In this stunning sequence of sonnets—a sequence that reads like a novel, in which each sonnet is so masterfully crafted that its form disappears into the story it tells—Janis Harrington spins a larger narrative of intergenerational family tragedy, but also of sisterly devotion and resilience. The whole sweep of it is so compelling that once I started reading, I couldn’t stop. How to Cut a Woman in Half takes the reader through shock and grief and then, very subtly and tenderly, back from the edge of an abyss.
—Cecilia Woloch, author of Tsigan: The Gypsy Poem and Earth
These deft narrative sonnets beautifully contain painful restraint and the breaking of sorrow; the slant and partial rhymes refuse to meet expectations for grieving an intentional death: “We look at each other, still / as the motionless hands on the clock’s face, / marooned in this spotless, silent house, / nothing on the horizon to save us.” The sisters save each other, learning to appreciate “the ordinary miracle of dawn.”
—April Ossmann, author of Anxious Music and Event Boundaries
These carefully wrought sonnets take readers on a journey “to grief’s center” as the speaker supports her sister through new widowhood and, in the process, rediscovers and explores her own submerged grief. Many poems take place in the liminal space between “living and not,” bardo moments that contain “all my life’s partings.” It is striking how fully present the speaker is in the experience of mourning, and how well suited the sonnet form is for containing such deeply personal wells of human sorrow. A beautiful and healing read.
—Rebecca Foust, author of Paradise Drive and Only
The title captures the pervasive sense of waiting, not just once, but repeatedly, for certain devastation whose magnitude cannot be forecast. Harrington’s epic verse memoir covers three generations of dramatically dysfunctional family history so vividly, it sears with film-like imagery. She handles harrowing incidents with unfailingly deft skill, and artistry that redeems, even as it haunts, treating every character with awe-inspiring insight and compassion, inhabiting each with conviction, in this tense, ultimately miraculous, survival story.
—April Ossmann, author of Event Boundaries and Anxious Music
In Waiting for the Hurricane, Harrington holds up a mirror to contemporary American society, revealing its deep, traumatic fault lines of violence and silence. At a time when respect for women’s lives has again come under fire, Harrington shares with us this collection—drawn from private experience—which in turn becomes the basis for a very political volume. Harrington shines light in the darkest places. With technical mastery and devastating honesty, her poetry is essential reading for endurance.
—Ellen Hinsey, author of Update on the Descent and The White Fire of Time
In this book, Harrington lifts the veil from the mirror of her family and stares into it without shrinking…The language Harrington uses is deceptively simple… perfectly in line with the subject matter, helping to lift and lower the tensions that shimmer through the volume like the dropping barometer prior to the storm’s surging over the shore.
–Kati Waldrop, Wild Goose Review
Waiting for the Hurricane is the work of a poet whose powerful voice and storytelling gifts explore deeply dark family secrets, so dark, they make the reader shudder with outrage and pain. These honest poems, the kind that remain with you, are about family in all of its complexities, its love-hate world of birthing, of wake keepings and funerals, its deep secrets and unforgivable sins. This book is urgently necessary.
—Patricia Jabbeh Wesley, author of When the Wanderers Come Home
The Main Street Rag – Fall 2017
Waiting for the Hurricane
by Janis Harrington
St. Andrews Press (2017), 89 pages
ISBN 978-0998194936, Poetry
Waiting for the Hurricane, winner of the 2017 Lena Shull Award, is a brave and provocative memoir in poems. Fiercely honest and skillfully crafted, the poems chronicle a dysfunctional and abusive family that spans three generations.
The narrator, Janis, is subjected to physical, mental and sexual abuse at the hands of her father, Tim. The mother, Norma, remains complicit and deals with her own wounds and losses. Obsessed with her physical beauty and youth, Norma compares the reality she is living to the idealized perfection she desires, and always finds her life lacking. Anger and resentment become staples in the family larder with both parents seemingly motivated by spite and revenge, emotions forged early in their lives.
The family story unfolds much like a hurricane: difficult to predict and depending heavily on the release of heat, the people and events often spinning like a top with no clear path. Filled with vivid imagery, the poems detail horrendous experiences with unsentimental language as they explore the inexplicable links among generations, how the family we are born into shapes us. Compelling and unflinching, these poems shine a light on the deepest and darkest family secrets. The matter-of-fact telling of horrendous incidents provides the tension and emotional impact.
The book’s first poem, “Initiation” sets the tone for the collection. In graphic detail, the poem describes Tim’s early training of what it means to be a man. Tim’s older brother and father kill a hog and leave it “lying in state on the dining room table.” Young Tim is ordered to go into the cold parlor and slice flesh from the hog for dinner:
only wind sucking at burlap sacks tacked
over frost-caked panes.
He throws back the tarp, his lantern light
trembling on the body, chest split
down the sternum, snout missing,
arrowed hooves ready
to parry his lifted knife.
In the poem, “Betrayal,” Tim joins the Navy after he discovers his father secretly blocked his attempts to enlist. Tim’s older brother, Bill, had joined just after Pearl Harbor and Tim is determined to join the fight also. After he has joined, and is on patrol, “What he wants eludes him—an enemy for his anger / to target…” It’s that anger, always looking for a target, that is a constant throughout the book.
Norma has her own anger and sense of betrayal. When she receives a package from Mike, the man she had hoped to marry, she is expecting a wedding dress from Paris. Instead, he sends her a Nazi flag that he had captured. She saves the flag, against her mother’s directive to throw it out, in her hope chest.
The wedding of Tim and Norma is certainly not happy as Norma takes her vows in “Wedlock”:
vowing, with sorrow and spite,
till death do us part. Man and wife,
Tim and Norma exit Saint Boniface,
stepping into a storm of rice.
The storm of their union only intensifies with the birth of their daughter, Tim’s affair with Norma’s sister who comes to live with them, and Tim’s abuse of Janis. The father/daughter relationship is established early, in the poem “Into the Ring” as Tim gazes at his newborn daughter, recalling how he drowned a litter of newborn kittens:
Alert, his baby watches his palms pressed
together, thumbs matched, mimicking a flying bird—
riveted, she doesn’t blink. He swears
she’s tracking his Navy ring, onyx stone alive
with fluorescent light, as it soars, dives,
preparing to strike. Bound in pink,
forehead creased in seeming concentration,
she lifts her gaze, locks eyes with him.
The Navy ring is a touchstone for abuse and violence, and the unblinking gaze that permeates these poems, the test of will lasts through Tim’s dying days, as in the poem “Hospice”:
We scowl, practiced opponents,
father and daughter marshaling strength,
at ropes pulled taut to confine our combat,
neither willing to be first to quit the ring.
But the young Janis has a strong desire for survival, as evidenced in the poem “Touch.” Janis cannot resist her mother’s “…glass-lidded music box / forbidden to us.” She is fascinated by the ballerina:
I stroke her cheek, trace the black ribbons
twining her legs like tiny snakes.
No matter how much I brush my curls,
they’re never perfect like hers. When I wind the key,
she pirouettes on tip-toe, as if it were easy,
spinning alone, on a chip of frozen lake.
Waiting for the Hurricane is ultimately a testament to survival. For those who share a similar family history, it is essential reading and validation that you are not alone.
Family is one of the most troubling constants a person can have. Like root networks, it can be infected, or choked out by itself or other plants; like a mirror, it can be altogether too honest to look back into. Janis Harrington’s Waiting for the Hurricane, however, unflinchingly delves into her own—into the past of her parents, and into the ways that past reared its head into her own childhood. It is honest and straightforward, with arcs rising and ebbing like tides, and in no way condemnatory: a feat I find remarkable. Somehow, Harrington has found a strange empathy with the parents who have wronged her, a filial connection surviving the poisons she relates to her readers. This is, I think, the most relatable part about Waiting for the Hurricane; how many of us have struggled with undergirding love and affection for our parents that has blinkered us from acknowledging what they’ve done wrong? In this book, though, Harrington lifts the veil from the mirror of her family and stares into it without shrinking: seeing, understanding, struggling, but never turning away. In the titular poem, Janis-as-narrator recalls a moment on the beach:
“I let you come because you’re not a crybaby,
Daddy praises, carrying me closer
to churning surf. I never cry when he swoops
his jet-eyed ring: Look out, here comes
the bone-hook bird, landing on my shoulder, crooking
his finger under my clavicle, wriggling it deeper
as I squirm, as he teaches me, to stand pain like a man.
If the hurricane lifts our Buick, swirls it away
like the abandoned sand buckets and blankets, I’ll lose
Here is a crux for many of the threads weaving through the book: Tim/Daddy’s toxic masculinity, Janis’ grooming for abuse, the distance from a family still longed for and beloved. What I find fascinating here is that Harrington never condemns her father for what happens—it is breathtakingly clear that it is wrong, of course, but there is no cheap pay-off of imprecative. Instead, she looks at him, and what made him, the culture of masculinity he grew up in as a farmboy, as in Betrayal:
“…he might as well be driving a combine,
while Bill firebombs oil fields and cities,
fifty missions, a Medal of Honor—grinning
from the Chicago Tribune.”
Or from Into the Ring:
“Left with the women while his father
and brother harvested corn, he found
an abandoned litter behind bales where Bill
stashed girlie magazines and cigarettes.
He ran to ask for milk, but Mother sent him back
with an empty seed sack.
He cupped a kitten, soft and blind, its ribcage
flimsy as a paper lantern. As he planned
sneaking food, a barn owl hooted
from shadowed eaves, as it had
when Bill pinned him, promising to let it claw
his eyes out. Anger rescued Tim—
knowing his brother wouldn’t hesitate.”
It is not sympathy. It is, however, the difficult work of empathizing, of understanding—a task made most difficult when the subject is someone who has wronged you. Nor does Norma, Janis’ mother, escape this bone-breakingly honest gaze; her obsession with youth and her despair of her lot in life are as eloquently captured as Tim’s twisted manliness in poems such as Wedlock or Voltage.
The language Harrington uses is deceptively simple; these are, after all, poems of the everyday, of the family, of the thing that ever lies at the core of our natures no matter how far a person might run from it. Her diction lines up perfectly, however, with that absolute honesty and strange, challenging empathy; it is not overwrought, does not make a show of itself, does not call for cheap pay-offs. It is perfectly in line with the subject matter, helping to lift and lower the tensions that shimmer through the volume like the dropping barometer prior to the storm’s surging over the shore.
Waiting for the Hurricane can be a challenging read, but one well worth it, I think. In coping with hurt, or with recovering from/dealing with a toxic family, it offers a rich well of comfort to the reader: that you are not alone in the desire to care, that it is all right to admit what family has done to you. Even outside the family situation, however, Harrington’s empathy strikes like a punch to the gut and is a welcome example of a quality most can name, but never describe.