The Volta: Friday Feature

poem for the house by Katie Yates. Stockport Flats, 2012.

cover of poem for the house

Reviewed September 21, 2012 by Mark DuCharme.

In Katie Yates’s carefully spare meditation on domesticity, poem for the house, situations of common suburban dailiness are explored in a series of fragmentary poetic entries. Formally, Yates’s book consists entirely of tiny prose blocks wedged into the middle of the broad, blank page. Here, the objects and routines of domestic life provide a backdrop to the contemplative impulse, which lies at the heart of Yates’s project. Although a few of these poems are in two or three parts—that is, extending over two or three pages—the majority consist of a single prose block framed and floating within white space. Beyond the enclosure created by this abundance of white space, the poems also share a rather elaborate dating mechanism. Here, the reader is given not just the date on which a poem was written, but also the time, down to the minute. For example, here is the book’s second poem in its entirety.

poem in response to fate/exhaustion & desire

Tuesday, July 7, 2009 at 10:47 pm

we relate in conference with birds, as if we knew them. you who are so viable and so strong and me who is so uneasy. so punctual are the birds, their sleep, they sleep the night away, but not the dusk

This mechanism triples the ‘enclosure’ of the poems, as they’re locked within their landscaped pages, nailed down by the specificity of their timestamps, and confined by the theme of the domestic in the book’s persistent focus on ‘room’ as a primary location or ‘entrance’ into the space of writing.

Yates’s dating mechanism, for me, raises several questions: did she start writing the poem above at 10:47? or was that the time she finished it? or was that the time she uploaded it, for instance, to a site like Facebook? And what about revisions—at what time did they occur? And why on earth does this matter, even to her, much less to her readers?

There is another distraction involved here: all of the poems feature titles in a bold, sans serif font, with their dates in bold in a grayscale, serif font, and the text itself in a serif font, which of course is black. This sort of arrangement makes even such spare pages as Yates’s appear, somehow, overly busy. In a way, this mirrors the multitasking our contemporary accelerated culture would ask of us: who, after all, has the time to contemplatively draft a poem when there’s housework to be done, emails to answer, cellphones abuzz, and children underfoot? Yet that somehow is exactly the point: Yates seems to construct a contemplative field in which space is made for writing to occur. The book seems to arise out of a charmed circle of poetic improvisation— a circle which holds the poem even if its writing must be interrupted (hence, the book’s necessarily fragmented nature).

One interesting fact, though, does emerge from the dating of the poems: the dates are consecutive. The poems, in other words, were written and are presented in sequence, and this suggests the possibility of a “narrative” or interlinking series, rather than a collocation of discrete fragments. There is, I might note, other evidence to support this view. While all the poems are individually titled, many of the titles suggest common themes, particularly through the abiding use of the word room, as for example in “part three: in other rooms” (the title of the book’s third poem, and the first in the book to mention ‘rooms’), “humid rooms (1) and (2),” “sacred rooms, a conference of them,” “an ivy league room with little eros,” etc. I would also note that the book is titled poem of the house (my emphasis) rather than poems of the house. Thus, Yates’s book calls to be read not as a series of disconnected, occasional fragments, but as one, often-fragmentary serial poem. Its fragmentary nature is also foregrounded by the open-ended conclusions of some of the poems, which sometimes forgo punctuation, or end with a comma. Here, I believe, Yates points to the continuity of her work, even as she enacts the fact that thought draws silent, comes to a dead end— a ‘poetic’ beginning which the mind seems to abort through incompletion:

a room in Spokane en route to Missoula

Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 4:32 am

It is kindness like an earlier reluctance to swim blossoms now into a veritable walking place as one might walk directly into a river, I now think of all of us as a kingdom, could I hasten to tell the truth and stay awake

Again and again, Yates hovers around the domestic. In the opening poem, she writes of a “household/… not delicate, not a day without the dust of a former/ wife, and the lawn which needs to be mowed, raked,/ ploughed.” One doesn’t, of course, usually “plough” a lawn— but the word, with its mutedly sexual connotation, does draw attention to another aspect of domestic relations—the need to “seduce one’s husband and to get out of the rain.” Elsewhere, there are references to

…a glossalia of lawns, eaves and poison ivy, would it be the case that you mow, then you pick up toys, and later sticks as the winter set in as if to mimic an ancient pattern, and am I here then to record this, these labors as love, serenities in the sky, it could be, it could be that it is these acts that marry me to you, inimitable like the heather, like the deep green in the baby’s eyes, foretold

In “echoes in rooms,” Yates writes that “a world is a room.” Rooms are units of composition here, in a sense, as well as units of containment (rather like nesting dolls) which are themselves contained within houses or buildings. This containing and recontaining “echoes” throughout the work, situated in each new “room,” each restless portrait, each engagement not with a miniaturized “world” but with a tiny/ tidy part of it.

room in the continuous present

Monday, October 26, 2009 at 9:23 am

ice, the pledges of cicadas before dusk, the horizon is October-ish and ice-ish. It is plentiful and blue, a hedge, a tunnel in which we pour water from pitcher to cup, a distinct offering, paths we cross each morning, the bewildering conflicts in the landscape, the plentiful truth

Given the book’s themes, as well as Dickinsonian phrases such as “in conference with birds” (another recurring figure here), one might be tempted to situate Yates within the clumsy stereotype of “domestic” female poets— such as, allegedly, Emily Dickinson herself, or Lorine Niedecker, who disliked the comparison of her own work to Dickinson’s. Yates here, perhaps preemptively, aligns herself with neither of these fine poets, but with another equally worthy forbear. In the 1926 essay/ lecture “Composition as Explanation,” Gertrude Stein discusses her notion of the “continuous present” in the context of, among other things, the writing of her early novel The Making of Americans. The comparison of Stein to Yates is illuminating, and apt, as Stein’s most famous work, Tender Buttons, includes as one of its three sections an extended meditation titled “Rooms.” For indeed, Yates’s material, even as it moves through successive “rooms” of time and page, is always one-of-a-piece, always within a present which is constantly recreated, shifting, and reconstructed in each successive frame of the poem. Here, there is not so much memory as direct observation of the thing as it occurs. Yet the ‘thing’ does not occur just in that moment, in a glimpse or an instant, but rather is resituated and re-observed (like “birds” or “lawns”) throughout each poem’s fluid space. The resulting motion reminds me more of film than of language or poetics proper.

Katie Yates’s poem for the house is a worthwhile, if belated, first full-length book, which I certainly hope will not be this poet’s last.

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Mark DuCharme, author of Answer (BlazeVOX, 2011), lives in Boulder, Colorado, teaches English at Front Range Community College, and can be found at