House of Deer by Sasha Steensen
Fence Books, 2014; 88 pp
Reviewed by Nathan Kemp
Sasha Steensen’s most recent collection, House of Deer, creates a new format for a book of poetry. It has the ability to make a table of contents beautiful and complex. It allows generous white space in generous fashion. It puts text that resembles prose on the page with no literal or figurative justification. Here is a specific example:
“The Girl” has a language that has an almost-entirely prose-like quality. This isn’t a bad thing—the poem (and the section, the book, etc.) works within the realm of hybridization, while also rebelling against the overused nature of the term. This is a book-length collection of poems that requires the reader to code-switch at certain points.
Having to change reading styles is a pleasure and a challenge that more authors should put on their readers. Poets call this kind of variety “range,” but I think Steensen is mixing genre within a book more than mixing genre within a part of a book or an individual poem.
Steensen is very committed to rhyme and other sonic qualities in House of Deer. It’s rare to read a collection that works with on-rhyme in such an on-point way. With lines like “venison / &family cohesion” (31), poets like Steensen are taking back rhyme (in all its varieties) from the jaded-MFA-reader and using its powers for good.
There is a lot of Ohio in this book, which is something I did not know before reading it. As a lifelong native of Ohio, seeing places like Hudson and Chagrin Falls in a book of poems is strange and redeeming of a beautiful place many condemn for no particular reason. There is a definite progression (regression?) of the speaker’s relationship to her place in House of Deer, starting with a focus on fellow Ohio native Hart Crane (from “On Birth”):
like distillery &tannery &foundry
&largest map center in the world
like home of Hart &home of Crane
like deereye near as large as an elephant’s
but allblack withoutwhite
As the poems progress, the speaker’s relationship with Ohio becomes disenchanted, as if there is some kind of darkness beneath the surface (from “Fragments”):
But watch out, the world is charged with the grandeur
of God, Oh I
how squirrels on my roof sound like a stampede
Finally, the speaker works through the personal identity-as-place crisis so many Ohioans also must work through (from “The Undertow”):
I hate the idea
of the Ohio
as a magic carpet
into the heart
of the continent
the idea of the three rivers
as my family tree
tributaries & branches
The speaker fails to come full circle and love Ohio all over again—that would not be right. She does, however, reconcile with her place. While in darkness there is light.
Steensen’s book dedication reads, “For my families." One section, “The Girl and the Deer,” tells a contemporary fable about an abandoned child raised by deer. The concept of having family outside of blood and why that matters speaks to a bigger idea of how exclusive (or inclusive) family can be. Family is House of Deer’s central focus because of its natural ability to answer questions of belonging, both to a place and to a group of people.