead of blame, but even now I speak
as though she wronged me. In her white, high-waist
bikini, she stood just knee-deep, the lake
a green lapping danger. She couldn’t swim.
It had nothing to do with being chaste
or loose, as that was called. But what mistake
made me, and what to name it, her or him?
This is the first sonnet in the collection. None have titles, and each poem begins with a line from the previous one as a place of departure, a subtle connection between the two and a choice in form which helps create the story beyond the shared theme. The second poem begins with:
Nothing to do with being chaste or loose—
but loose meant what? All that held them captive,
propriety and fear…
The poems are laced with astonishment. The narrator cannot understand how the world works, or how desire, sex, and relationships can be healthy and not subversive. Her mother’s lessons are based only on her mother’s fears and disappointments untempered by insight and wisdom. The collection as a whole is Southern Gothic. It is uncomfortable and transgressive. Transgressive because it is honest. Unflinchingly so.
I tell Henrietta I’m impressed that she never allows her words to provide a buffer between the event and the poem. Instead, she uses language to intensify her gaze. The poems are simple, accessible. She says she’s surprised readers have never mentioned the rape scene.
I remember the poem and flip through the book to find it.
To be, not seen—she loved the little law
of adage, the façade without the mess
of motive. Wait for him to ask, say yes,
be nice—you’re lucky if he wants to paw
your pimpled skin or let his tongue, that raw
wet oyster, occupy your mouth. Your dress
is paper, made to tear. To acquiesce
is woman—close your eyes, unhinge your jaw—
it’s fast, and faster if you don’t resist.
Girls put things in their bodies and then lie,
the doctor said, and what he put in me
I still don’t know. And when I tried to twist
away, he held me down, his alibi
my innocence, my mother’s pedigree.
“I wasn’t sure what to think of this moment in the poem,” I say. “I wasn’t sure what happened.”
That’s perhaps only partially true. In reality, I let that poem slip past because, of all the poems in the collection, this one was hardest to read. Henrietta’s poetic gaze is like a pond in sunlight. You can see your own reflection, and you can see what’s beneath it too. She shows the reader what they know but would rather avoid: the mother was complicit in this rape, through training, through enculturation. She trained Henrietta to be a victim, and this made it easy for the doctor to do what he wanted. The word sonnet is often equated with romantic love. These poems don’t work that way. There are no soft corners in which to hide.
Henrietta asks to walk me home so I can give her a tour of my garden. Both of us have converted large sections of lawn to vegetables, but she’s never seen mine.
“One of the nice things about having friends who are gardeners,” she says, “is that you don’t have to be good at growing everything.”
We have a poet friend who’s great at growing kale. I’m good at tomatoes. Henrietta had a bumper crop of pumpkins this year.
The wood plank fence around my yard is six feet high. You can’t see in from the street, and Henrietta is surprised when she sees the yard. It’s big. It’s full of dead stalks and vines. I haven’t yet cleared everything out and put the garden to bed.
I show her the currants, the strawberry patch, the raspberries. She leans over. She touches the canes.
I show her the raised beds my husband built. I tell her how hard he worked on the rock paths. I point out the dried yarrow. I point out my rose that decided to put on one last bloom. It’s red even in the snow.
Around the side, I have a jungle of hollyhocks. A frost-flopped rhubarb. An embarrassment of bindweed. Nothing is kempt. There’s not much holding things together except for the architecture of the boxes and the path, and there’s so much going on around it that the architecture itself disappears. I wonder if that’s how poetry works, if this is why I don’t hear the rhymes, don’t see the rules. But this seems too simple, and doesn’t work when I think of Henrietta’s book.
In All That Held Us, the words and stories don’t hang on a trellis like a vine looking for the sun. There’s more symbiosis than that. One cannot be teased away from the other. And perhaps that’s where the poet doesn’t just demonstrate skill but mastery: form and meaning are seamless and essential. It matters that she chose the Italian sonnet. The right form becomes inseparable from meaning, and so it merges with the words. It supports the storied memories not like nails and wood, but stems and leaves, making All That Held Us not a construction but a fruition.