Reviewer: Brian Fanelli
Robert Fillman has a knack for turning the everyday domestic space into a fascinating subject for his poetry. He drills into home life, mining memory and personal experience. The result is a fine debut collection, House Bird. Even if the spaces Fillman writes about feel familiar, he has a way of making them also seem unique by cultivating quiet tensions, showing the fine line between love and loneliness.
House Bird is striking for the various epiphanies that populate the poems, including a few coming-of-age narratives in which the speaker, as a child or teen, learns about death or other major issues, while the parent faces the uneasy task of explaining the passing of a famous musician or family pet. There are a few occasions where music introduces this tough subject. In “The Night John Lennon Was Killed,” the speaker recalls sitting in the bedroom of his two-story row home, his mom’s old Beatles’ albums “scattered all around,” as John’s “warm baritone” flowed into his young ears. The first few lines are rich in detail, describing the common experience of hearing a particular band for the first time. The music deepens the relationship between mother and son, too, as the mom shows him not only how to play LPs and 45s, but also shares old photos of herself “slinging her hips to the same rock ‘n’ roll songs.”
Yet, there’s a surprising shift that happens midway through the poem, when the speaker asks his mom if the Beatles still make music. In turn, she explains that John Lennon is dead, causing “a revolving back circle of quiet” to follow. Death is then compared to a scratch on vinyl, “the turntable” of the speaker’s mind, “tripping over tragedy, unable to get past it.” Yet, by the end of the poem, the music and Lennon’s voice keep repeating. This poem is a prime example of what Fillman does so well. He takes a familiar experience, such as hearing the Beatles for the first time, and uses that to address a profound coming-of-age experience, as the speaker is forced to contemplate death and what it means for music to still last, even if the frontman is no longer among the living
“When Kurt Cobain Killed Himself” marks another turning point in the speaker’s life, when childhood suddenly ends and an awareness of mortality comes into play. Here, though, the poem explores what it’s like for a parent to break such big news to a child. The last few stanzas have the speaker, now grown and a father, imagining himself in his mom’s shoes. They read:
Now I think about how she
must have wordlessly endured
those bewildering seconds
of my school day, all the while,
seeing my childhood thrashing
for its life in the seconds
before she finally slipped
that long needle of knowledge
into my flesh, having to
trust I’d come through it okay.
Without kids, I can’t quite imagine what it’s like for a parent to inform their child that their hero is dead, especially by suicide. Nice part on the poet’s part imbuing the closing lines with the needle imagery, too, considering Cobain’s history. In other pieces, Fillman considers his role as a father. In “To Snowflake,” the speaker ponders how best to inform his son that his three-month-old cat might not make it. The best the father can hope for is that the kitten eats and somehow survives. Reader be warned: this poem really pulls at the heartstrings.
House Bird contains plenty of poems that celebrate life, too, be it the love a parent has for their children or the love between husband and wife and how that sometimes comes in the quietest of moments. In “The Garden,” the speaker observes and even praises his wife’s attention to the yard, even the way the hose’s water runs down “the soft curves of her forearm,” or how she plants mums and then “takes a bloom / into her palm, inches closer, / her lips touching the pink blossom / the way I sometimes kiss her / bare shoulder.” Though the speaker ponders interrupting her yardwork, he doesn’t. He just stands back, which creates a space between them. Despite all the beauty in the poem, it hints at loneliness, especially the concluding lines: “I want to call out to her, / or gently approach as she works. / But she squeezes the nozzle then, / and I am sent away wishing / I deserved the snugness of that touch.” Several of Fillman’s domestic poems do this, and it’s what keeps them interesting. He eloquently crafts tension within these spaces, conjuring a unique sort of longing.
Fillman’s eye is often focused on the natural world, beyond “The Garden.” “Cicadas” is a poem that marks the end of summer, and it’s another piece that has a sense of longing to it, a type of want and ache for the slowing down of time, or at least for summer to last longer. The poem begins with the sound of cicadas, triggering the second half of summer. In the poem’s second half, Fillman writes:
The days have been getting shorter
for a month. It’s as if we’ve been
scared to speak of fireflies sparking
in the backyard after supper,
or the way the Fourth sidled up
and disappeared like smoke after
dousing the coals. How the season
pulses gently and then circles
louder, louder, reaching us all,
then quiets, littering ashes—
dried-out brown shells, forked, tiny claws
hooked on branches well into fall.
And we, listening even then,
trying to remember those calls.
I’m not quite sure I’ve read any piece of writing that so accurately describes that feeling once the July 4th holiday passes and the season suddenly slides into late July and August. Fillman nails it in this poem. There’s a dash of sorrow here that’s like the conclusion of “The Garden.” It comes on suddenly and surprises.
Overall, House Bird is keenly attuned to both the natural world and home life. This is a book rich with colorful detail, memory, love, and loneliness. Fillman’s poems are never simple. Instead, they contain layers, giving meaning and depth to familiar places and experiences. This is a cogent debut with its share of standout poems.