Reading Matryoshka Houses (Kelsay Books, 2020) in the Midwest suburbs is like reading Mary Oliver in Provincetown, or Frank O’Hara in New York, or Flannery O’Connor in the Deep South. They just make everything you’re looking at more beautiful, more important somehow. I’m not convinced that’s because Lynn Pattison wrote the collection with my city-planned exurb in mind, or simply because I am surrounded by houses.
It may be true that any place surrounded by homes is a place rich with the textures and dualities of the human experience, the unscrutinized beauty of a hundred little lives—big lives, to the ones living them. I find this dichotomy so profound, that as I look across the street to the house parallel to mine, I see the husband through the window. I watch their fluffy white Samoyed jumping up and down, and I find everything there so tangible, so easy to process and comprehend. By contrast, in my own, everything is out of proportion. I cannot make sense of this life I am experiencing, its complexities virtuous and maddening. Yet, from the view across the street, through their window, I am a college kid on my little computer sipping tea and watching the light come in. I bet you I am very small to him, too. This smallness and bigness is what Pattison acutely capitalizes on in her stunning collection, an amalgamation of life, of objects, of characters and props, of a three dimensional, fully formed human experience as lived through distinct setting. A picture of life through the home.
When tackling as huge a subject as the metaphor of a house, there is much to be said about taking it apart, dissecting this monster of a motif into digestible pieces of imagery—a hairbrush here, a litter box there, an empty milk carton, etc. That is one way to illustrate a personhood. Yet, Pattison seems to argue against this methodology, especially with early lines of “Elusive”: “The story / of home can’t be unearthed by orderly excavation, / studied one stratum at a time.” By deliberately using words like excavation, with a sort of scientific cadence, she contends that a home (and by extended metaphor, a life) isn’t an impersonal stack of objects, the bare bones of the matter, or its earth underneath. That though these things hold pieces, fractured bits of a reality, they can never surmise its true, lush fullness. Nevertheless, she exemplifies the impactfulness of this stylistic list form, following the above-mentioned line with a montage of prose-filled imagery. In what seems like direct opposition to her ideology surrounding the way we discuss the vast emotional and physical presence of homes, she indulges the audience in visuals that triumphantly glorify the ordinary, channeling time, change, and history. Moments like, “wax pilgrims and jewelry boxes with dancers // on the lids, framed diplomas and watering cans, / sump pumps and inner tubes” take objects that, while having no clear ties to one another, become a forcibly linked and united front to deliver a picture of what an overflowing, real, functional home looks like.
It isn’t just the commitment to this grand idea that makes this collection so powerful—it’s Pattison’s narrative voice. An influx between personal and omnipotent, there is a balanced authority and loss of authority sustained throughout. In poems like “Rustbeltasana” and “At Last,” the author carries the poem with confidence, assuredness we relax in and listen to. Conversely, poems like “The dog, if I had one. Maybe my pillow.” and “Cleaning the birdhouse” contrast it with what can often be the fragility of our limited perspective, paired with the forced all-knowingness of a matriarch. In weaving these frames of view, we find the humanness at the center, the deeply maternal struggle between having answers and grasping for them. As Pattison writes, “There are so many things / A mother can’t explain.”
At the center of the whirlwind of life that is harnessed in this text, there is a gracefulness, a fight against cynicism, a battle sometimes lost, an intentional awareness, a paying attention, a gratitude and a tentativeness, the home and what’s inside. Pattison is an expert at this art, of illuminating reality, of allowing it full figuration and, as a result, we exit her world feeling deeper and more profoundly about our own homes, and the ones across the street.
Finnegan Angelos is a poet and essayist originally from northern Maryland, now residing in Chicago. His work often concentrates on the dichotomy between those two places, dealing heavily in nostalgia and naturalism—as well as queerness, interpersonal relationships, and spirituality. His work has been published in the Beyond Queer Words Anthology, Thistle Magazine, and FRANCES, among others. He loves his dog, hibiscus tea, and the banjo.