In No Spare People (Black Lawrence Press, 2023), Erin Hoover immerses us readers in two different worlds—the intimately familial mother-daughter relationship and the external society of American reality. Within the walls of the home, “there are only two, no / spare people” (Hoover 78). Through this collection, however, we see the many ways patriarchal norms make some people feel “spare.”
Hoover widely explores what it means to be a woman in America, specifically the American South. In “White woman” she describes a reality where “some days, I’m the pioneer wife, / keeper of the homestead, but others / I’m absurdly educated for a uterus” (Hoover 43). I feel the impact of living in a post-Roe world through these poems. There is a frank portrayal of the ways in which a woman’s value, in many places, feels like it is measured by her reproductive potential. Hoover writes, “a woman / pregnant is a farm animal / only caring to alternate between trough / and pen. Treated as such / by doctors. How easily they could put away / a mother thought dangerous. For the baby” (46). As a woman of childbearing age, and as someone who has fielded frequent questions around my own hesitation to have children, I find Hoover’s frustration familiar. In sharing this speaker’s experience, women who hold their own fears around pregnancy can feel justified.
There is danger and violence lurking within these poems. For example, “Three weeks” is about the impact of the O.J Simpson trial on a fifteen year old speaker watching the verdict. Hoover writes, “I’d like to say I learned that day / about men who don’t think women / are people at all, / but I already knew, all over the country, / girls like me knew” (19). We live in a world where we read news story after story about violence against women. Additionally, a recent poll reported 64% of OBGYNs say the Dobbs ruling has increased pregnancy related mortality. As women in America, it is easy to feel that our safety is deprioritized; Hoover gives voice to this inequity.
Many of the poems from No Spare People hint at men being a primary cause of the danger women face. In “Forms and materials,” this blame is more explicitly stated. “Perhaps, in the shadow / of Dobbs v. Jackson, / I could use some distance from men” (Hoover 72). The distance the speaker craves seems to be a way for them to seek safety. This poem clearly states the potential consequences of interacting with men: “Dear sweet, please fit neatly / into our shared hetero void and behave / wife-like or we will fucking kill you / with celluloid and forced birth / and a fetus made into a god” (Hoover 72). In this sweeping eleven page poem, Hoover goes on to say:
“There is too much sperm in America,
America is run by sperm,
but the vial I bought sprung me
from the Romance-Industrial Complex
that kept me docile for many years,
and as an exit fee, it worked” (73).
The speaker pays this exit fee in order to freely raise her child on her own, and many poems within No Spare People explore the life of a solo-parent. In “To be a mother in this economy,” the speaker is “not always home, / department store suit creased / into my luggage, phone jacked into an airport / wall, all those hotel stays hopeful for the job / on the horizon” (Hoover 58). We’ve heard of “mom guilt,” but Hoover distills these vague and overused ideas into a heartbreaking image. The poem ends with, “I wonder if my absence lives inside / her, if the babies are about that, / they are everything to her, these beloveds, / until she walks away” (Hoover 59). Mothers are expected to make their children their “everything,” and this poem expertly grapples with the struggle of being financially unable to fulfill the expectation as a single mother.
It would be far too neat to say Hoover paints the outside world as dangerous and the inside as a soft, safe haven. “But for the hours I didn’t care if I lived” is a poem about alcohol abuse and the impact it has on a parent’s ability to care for their child. Hoover writes, “I’ve not yet / told my daughter / to fear my nights, that while / she sleeps I disappear / into a grave I create, / evening by evening, / cover myself / with punishing dirt, / laugh like a sorceress, / and the next day climb out” (53). Yes, the speaker too can be a danger to her family, and she questions how parenting is often sold as a cure for our ailments: “Do we have children as a kind / of insurance, to guard / our minds like this, stop us / from ruining ourselves?” (Hoover 54). Hoover’s writing implies that even the noble act of parenting can’t save us from ourselves.
Throughout No Spare People, Hoover brings to light many unflattering truths about the maddening hypocrisy of our world. In “Death parade,” Hoover writes, “At first the pandemic was all of the things we couldn’t / have. Then, it just was. A cough was a harbinger of death. / Then, it was a cough” (22). Hoover brilliantly sheds light on all we have accepted as normal, the parts of life that have become what just is—parts that, when explored, are revealed to be anything but normal.
There is power in agency and in creating an authentic life, one that may be far from expectation. There is also so much pressure put on women to exist in a way that often includes a stereotypical family. As Hoover writes: “A perfect circle is hard to imagine / (except if you have imagination), / but it’s obvious: my daughter and I are / complete by ourselves.” (75). These poems seem to suggest that a sense of wholeness is possible once this societal pressure is shed.
No Spare People will be published by Black Lawrence Press in October 2023.
Jen Gayda Gupta is a poet, educator, and wanderer. She earned her BA in English at the University of Connecticut and her MA in Teaching English from New York University. Jen lives, writes, and travels across the U.S. in a tiny camper with her husband and their dog. Her work has been published in Up the Staircase, Rattle, Jellyfish Review, Sky Island Journal, The Shore, and others. You can find her @jengaydagupta and jengaydagupta.com.