Mary Beth Hines covers a good deal of familial terrain in her first poetry collection, ranging from childhood and early parenthood, through memories of teen drama, to views from the empty nest and glimpses of the end of life. Throughout, she engages the reader with clear perspectives, apt and unexpected language, and emotional honesty.
Winter at a Summer House, in its six sections, touches down in the various seasons of life with lightly structured grace and subtle humor, drawing a recurring charm out of mundane human experience. A hand-me-down Jolly Jumper picks favorites; a husband sneaks up on his wife for a surprise seduction while she waters the garden; a child gleefully raids the gerbilarium at dawn; and the speaker addresses her B-flat clarinet, honoring it as first love. There are dark notes, however, to round the tone of these bright pieces and to make the stories ring true. That Jolly Jumper, like a parent, “grieve[s] to feel [the child] growing,” knowing from experience how short their time together will be. The couple rolling in the grass at 7:30 a.m. are still young, but “water’s running from the hose” and this day will be gone before they know it. The girl who “air-lifts” the infant gerbils “three to a palm” is too young to question the wisdom of her play; “she tips the newborns to the floor, / flicks them, whorled marbles, pale, moony.” That beloved clarinet, too, was doomed to be set aside:
We lasted through
the seventies, climaxing
with that Helliwell solo
on Breakfast in America,
meaningful left to go.
There’s similarly spirited sourness in the nostalgia for adolescence and its short-sighted longings, and in the memory of parents who danced together in the living room, but also drank too much (“Put Out the Light”). The collection’s picture of aging is especially complicated. “Brightview on Blueberry Hill” is merciless in its mocking depiction of Flo, the muumuu–clad queen of the retirement community, who eyes “the new // men wheeling in . . . snaps out verdicts—one to ten.” On the other hand, “An Old Man in His Chair” offers a touching portrait of a life that’s lived alone, but not quite; the old man finds real contentment and connection through the pictures hanging in his small den. The poem, too, is small, and its sweet blur of time and place gives us something to savor along with the old man. Another senior citizen, this one at the center of “Providence,” is also trying to live outside of his present self, but with dangerous consequences; his agile youth, leaping between rooftops, is gone, and he has fallen yet again. In these final poems, dignity is often in tension with the ridiculous, but there’s poignancy in the memory of dignity, and the conviction that what was lost was worth having.
Often, Hines’s poetry doesn’t assert itself as strongly formal, but she uses formal elements selectively and in clever ways. That clarinet in “First Love” is present not only in the sensuous description of its “flared bell mouth” and “onyx shine,” but in the shape of the long, narrow poem itself. The hard, insistent end rhymes in the couplets of “Father,” unusual for the collection, belong not to Hines the poet, but to the titular figure, a stubborn, uncompromising, but also disabled patriarch who “rules his kingdom from a chair.” Every line has a verb, and every verb is an assertion that he’s not beaten yet, as he “wields,” “commandeers,” “fumes,” “vows,” “knows,” and “steels his will to outwit death.” “Martha’s Letter to Jesus,” by contrast, gives us only slant rhymes. The accentual verse of the four-line stanzas—trimeter interspersed with tetrameter—sing-songs along with a traditional ballad cadence, but simply won’t give us the rhymes we expect at the ends of the second and fourth lines. Instead, we get bone/gone, dream/clean, Lazarus/hush, and cold/road. But indeed, this Martha is no longer serving anybody’s expectations. She’s off to “wash men’s feet with perfumed hair / and get lost in their hands.”
In child-centric poems (“First Words,” “Bath,” “Like Alice”), rapid-fire verbiage thick with alliteration and unpredictable internal rhymes capture the intensity of a child’s experience of the world, or, as in “A Cry So Close To Song,” the messiness of maternal experience. The sudden, isolated rhymes highlight the strange way that parent and child can click into place in the midst of the chaos, if only temporarily. In later poems, like the dreamy “Gowns and Shoes and Beds of Roses,” the vision of a new home for late life is painted with a slower, worn-out version of that clustering diction. There’s still “the rush and backwash, open ocean whip,” but “the taste of salt might linger” and “embered / berries blaze crimson through November.”
Sometimes, the collection treats us to traces of structural kinship that help to yoke neighboring poems. “Ritual” recalls the Sunday afternoon routine of a mother washing her daughter’s hair in a basin: “I might be clay. / I might be dough. Her pulsing / soap-slicked fingers sink and knead.” Across the page, “Faith” recalls two siblings making a department store visit to Santa: “We might be magi. We might be cherubim, / David and I—the way we still, the way / we watch.” The sentences linked by anaphora in each poem seem to point across the book’s spine to one another, emphasizing not only the continuity formed by childhood traditions, but also the flexible identity of children, their malleability and vulnerability to circumstances formed by adults.
Hines is at her best in poems like “October,” which capture much in a few words. A baby points at a Chinese lantern blossom, and in only fifteen short lines, we see clearly the awe and the apprehension in the child’s wanting, the discomfort of the mother’s acquiescence, and the truth that showing children the world is, often, a little spooky. “Before the Blizzard,” too, is efficiently effective; its four tight stanzas have just the right snap, and its final lines deliver a deep and proper chill:
Above, clouds shape shift sky
into old faces—
familiar, before they split
and spill, erase us.
Those last lines are indicative of Hines’s gift for strong endings. “Swim Meet” and “Dunmanway, 1914” land with similarly well-tuned and well-timed turns.
Sometimes tender, sometimes exuding attitude, Hines’s poems focus on people—in a moment, at an age—and get them right. Although the ideal audience for this collection might be women who have, like Hines, reached the grandparent stage, younger readers, too, are likely to see something they recognize in the pages of Winter at a Summer House. Hines’s poems of new motherhood are fresh and sharp, and her poetic snapshots of childhood experience are vivid and, in large part, timeless. The water that flows through this book, from the “tide-thrashed world” of the first poem to the “white winter sea” of the last, has a wide reach, and readers can dip in wherever it reaches them.