Review of Forms and Hollows by Heather Dubrow

Cherry Grove Collections, 2011
Softcover $15

Reviewed by James Crews

Heather Dubrow’s first collection of poetry, Forms and Hollows, opens with an extended elegy for her mother and makes use of a dizzying range of poetic forms—everything from sonnets and villanelles to a canzone and ghazal. These are some of the forms, of course, indicated by the title of her book, but their masterful use throughout suggests a speaker’s attempt to reign in and make sense of the chaos of emotions and a memory that is often enough for all of us “a noisy houseguest.”

Dubrow is one of those virtuosos we envy; she began her distinguished career as a scholar and author of six books of widely acclaimed criticism, the most recent of which is The Challenges of Orpheus: Lyric Poetry and Early Modern England (Johns Hopkins, 2011). Nonetheless, Forms and Hollows marks a generous and fiercely aware poetic intelligence, especially apparent in the aforementioned eight-part elegy that ushers us into her world. So begins the speaker’s interrogation of a life that once brought so much comfort:

Gangs of what-ifs cast shadows on white walls:
Sure, that pain may be gas, but it’s so near
where the tumor was. There’s the doctor in the hall—
Nervous questions. Cheerful answers. Yet doubts still rise.
For our doctors wear crisply ironed white lies.

As she points out over and over, our bodies betray us. The medical establishment can offer no answers, only “white lies.” It is these truths that keep us appreciative of Dubrow’s gentle touch, evident in poems like “Mourning in November,” which shows one of those the moments we have all experienced and perhaps faced alone:

Chattering into midnight,
I stockpile bromides:
Hard and shiny as acorns.

Though the prospect of disruption (“the baby teeth of another disaster/biding its time”) seems to lurk beneath even the most joyful of these poems, the many moments of humor and surprise shed light wherever darkness might collect too thickly. Taking us with her to Our Lady of Murano in Venice, to Sydney, Australia or La Rue Daguerre in Paris, Dubrow shows off an ability not just to catalogue what she sees, but also to filter it through a sensibility that is (refreshingly) more than willing to delight her readers and even (God forbid) make us crack a smile. Consider these lines from “Rue Daguerre, Paris”:

But if we navigate among
the detritus of dogs and ironies,
eyes neither wide nor more lidded than they should be,
Paris awakens us
to choruses
sung by flowerpots on balconies
and arias
by that alpha male of wines,
the Burgundy.

Essential to any first volume of poetry (or any good book, for that matter) is the crafting of a voice readers won’t mind accompanying for a while. And lucky for us, whether she’s talking about things as seemingly plain as cheese, spices or bread, Dubrow manages to surprise with her constant wit as in the last lines of “Homemade Bread: A Baker’s Dozen”:

The joy of kneaded bread:
Only one part of a man’s body
is so elastic,
so smooth,
so happy to be touched.

Forms and Hollows is also impeccably arranged, with one poem often flowing seamlessly into the next. Not enough poets these days pay that kind of careful attention to continuity or to the patient shaping of metaphor—yet another area in which this work exhibits its immense playfulness. In “Regret: A User’s Guide,” she returns to her central theme (what we hold onto, what keeps its hold over us):

Some memories scamper:
Walt Disney squirrels
with those adorable tails . . .

these rodents of mine
dine on the wires,
chew through dear neurons . . .

It is the unquiet mind, Dubrow suggests, that often intercedes to upend our best intentions, especially on those dark mornings when we waken, unable to fall back asleep and lie there, composing our endless to-do lists as if to stave off the pain of the past and the nagging doubts that come to disturb the present moment. We want to rise and be productive,

But rain insists,
memories siren the dark,
yesterday stains all lists.
And photos slide out of their albums
and stalk up the steps,
as tight with fury as a Van Gogh cypress.

“Divorce Papers,” the long poem that rounds out the collection, continues this meditation on the transience of love and its imprint on us, while also hinting of the joys to come with a new partner. Dubrow recollects with vividness and honesty the betrayal of a marriage she once expected to be an “Eden”:

Each snowfall celebrated
with ritualistic snow walks,
covering us
with melted stars.

Not knowing the borders
surrounding this garden
would sprout blades of knives
at the first sign of spring.

“The divorced meet each other,” she tells us, “in the hollows of monuments.” And perhaps those “monuments” she means are the places in the mind, worn smooth by time and use, where we cannot escape the memories, fears and ghosts we wish were “well bred enough to know they needed an invitation.” But no matter how long we have tried to forget our past lives, they always return to haunt even our most carefree days. The best we can do, Dubrow counsels in the excellent Forms and Hollows, is to become “immune to frostbite,” to make peace with whatever specters decide to show up and to delight in the small moments between their dispiriting appearances.