REVIEWED BY ELIZABETH ONUSKO
Amelia Martens’ debut collection contends with the surreality of parenting in the Age of Terror. At times wry, other times heartbroken, the speakers in these prose poems see tragedy and the potential for it everywhere.
Rather than invent a world of its own, The Spoons in the Grass Are There to Dig a Moat is set against a backdrop of real news. References to domestic and international headlines appear throughout the book, including the Mars rover, the Second Iraq War, Fukushima, fracking, the Boston Marathon bombing, and the Boko Haram kidnappings. This material could easily fall flat or devolve into sentimentality, but Martens illuminates these stories from a different angle, using them to convey the distant witness of a worried mother: “Elsewhere, someone’s daughter just doused herself in gasoline / and the missing girls are still missing. In the kitchen, a man and / a woman cling to each other, momentarily, while a thunderclap / stomps their bungalow” (“Bedtime”). These pressures are a literal force exerted upon the family’s house, altering the behavior of those inside. Several poems dealing with war, such as “Postcard from the End,” call to mind Charles Simic in tone and image: “Children danced on broken glass of classroom windows. They sang songs about flowers and plagues.”
The pervasiveness of the news cycle creates an ominous context for the questions — both practical and existential — that preoccupy the children and flummox their parents:
Our daughter wants to know if monsters are alive. Like dinosaurs,
were they, but then they died? I have no proof. No photos or bones.
Monsters are alive, somewhere. But what are monsters? The un-
named unknown, a problematic point of view. […]
You want to tell her something like you mean it. Go on.
(“Late Night Comedy”)
Other poems reveal the children’s preoccupation with death: “Every morning our daughter builds a small memorial. She gives / us each a flowered plastic plate of plastic cake, so we can remem- / ber her when she dies” (“Union”). Though children tend toward drama in general, they also enact what they see in order to better understand it. Just how, if at all, parents can help children navigate these feelings is one of the book’s central questions.
This impossible dilemma gives way to tender moments during which a mother clearly sees her children and attempts to understand them: “All day long you followed me. I sprinkled Cheerios for you, my / persistent chicken. […] There are some things you are trying to tell me, / some things that can’t be burned” (“Morning Girl”). These scenes underscore what is at stake: keeping kids alive in a home — and a world — that poses continual threats: “The parents realize glass as a primary weak- / ness. They let go fears of a classroom fire, gas leaks, carbon mon- / oxide, and atomic bombs. At last their terror has found a focus” (“In the First World”). And that focus provides relief. Life is easier to endure if anxiety can be directed at a source.
Sharing the parents’ sense of powerlessness is Jesus, who struggles with life in 21st century America. In various poems, he works in a fast-food restaurant and for the TSA, runs a sweatshop, watches the weather forecast, visits a bar on a weekday morning, and surveys a classroom in Newtown, Connecticut, after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and concludes “There is nothing he can do” (“Newtown”). The savior cannot save.
Martens’ decision to write prose poems heightens the book’s sense of threat. Line breaks would have sacrificed the feeling she creates of being walled in and vulnerable to attack. One of the risks of prose poetry is monotonous rhythm, but Martens avoids this hazard by utilizing fragments, lists, alliteration, and internal rhyme to build and relieve tension. An example of the latter two devices can be found in “The Secret Lives of Cows”: “All night long they breathe cold air, / their nostrils damp thimbles. They tamp earth down to the dust it / has been for millennia.”
The poems are arranged in a single section, suggesting the book itself is one long prose poem, a house comprised of many small rooms. As the title forewarns, this house needs protection from intrusion, but spoons —rounded, dull, designed to hold that which sustains us — are the only tools available with which to fortify it.
Elizabeth Onusko’s first full-length poetry collection, Portrait of the Future with Trapdoor, received the Bryant-Lisembee Book Prize and was published by Red Paint Hill in April 2016. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Witness, Best New Poets 2015, Conduit, DIAGRAM, The Awl, Linebreak, and Redivider, among others. She is assistant editor of inter|rupture. Her website is elizabethonusko.com.