Review by Dayna Patterson
Reviewer’s Note: A few months ago, both Trish Hopkinson and I had chapbooks enter the Poetry Universe, her fourth and my third. In the interest of transparency, you should know that I am mostly familiar with Hopkinson because of her extremely helpful website for writers, but I’ve also had the good fortune to bump into her in real life at a handful of poetry readings. Plus, we both have Mormon roots. When our chapbook babies were born, we decided to swap and write reviews of each others’ work. What follows is my best stab at a dispassionate glimpse of Hopkinson’s latest contribution to poetry.
Award-winning poet Trish Hopkinson’s fourth chap, Almost Famous, is a tidy collection of 12 poems following the narrative arc of the speaker’s difficult birth, troubled childhood and teenage years, followed by an adulthood where the speaker embraces her own power. The charming cover art, created by Hopkinson’s daughter Clementine, shows a female figure, perhaps a depiction of the speaker herself, holding a cake of several Seussian layers teetering skyward, topped by a single candle. The colorfully-iced layers foreshadow the speaker’s string of birthdays encapsulated in the chapbook and echoed in the last line of the collection “Birthday after birthday after birthday after birthday after” (21).
The chapbook begins with the speaker’s difficult delivery into this world. It’s 1972, before the era of doulas and female empowerment and involving dads in the delivery room. The speaker’s mother is completely sedated while
or a man rather, pressed
a tool inside her, like the back
of a soup spoon reaching in
to a bowl of cold grits,
fished around for my tender
skull, and excised me from comfort.
The sun was yet to rise, or
maybe had just risen. I’m sure
I cried—wailed into the dawn,
grasping at my first breath, gulping
air like a baby robin just cracked open
from its warm blue shell.
I’m sure I saw my mother lying there
—as if dead. (9)
The male doctor is the locus of control, the mother purely passive in this introductory poem. It’s an inauspicious beginning for the speaker, and it’s a pattern of male domination/female subordination that plays out in these poems time and again. In the title poem, her mother, who was “once a writer & music major,” who was talented enough to have become famous, sacrifices her potential in order to marry, converting from her Methodist faith to her husband’s Mormonism, raising four children and bearing “the ongoing burden of supporting her / husband” (11).
In “Kansas Flat,” we find the speaker, a child, being raised in a dilapidated mobile home they drag
from one town to another trying
to find a job my father can keep.
The metal siding that holds us in
is pecked with hailstone dents
and rust-laced edges. Inside, the hallway
is shoulder-to-shoulder narrow
and the doors thin enough
for a fist. The kitchen wears
its linoleum like a polyester suit
and the avocado shag mats smooth
where we walk. Bookshelves host rows
and rows of science fiction paperbacks,
double-parked to fit them all,
tops speckled with roach droppings (10)
The speaker moves with her family from Missouri to Utah, and eventually the father abandons them there. The speaker and her family are left to deal with the repercussions of the father’s decisions, including the decision to move in the first place: “He brought us here, to this juniper desert, / across Midwestern state borders into broken promise, / / sloughing family fragments like tire treads along the way” (15). His abandonment reduces them from one kind of poverty to another, where even their physical safety is threatened. Eventually, in the face of this soul-sucking poverty, the teens in the speaker’s neighborhood, in “South Side,” turn rebellious, surviving by flirtation with danger:
No matter how loud the sermon,
or how low parents set
the thermostat or how long they make
the bread and milk last—
it won’t be enough to keep
a teen from looking elsewhere
for something that feels
Something to squelch envy,
to take notice, to be different.
It’s easy to sneak out
like lean gray mice
squeezing through a crevice,
pressing against the night—
go car-hopping, steal beer
and cigarettes from C-stores (16)
Despite huffing gasoline and riding bullet bikes, the teen bravada belies a deep conviction that they could die at any moment, like the kid who “chokes on his tongue / / and dies in his attic room / from a brain tumor” (17). Their thrill-seeking displays a carpe diem attitude born of life lived at cliff’s edge, expecting any moment to tumble.
For me, the most haunting poem in this collection is “Predator,” a poem whose title is its own trigger warning. Echoing the introductory poem with its dominant male/subordinate female power dynamics, the speaker witnesses her best friend in an abusive relationship with a “sixteen-year-old-scared-aggressor-boy” who insists the friend “wouldn’t get pregnant if he pulled out in time / if he threw his closed fist into her abdomen daily” (18). The aggressor ends by raping the speaker when she is just fourteen, a rude induction into womanhood.
Thankfully, Hopkinson doesn’t abandon her readers there. In the final two poems, “Rosebud” and “Mixed Tape,” we witness the speaker’s “adulthood swarming” as she taps into her own power. Now, she is anything but passive (20). She selects her “Bo Derek braids” hairstyle and rosebud tattoo “installed by a convict on the back of my neck.” She becomes a writer: “the electric typewriter ticking for attention” (20). In “Mixed Tape,” she declares, “Waiting is a horrible preoccupation. When I’ve no choice, I write and memorize lists, make decisions, make solutions, make poetry. Poetry waits for me” (21). Any good mixed tape will include a healthy variety of songs, and this last poem ranges all over the place, recapping the speaker’s birth and Missouri childhood, but also pointing us forward, to the speaker’s brightest moments: “My memories have taste buds—I can smell the morning we woke up together, run my tongue along the salty sweetness of the day he said yes, gulp the warmth of our first born like a miracle. Every moment has a different palate and lingers on my teeth” (21). This last poem embraces the speaker’s past, its tastes and smells, and goes further by replacing the teenaged nihilism in poems like “South Side,” pointing readers to a future full of birthdays that will, one hopes, follow after.
BIO: Dayna Patterson is the author of Titania in Yellow (Porkbelly Press, 2019) and If Mother Braids a Waterfall (Signature Books, 2020). Her creative work has appeared recently in AGNI, The Maynard, and Tahoma Literary Review. She is the founding editor-in-chief of Psaltery & Lyre and a co-editor of Dove Song: Heavenly Mother in Mormon Poetry. She was a co-winner of the 2019 #DignityNotDetention Poetry Prize judged by Ilya Kaminsky.
See Trish’s review of Dayna’s chapbook in this month’s issue HERE!