by Lynn K. Kilpatrick
University of Alabama Press, 2010 ISBN 978-1-57366-154-6
Reviewed by Anna Leahy
A couple of months ago, like thousands of other writers, I found myself at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference in Washington, D.C. It’s an annual event during which I can think about what it means to be a writer in the twenty-first century. I also see people with whom I went to school, and this year, I wandered the immense book fair with my friend Rachel.
Rachel goes to the book fair to talk with editors of literary journals and to discover new writers. She scopes out the tables methodically and stops when something catches her interest. She doesn’t grab all the swag that faces her. Instead, she remains attentive, waiting to select and purchase just the right handful of books, which she will read voraciously in the weeks that follow. I, on the other hand, am distracted by shiny things and quickly over-stimulated by the din and sheer number of reading options.
As we stand in the aisle, I look around for something, maybe someone I know or an exit. Rachel picks up a book, turns it around, reads a selection. She turns to me and says, I think we should buy this one. She does not explain why.
I respond, okay. The book’s cover feels buttery in my hand. Already, I like the book.
Rachel read In the House straight through in one sitting. Reading this collection, which the cover defines as “lists, character sketches, directions, scripts, and instructions” straight through like that offers a rich pattern. I recommend doing that. You’ll see that the seven shorts in the “Dioramas of the Domestic Landscape” series create an arc for the larger collection. These one-paragraph descriptions of miniature households are like scaffolding and suggest how the other stories—and the domestic worlds within them—may be constructed too.
But that’s not how I read In the House. I read a piece or two each night over a couple of weeks. I recommend doing that. You’ll be able to savor each piece, and each part within those pieces that are sectioned. Slowing down to read “Women in Confined Spaces” forces a reader to read attentively, to let the image resonate and imply the full character, and to realize that, while the spaces we inhabit define us, our story is also greater than the sum of its parts. Or by reading “My Neighbors” and not rushing on to the next short, the people described in brief paragraphs linger like a neighborhood with lives unfolding. The last section reads:
I know my neighbors, in the way that only an observer can understand the signs concealed in everyday gestures. They buy items, consume food, sing. I bestow meaning on their lives by determining, day after day, what they are doing. I am always waiting, whether or not they turn their heads to notice me. I observe and record their behavior. My notebook is ready.
Like many of these shorts, this one leaves the reader both sated and unsettled.
When I corresponded with Rachel about In the House, she asked, don’t you think these are poems? And I responded, yes, they are. Despite the label “fiction” and the references to “stories” on the back cover, Lynn K. Kilpatrick’s writing here can be categorized as poetry.
Nowhere is that as overt as in “Miss America: A Story In Sestinas,” in which she employs the poetic form of the sestina, with its repeated six end words. This story adheres closely to the fixed form, merely substituting sentences for lines of verse and substituting seven paragraphs for seven stanzas. And it uses tough words to repeat, most notably “Miss America,” which is an end word in all but one of the six sections and which is repeated, as is the odd habit of sestinas, more often than is required by the form itself. Over the course of sixteen pages, this paragraph poem explores the relationship among the speaker, her sister, and their mother.
That use of a fixed poetic form doesn’t alone define the whole collection as poetry, of course. And an argument about how the book should be labeled seems a distraction from what is something refreshing and intriguing. Another way to consider this genre play, though, is to consider whether there may be a distinction between the speaker (poem) and the narrator (fiction) when we talk about literature. Though twentieth-century confessionalism has left us with the impression that the speaker and the author can be the same, In the House doesn’t give us that sense with any certainty, though that speaker with her notebook at the end of “My Neighbor” seems an author. In the simplest terms, a narrator tells a story and is often a character within a story. Maybe then, Kilpatrick uses narrators. But a speaker expresses something in language. A speaker is an identity created so that something can be spoken, so a speaker is the means upon which the language of the story depends. Maybe then, Kilpatrick has written poems.
The pieces of In the House imply plot, but they captivate by offering intense focus on character and setting. Most importantly, the voice and the structure carry the story. The opening piece is organized in sections that name a place in the house and a narrative technique: front porch: second person, split-level entry: choices, foyer: pause, stairs: rising action—and so on. The narrative techniques are akin to the places in the house: one must make a choice when the levels split, the foyer is a pause as you enter a house, and both rising action and stairs go up. The section attic: climax begins, “A woman screams.” Ah, yes, when something climactic happens, a character often screams. The second paragraph goes on to suggest the richer narrative: “She pretends not to hear. She hears the screaming, and believes the sound may originate inside her own body. She is so often confused that she cannot remember if she heard the screaming or if she is a product of it.”
The final paragraph of that section, like so many section and story endings here, leaves us sated and unsettled: “He says he doesn’t hear a thing, come back to bed.” We know. We don’t know the whole story, but we know.
I recommend In the House highly. Whether you read it through in one sitting to feel its intensity or you read it piece by piece over time to savor its parts, Kilpatrick’s writing will make you think and feel. It’s like nothing I’ve read any time recently.
I also recommend trusting your friend’s impulses about what to read without asking why you should read it. To begin a book with no sense of why I should like it was an experience I haven’t often had, but one that I want again. If you read this review, you can’t do that with In the House, but go to a bookstore or book festival with a friend and ask that person pick out a book for you, something neither of you have read or even heard of. Or email a friend to ask for a book title with no explanation. Assume that you will like it. See what happens.
Anna Leahy is the author of Constituents of Matter, which won the Wick Poetry Prize. She edited the book Power and Identity in the Creative Writing Classroom. Her most recent publication is the essay "Strange Attraction: John Wayne and Me" in the Americans issue of The Southern Review. She teaches in the MFA and BFA programs at Chapman University and directs Tabula Poetica and its annual reading series. The blog she co-writes is called Lofty Ambitions (http://loftyambitions.wordpress.com).