In the Mansion of Happiness, nothing is as it seems

March 8, 2010 § Leave a comment

The world inside Robin Ekiss’s The Mansion of Happiness is a beautiful, grotesque, tragic world of miniature machines, toys, and automata. Enclosed within these tiny objects are large, messy feelings – carefully circumscribed and concealed by their narrow boundaries, allowing Ekiss to explore the disturbing detritus of emotions that lurks just outside what is ‘normal and acceptable.’ It’s a feat that works throughout much of the book and one that makes The Mansion of Happiness a thoroughly absorbing and rewarding collection of poetry.

I first heard about Ekiss when I was browsing through Poets & Writers magazine in Kinokuniya. Once in awhile, that bland vanilla publication promoting the interests of white-bread authors comes up with something interesting. One of it was the feature on upcoming poets to watch. In that little one-page interview, Ekiss described her inspirations – the toys of her childhood, because her mother made dollhouse furniture and accessories, and her paternal grandfather’s home was filled with toy mechanical banks – which I found pretty intriguing. Looking around online, I came across some of her poems and thought them beautifully-written, suggesting sparse, controlled elegance, but clearly indicating an avalanche of deeper, darker, messier emotions beneath. That precise juxtaposition has always intrigued me in poetry.

Plenty of clear, arresting, and disconcerting images abound in her poems. For example, in ‘Meanwhile, under the shade palms’ (which you can also read here), Ekiss begins the poem with an intriguing scene: “the Turks are inside the egg / on the backs of elephants. / It’s customary to describe their attire: / feathered headdresses / shedding quills in ribbons of heat, / moustaches and slippers / curled fetal at the ends.” Those slippers, “curled fetal at the ends” already suggest an ominous tone about either a maternal presence or a thwarted vision of motherhood. Possibly, there is a suggestion of barrenness – both emotional and physical: “Nothing happens inside the egg: / the Turks are yoked to their carpets” and later, “Her egg is small, encrusted / with diamonds. Death watches / through the emerald window.”

In ‘Edison in Love,’ also published here, she writes, “Rene Descartes, too, traveled alone / with a doll-in-a-box / he called his daughter. Francine / Francine… is it better to be silent / and wait for everything / we were promised? / Or should we love them back, / The way a train loves a destination, / as if we have the machinery necessary for it?”

That’s gorgeous – to imply that the obligation of having to love someone is like a train loving a destination, because equipped with the machinery necessary for it; no choice but to keep going, keep loving.

In the poem ‘The Mansion of Happiness’ (Ekiss writes in her notes that the title is taken from one of the first board games published in the U.S., the precursor to Milton Bradley’s contemporary board game, The Game of Life.), Ekiss sets up a rather disquieting version of her recurring theme – a present but seemingly disturbed mother – “In another room, / mother played her clavichord / while I practiced my infant alphabet- / then, bored, took up the doll / which could always stand undressing.”

She builds layers of images, tying dolls – vulnerable, passive – with the presence of her mother, who hovers about the periphery, vague and overwhelmingly present in her absence. In ‘At the Doll Hospital’ Ekiss writes that the dolls have “started to look entirely like children – barefoot, sexless.” In one of my favourites, ‘The Question of My Mother’ (also published here), she writes, “The question of my mother is on the table. / The dark box of her mind is also there, / the garden of everywhere / we used to walk together.” The disturbing yet beautiful images throughout – of “fallopian city ingrained in memory,” or “dark arterial streets, neglected ovary / hard as an acorn hidden in its dark box / on the table” is painful, suggesting a deeper loss that cannot be assuaged, which leads to the plaintive final lines: “Mother, I am / out of my mind, spilling everywhere.”

There is also a paternal presence throughout, as well, no less chilling in its apparent offhand cruelty of neglect, or misguided attention. In ‘Elegy for My Father, Not Yet Dead,” Ekiss asks (tells) us: “When I pass my dead father on the street, / will I say about him what Kierkegaard said / of Hegel: he reminds me of someone.” Elsewhere, the lines, “There was no refraining. / My legs snapped shut / as clothespins” occur in the same poem as “You be the father / and I’ll be the daughter. / For God’s sake, / if that door’s bricked up – / try another.” In another poem, there is this: “During the fever, Father circled relentlessly / with new toys. I could hear the perforated music / of his breath approaching”.

Games, toys, and pretty, tiny things – the diversions of childhood mingle with family dynamics to create an intensely claustrophobic world that fairly ripples with underground tensions waiting to blow up the smooth facades. Much like a ticking time bomb planted in a sweet-faced doll, Ekiss’ poems reflect the ambiguity of relations between parents and children more than anything else. Her poems are linguistically and emotionally tightly-wound, subtly lodging itself under your skin for days after. These poems don’t scream out at you during the first reading, and Ekiss is confident enough to allow the reader to want to come back to them, over and over again – and anyone who appreciates gorgeous language and intriguing images and poetic tropes will want to approach these poems repeatedly.

I’ve had The Mansion of Happiness at my bedside for weeks, and it’s likely to stay there for quite some time. I would definitely recommend this for people who are interested in contemporary poetry, but who have been put off by much of contemporary poetry that’s just self-absorbed poets wanking off to their own narcissistic impulses, writing poems shrouded in deliberately oblique (and often meaningless) language. Whoops, sorry. That was a digression, and an extended way of saying – read this book. Really. It’s an intensely rewarding poetic experience.

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