“Nothing disturbs me quite like madness,” asserts the speaker of Jessica Purdy’s poem, “After Reading Plath.” But not since Sylvia Plath’s poems about motherhood in Ariel have I encountered such a deeply, deliciously deranged expression of the disturbances of being a mother and a self in our disturbed and deranged world as in Purdy’s aptly named collection, Sleep in a Strange House. In dreams and out of them, this brutally frank confrontation with the work of parenting (parenting both one’s self and one’s children) talks back to those who would reduce mothering to a series of quaint conditionals. Talks back in a timbre that is memorable for its mettle, in a voice that is at once hypnotic and homespun, in craft that spars with a sly bravura, and in lines that joust with disquieting fondness.
— Tom Daley, author of House You Cannot Reach: Poems in the Voice of My Mother and Other Poems
Excerpts from Sleep in a Strange House
I Imagine a Family Dreaming
The father dreams of being held down
under a heavy door he can’t push off;
the weight like the sleep he can’t fight.
It’s like a tomb or the lid of his own coffin.
The mother dreams of a single candle flame
that multiplies, creating the spokes of a flower,
a breeze sets the petals to flicker
against the black night: a pinwheel, a ferris wheel.
The sister dreams a hot water bottle
the size of a throat lozenge is choking her,
then it’s an eraser that rubs her head
until she disappears.
The brother dreams he is climbing the pine tree
outside his bedroom window. The higher
he climbs, the smaller the space
between the branches gets,
until the moon crosses to the other horizon
and he hangs by his knees.
I dream of a porch swing in the middle of a
field and empty landscape. The sun lights
the scene with an apocalyptic glow.
There are no people. There is no wind
yet the swing swings on and on.
After the Hysterectomy
“A day in which I don’t write leaves a taste of ashes”
– Simone de Beauvoir
In the hospital
time became a wall with a clock I had to face.
Each hour was a stint of sleep
and pain that brought back childbirth.
At home, my dreams smelled of burning rubber –
I didn’t care. Drowned
in the cold that seeped through windows,
the sludge of salt water that won’t freeze.
No blanket could warm me.
I wrapped gifts in the basement,
against doctor’s orders, overdid it. Wrote nothing
but notes on pills and bleeding.
Whatever was missing didn’t concern me;
what was the point of any of it?
My childrens’ first house was gone.
I pictured each baby curled up inside
deliriously thought: you can’t go home again.
I had no affection for the place.
Strange how a woman creates
and then suddenly stops –
In what room of the soul do moments go
In the kitchen, whose soup on the stove; whose table
with one chair turned as if one more thing to bring–
the way a mind skips, forgets, remembers again;
the salt, the spoon, something essential;
in what locked cabinet do the huddled teacups’
shoulders no longer rattle with passing steps;
whose abandoned ceiling has fallen on the mattress;
how does the floor fall away under no one’s weight;
whose fingers key the piano’s long silence;
what music is sung to the ears left listening;
what roads in the mind do the worst thoughts travel;
what pale underbelly passes over the roof’s gash;
what eye locks on motion;
in what room of the soul do moments go;
patient tree roots nudge their knuckles toward
the brittle foundation; and the screen door bangs
Awakened by the whimper of my daughter then a sob,
I climb up out of sleep to find out her fear.
My heart beats hard, my body flushes hot.
Above my sleep I listen –
listen just below the surface
then it comes again and I detect a rhythm.
Who would do this? Why count the seconds
to the next sob and then the same intake of breath,
or is it an exhale? It’s coming from outside.
Not my daughter after all. Relief,
and then to the window in my haze, listen, listen
and hope to help or know what it is.
This whoo whoo whoo
becomes the classic owl cry.
A rare sound for this suburb
and one I’d heard maybe once before
in the Maine woods one night
as I tried to sleep in a strange house.
I did not sleep all night that time when I was younger
and could leave anytime I wanted.
Still I chose to listen listen.
Jessica Purdy has lived in New England all her life and currently resides in Southern New Hampshire with her husband and two children. Having majored in both English and Studio Art at UNH, she feels drawn to the visual in both art and poetry. She has worked as an art teacher and a writing teacher. Currently, she teaches Poetry Workshops at Southern New Hampshire University. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College. In 2015, she was a featured reader at the Abroad Writers’ Conference in Dublin, Ireland. Her poems have appeared in many journals, including The Light Ekphrastic, The Wild Word, Nixes Mate Review, Silver Birch Press “Beach and Pool Memories” Series and their “Nancy Drew Anthology”, Local Nomad, Bluestem Magazine, The Telephone Game, The Tower Journal, The Cafe Review, Off the Coast, The Foundling Review, and Flycatcher. Her chapbook, Learning the Names, was published in 2015 by Finishing Line Press. Her most recent book, STARLAND, was published by Nixes Mate Books.
Copyright © 2018 Jessica Purdy
Cover photograph from the collection of Lauren Leja.
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review or scholarly journal.
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