A Lesson in Smallness by Lauren Goodwin Slaughter
The National Poetry Review Press, 2015; 85 pp
Reviewed by Davy Knittle
Lauren Goodwin Slaughter’s debut collection, A Lesson in Smallness, is a series of occasional poems for the outer edges of the quotidian. The activity of the poems takes place at funerals, or on vacation, at an air show, at a national park, volunteering in a meal delivery program, or in the aftermath of a tornado. Among the first poems in the book are three about the Barefoot Contessa entertaining at her Long Island home. In these poems, Slaughter is ambivalent about opulence, attracted to lavishness but also repulsed. In “The Barefoot Contessa Wakes Up With that Too-Full Feeling” “Air // is a clog of meat drippings” (16). Slaughter’s poems are conspiratorial with the reader. You know, that too-full feeling. Pleasure, for Slaughter, comes double-edged with warning.
Many poems take sickness or the first or final moments of life as their occasion. A number of the poems take place in doctor’s offices and hospitals: the speaker and her father waiting for a biopsy report, the speaker at a fertility clinic, a friend in a hospital room, each place weighing its intimacy against the presence of magazines and TVs muted and displaying horse races or the collapse of the Twin Towers. In “Welcome to Paradise,” Slaughter writes, “All hospitals are named for a saint” (52). In “King Cake Babies,” parents stand before the windows of a hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit, watching as “Babies, rows and rows of them / cook inside clear beeping boxes” (34).
Consumer culture and the expectations she perceives within it dog the speaker, as the magazines do in the “Image Makers Salon and Day Spa,” which is also the title of a poem where, “Old copies of People // and Southern Living make pillars / on every free surface” (57). The chemicals in the room are “enough to make one’s eyes peel” (57). The speaker apologizes to the stylist for “swimming for miles // and miles and miles” (57) and drying her hair by sticking her head out the window as she drives. Slaughter’s poems demonstrate that the accoutrements of dinner parties and Prosecco, salons and the beach are worth being afraid of, in part because they’re vehicles for forgetting, of losing continuity with who you’ve been. In “Fossil,” hair is again a figure for the emotional expense of the pressure to have nice things. Slaughter writes: “My hair got short…to remind // us of the past, of missing things – / that something’s left at all” (80-81).
Activities like vacationing that are ripe for skepticism in some poems are universalized in others. In “National Park,” “[e]veryone sunscreens” (67). In “Galileo,” which takes place on the road to Galileo’s home outside Florence, the intimacy of remembering occludes the luxury of vacation travel. Slaughter writes: “(How new / I once was, sure // of what I cried for)” (43). These poems are concerned with how to make a life that isn’t just a form of defiance. They’re interested in vacation without the Barefoot Contessa, in motherhood on its own terms. Class is interestingly confusing in these poems, where the speaker courts elements of the lifestyle she pushes away.
The poems contract and expand along axes of culture and time, and zoom out to consider the speaker as both child and parent, attempting to account for the time elapsed between. They take on a number of landscapes, including a childhood Philadelphia and a contemporary Birmingham, Alabama.
They’re loveliest and most immediate when they scale down, when their frame is filled by two people or a family, with the salon or the dinner party or the magazine too far away to see. Slaughter’s poems are brightest when they’re unafraid of being weird. In “Osmosis,” she writes:
you’re hired just to sit at diners
and eat endless plates of eggs.
So here –
press your forehead
to mine like a goat. (17)
The sweetness of these lines tugs on their baffling mechanics—it’s hard to know exactly what’s happening with the eggs, but it’s exciting anyway. The poems demonstrate how difficult it is to make a record of love—for a place, a partner, a community—that’s singular. Singularity comes at the expense of having to manage the expectations of others, which are quietly disavowed by a speaker who is both an outsider and a participant observer, meeting those perceived expectations with defiance sometimes and complicity at others.
The arbiters of those expectations are shadowy: “parent-heads” (54) beaming behind a child at the beach, the memory of “a rusty green Taurus” that the speaker describes as her inheritance, turning the corner on a Philadelphia street. Often the speaker negotiates the presence of constant and wordless arbitration, current and apparitional. Sometimes, though, all the silent custodians of decorum fade out, and the poem is only spacious enough for a partner or a child and the landscape, domestic or natural, before them, and gorgeously, “The room fills / with room for nothing else” (54).