Despite the growing popularity of shows such as A&E’s Intervention, which seem to have the best intentions at heart for their subjects despite their melodramatic production values, addiction remains a pervasive taboo for most Americans. (That is, of course, unless you are discussing Lindsay Lohan’s latest exploits with your BFF over lattes.) In our milieu of fitness, none other than First Lady Michelle Obama is tackling childhood obesity through her “Let’s Move” campaign, but how many among us are aware, let alone battling, the alarming statistic that there now are over 800,000 heroin addicts in the United States according to a 2007 report from the Department of Justice? With this dismal irony in mind, Nancy Mitchell’s recent poetry collection Grief Hut locks its sights on a son’s heroin addiction, domestic strife, and the eternally wrenching truism that we hurt those we love most, exploring not only the sick circuitry of an addict, but searching for grace in poems marked by their fierce, unwavering candor.
Each of the four sections in Grief Hut mines childhood, addiction, marriage, and loss, respectively, but Mitchell’s best poems find a way to unify these various themes and charge them with a dire, intimate ache. We see this in “The Real Fire in the Alphabet,” a meticulously cadenced narrative that begins the book’s second section. The poem recounts a night when the speaker’s son, Zac, woke hysterically, and “pointed to the letters we’d cut / out that day from colored construction paper / and taped along the wall, just above / the length of your bed, and said / if there is ever a fire in the alphabet, / Z will be buried alive, be dead.” It is only in hindsight, when we later read of Zac’s mounting drug abuse as a young man, that this innocent exchange takes on sinister foreshadowing. The final stanza prefigures the poet’s anguish with tender lament:
If, with only such small art and easy reach, I could have saved you from later fires in which you were burned—was it shame, the matches in your hand—that kept you from calling, or by then fear, that I, deep in my own dreams, wouldn't hear you? But that night when I tucked you back into bed, leaned down for a kiss, you whispered you'd keep your name.
We find this same pathos in the muscular couplets of “Wasn’t You,” which clenches its teeth against Zac’s frantic attempts to score. Mitchell’s exquisite lineation, pacing, and eye for detail—from the sound of an alley switchblade to a window screen “shrapnelling the landing”—find some small redemption in the power of language, even if they fail to unmake the desperation when “your junkie / double-team buddy knelt / and stuck the guy’s cock / in his mouth.”
While Grief Hut is dominated by its elegiac impulses, some of its best moments are swoons of lyricism that rise, if only momentarily, above the murk. “Holy,” the final poem in the collection, renders the mundane in a delicate liturgical anaphora: “holy the husband / jangling his keys, / holy the thud / of wood upon wood, / wind worrying water / from shore to pond shore, / holy the equivocator’s decision to lie…” These lines comprise an irenic prayer amid the mess of daily life, but also seek a life freed from the torment of addiction. We find this same prayerfulness in “Sister,” a lyric of such hushed precision that it is worth including here in its entirety:
Cocklebur, my heart grown around you like a tree around a barb, its wire long ago snapped. Taste of water in a tin cup, because you were born first, you got to choose the best bedroom, the peach of a girl's cheek in Renoir's The Boating Party print our father hung above a cushioned window seat, where summers you read Seventeen, your view of lawn sloping to the pond. On hot nights, if we could agree to leave our bedroom doors open, we could pull a breeze down the long hall between us.
A few of Mitchell’s poems never seem to blossom, such as “Someone” and “In Atlanta, when I”—both have fewer than ten lines—but such weak moments are rare, and are easy to overlook given the collection’s mettle. For Grief Hut is not merely a testament to one mother’s agony, but a panorama of the soul in the face of suffering, capturing both the pain and ecstasy of what Frost famously deemed “a lover’s quarrel with the world.” And for that, it should be praised.
About the Reviewer
A regular contributor to Poets' Quarterly and Emprise Review, Adam Tavel's recent reviews have also been featured in Alehouse and the Cafe Review, and his new poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Redivider, Cave Wall, Two Review, New South, Portland Review, South Carolina Review, Interpoezia, and Naugatuck River Review, among others. He edits the journal Conte and is an assistant professor of English at Wor-Wic Community College on MarylandÕs Eastern Shore.