Glass Armonica by Rebecca Dunham
Milkweed Editions, 2014; 96 pp
Reviewed by Tyler Mills
Rebecca Dunham’s Glass Armonica, winner of the 2013 Lindquist & Vennum Prize for Poetry and Dunham’s third book, is a beautifully crafted collection of poems—each an exquisite glass vase filled with water—that refuse stasis. They are alive with a kind of vision that transforms detail into world-changing meditations on the self, the body, and trauma.
The book opens with “Rebecca,” a prose poem of self-address read through the lens of Daphne du Maurier’s novel by the same name. Dunham’s poem “Rebecca” re-envisions the obsession with the dead female character of du Maurier’s Rebecca as a meditation on the nature of the past self, as a haunting that the speaker wills away: “The dead do not return to stalk their familiar halls—scent of crushed azalea, lipsticked cloth fished from a mackintosh pocket. Fast and blue, I pour cyclonic, the kind of knowledge a husband would keep for himself: pleasures of the flesh” (3).
Throughout the collection, the female body is at risk of being consumed, studied, or otherwise touched by the male. In the fragment, “A cutlet,” a section of the poem “A Frightful Release,” which draws inspiration from Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, the speaker says,
He stalks me. An antlered basilisk, he writes
knife-notes, odes to a slit testicle’s white moon.
Oh my dear girl, he likes to say, what a nice
piece of meat you’ll make (21-24).
These poems are intelligent, careful explorations of memory and the silence that can come from trauma. The “Glass Armonica” section of the book is an incredible sequence of fourteen free-verse sonnets that interweave the perspective of a child who has been assaulted at a children’s camp with lyric meditations on “hysterics,” patients of male doctors that studied this “disease of the womb.” The eighth sonnet of this sequence imagines the perspective of Franz Mesmer, doctor of Maria Theresia Paradis, as a way of investigating the power dynamics behind the doctor-patient relationship and the release that a cure produced by this relationship is imagined to be:
I imagine her fingers
beneath mine like ivory
keys, listen as she respires a lavender
crush. I urge her to put
aside this hysteria and play her
like a glass armonica, pull tone upon
tone from her, for hours. (5-11)
These poems refuse to look away from how this kind of violence intersects with society, while distilling it into imagery that at times intricately veils it. What this presents is a powerful critique of the problem—generated by the form of the poems themselves. The second poem in the title sequence does so in the collective voice of the “we,” the harmed children:
They asked us to tell them
the truth—there was proof—girls’
photos recovered from his trash;
our names and dates noted
meticulous in his little black book.
We were safe. But all of our jaws
were locked. (1-7)
Glass Armonica is a powerful, and important, meditation on trauma—and the power dynamics behind ideas and methods of what a cure might mean—that invites us to think about how silence is perhaps even schooled through language itself:
Work with the grain, my teacher said,
not against. But how to shear
the feel of their hands from my flesh?
Go with the flow, my teacher said.
A perfect blank. If you can’t
say something nice, don’t say anything at all. (9-14)