Ice Floe Press, 2022
60 pages, $15.99
Review by Alicia Elkort
Lynne Jensen Lampe’s first book of poems, Talk Smack to a Hurricane, begins with the poem “Five Photographs Square with My Mother’s Truth” and the first words of the poem are, “She grips me…” Only three words, but a poignant way to begin a book that tells the story of a child gripped in a complicated relationship with a mother who suffers mental illness. Her mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia and manic depression after giving birth and was institutionalized on and off throughout Lampe’s life.
In the poem “Chiaroscuro,” the poet writes:
Seckel pears fester on the ground,
soft & meaningless. Blisters
weep for winter, feed
what could become spring.
Could. Conditional tense,
what we wish for. Hope for.
The gaze is everything.
The title of the poem is an Italian art term meaning light and dark, in painting the tonal contrasts that suggest shape and volume. There exists in the story of Lampe’s poems a stark contrast between the love from the mother when she was mentally present and the absence of love when she was ill, in darkness. As a child begins to individuate and discover who she is and how she belongs, the tonal contrasts between parent and child become more pronounced. But add mental illness to the mix, and we see the child’s attempt to individuate fraught with yearning and loss. “The gaze is everything,” Lampe writes, telling us that the gaze of the poems is everything, the gaze is the interpretation of events and then its reckoning. In critical theory, the gaze can be objectifying and self-serving. And in one sense, Lampe’s gaze is self-serving, as a mis-interpretation from a child’s mind. Lampe speaks to the dissonance directly in the poem “Fingered.” Lampe writes, “Being pregnant changed her brain / chemistry, she said. I heard you / caused my crazy.”
Again the gaze is everything as the child determines herself complicit in her mother’s mental illness, a heavy burden to carry through life. But there is also the poems’ gaze of the child, now adult, now poet. What I mean is that in writing the poems, the poet works out another truth, perhaps a greater truth to her experience of childhood, the traumas endured, in essence to see her experience with fresh eyes, adult eyes. The poem “Fingered” continues, “But maybe she was telling me every woman changes / after making a child, & she was willing to risk being someone / new again.”
The poet recognizes that her mother was at the mercy of a system that institutionalized women for being “noisy and troublesome” or “deceptive in her affections,” both reasons given in the records for the State Insane Asylum in Jackson, Mississippi from the poem “Fingered” which begins with “I write poems with hands like hers. Rounded fingertips…” and ends with “Palmistry considers conic fingers a sign of creativity, / intuition. Psychiatry considers womanhood a disease.” In the writing of the poems, there is a recognition that both mother and daughter are caught, fingered, in a cycle of disregard for the inner lives of women. The poet’s experience resonates as a prism of dualities of presence/absence, loving/unloving, and powerful/weak and the ensuing complications. So how wonderful that Lampe is now taking that inheritance and writing poems and publishing a book, telling the story of madness and creativity, love and a longing for love, loss and what we do with loss, unafraid to revisit her childhood and place her gaze upon the hard truths and in doing so to create a new gaze and in this new gaze encounter wisdom.
In the poem “Tutorial” Lampe writes:
Mama slips into the blue sheath,
pats powder on her nose & chin,
snaps the compact shut. I dig
through my shoebox of Avon
samples, inch long tubes
of grease & sunrise: reds, corals,
magentas, pink frosts. She
spritzes Topaz inside each wrist,
hers & mine. I want
what I can’t yet name.
I want her glamour. I want
her. She pops on white oval shades,
grabs the keys to the Corvair.
Rubs my kiss from her cheek
with spit & a thumb.
The mother takes on a movie idol’s status, elegant, debonair when seen from the gaze of the daughter, which by its nature keeps the mother and daughter separate. Not the mother of intimacy, in her pajamas or just waking up with messy hair, but the mother, literally and figuratively, made up. “I want her glamour,” Lampe writes. But the harder truth is “I want/ her.” Even the expression of the need is disrupted by a line break, and the want hangs on the balance, frozen, much as the child is frozen in her need for her mother. Then the poem brings an even more palpable loss. Yes, a child yearns for a mother’s love, but equally important, a child needs to experience her own love received. In the final line, the daughter’s love for her mother is erased.
This sense of erasure from a mother’s life is further examined in eight poems that Lampe created from eight pages of letters her mother wrote through the process of giving birth, “Eight pages of onionskin, / every sentence fat with hope…” from the poem “Delivered.” Each poem is a selection from the letters, with the original words in faded typeset and the erasures in bolded typeset which creates an example of chiaroscuro, the light and dark suggesting the form or substance; the poems then become mini-paintings. The original letters describe the experience of giving birth and the love the mother feels for her daughter. The erasures begin with the hope that “I wed well” from “Not Meant for Society Page” and “I enjoy this baby” from “If Mother & Child Could Stop Time” to “I ache and scatter” from “When It’s Not the Patient Who Needs Restraint” and “The baby did cause the break” from “The Bottle Mother.” In creating these erasures, Lampe engages in dialogue with her mother, a back and forth as if the original letters were the chorus and the erasures the lead. The daughter is now able to respond, and, in this, create agency where the child had none. The daughter/poet also creates and extracts meaning and understanding, perhaps to make peace.
Two of the erasure poems appear again at the end of the book as “Coda 1” and “Coda 2.” They are exactly as they appeared previously in the book except that now, the parts of the letters that were in a very light type are in regular type while the erasures are still in bold. My interpretation is that the original words of the mother that speak to her joy and love for her child become more pronounced. Throughout her treatment, the poet’s mother was poked and prodded and electro shocked and medicated with a never dwindling supply of pharmaceuticals. She was at the mercy of the medical system of the 1960s. In repeating these two erasures at the end of the book and bringing the mother’s words forward into the light, the poet is giving her mother back her agency— “I bottle the real mind, tho’ I will be me” from “Coda 2,” the last line in the book. But Lampe is also softening the tonal contrasts, softening the dissonance.
Talk Smack to a Hurricane contains poems, photographs, and erasures, a time capsule of a history of madness and a child’s ongoing longing for an absent mother, both physically and emotionally. But threaded throughout the poems is the poet’s compassion and depth of heart for not only her mother but herself. We can ask, did she become this way because of her experiences or despite her experiences? We may never know the answer, but what we do know is that Lynne Jensen Lampe has produced a book of poems that honor the gaze—of a child, of a poet, and of the person she has become, namely a woman carrying the light of forgiveness, as in the last lines of “Chiaroscuro;”
means feeling & feeling
means alive. We knuckle
our fear. We hope
our feet to the floor
every morning, A new
song drops & we dance
in the kitchen, throw open
our curtains to sky.
Alicia Elkort’s first book of poetry, A Map of Every Undoing was published in 2022 by Stillhouse Press with George Mason University, after winning their book contest. Alicia’s poetry has been nominated several times for the Pushcart, Best of the Net, and the Orison Anthology, and her work appears in numerous journals and anthologies. She reads for Tinderbox Poetry Journal and works as a Life Coach. Alicia lives in Santa Fe, NM where praise and clouds are part of her everyday experience. For more info or to watch her two video poems, visit Alicia Elkort’s website.