My dark horses cover.jpg

My Dark Horses by Jodie Hollander
Liverpool University Press. 64 pp.
Reviewed by Donna Vorreyer

The poems in this collection, both blunt and lyric, stoic and tender, roll over the palate like the flavors of  a complex dish. Familiar tastes hit the tongue and then, just as the diner is ready to swallow, suddenly a hint of ginger or pepper surprises. These unexpected moments, which occur through line breaks and layered meanings, change what may seem like a tone of reportage to one more akin to revelation, often ending in media res and resisting the usual neat bow of a typical narrative ending. The poem, “A Music Stand” exemplifies this:

Her music stand looked anorexic–

a cold metal stick, a spine that propped

the fanned open pages, then collapsed into itself,

fitted next to her cello case. It was the thing

I always had to carry–after the icy-dark drive,

she’d turn off the engine , grab her case and glide

into the blizzard. I’d trail, the awkward thing

in my arms. I couldn’t hold it without being poked,

or scraped. Sometimes I needed her heel-prints

to guide me in the snow to the concert hall;

there I’d find her fluffing her hair, spritzing perfume.

She’d take the music stand from me,

cradle it, then carefully unfold

its insect-limbs, adjusting its sharp tips.

On the surface, this poem provides a straightforward memory narrative. But through the use of line breaks, word choices and callbacks to previous themes in the collection, this poem becomes much more. In earlier poems such as “The Fat Lady’s Arms,” the mother’s obsession with thinness is introduced as well as the mother’s relative indifference to her children. In this poem, then, the description of the “anorexic” and “insect-limbed” music stand being “cradled” by the mother takes on a layer of importance beyond description. Couple that with the masterful break between lines 7 and 8: “I’d trail, the awkward thing/” and the reader now has insight into the daughter’s recognition of her own insignificance compared to the mother’s love for music, a mother who didn’t walk with her daughter but instead left a trail. 

Interspersed with these narratives of complicated family relationships are lyric interludes inspired by Rimbaud’s Illuminations and Other Poems.  These serve as rest stops from the relentless emotional hammer wielded by the realistic lens of other poems, adding brushstrokes of tonal beauty. Some remove the reader into a dream world, and some blend this elevated lyric universe with the same concerns and issues of the narrative poems, keeping the seemingly disparate poems connected. 

Hollander skillfully traces the evolutionary nature  of family relationships, especially a tenuous mother/daughter one.  After poems like “Mother’s Wrists” that explicate the damage inflicted by the mother, Hollander then reverses the plot to focus on the trauma experienced by the mother as she becomes ill. The daughter, once a victim of her mother’s whims and cruelties, becomes her caretaker, impacted by the guilt of not being able to save her. 

In “Friend Request,” the poem begins with a Facebook friend request from someone with the mother’s name two weeks after the mother’s death:

I wonder who has broken

into my account, and conjured up

those two words, which were supposed to mean

Mother–but she never really was my mother–

and ends with the punishing

before she died, she held up grade-school photos

of me and showed them to everyone she knew

saying: This was my daughter,

the one that is killing me–

With intense focus on a daughter’s tumultuous childhood with her musician parents, there are moments in the book where the reader might be unsure about the appearance of a “we” (although “First Storm” mentions a husband). In some poems, the speaker seems to have inherited the mother’s sharpness, as in “My Brother’s Violin” where the speaker seems to indict the brother’s choices as she describes the title instrument:

somewhere underneath

the new golf clubs

or Patagonia jackets.

Instead he has a job

in Silicon Valley,

where all day he fiddles

with internet statistics,

and sends emails

from a dark cubicle.

He wears giant jeans,

chugs Starbucks

to keep himself awake.

There are leaps in geography as well, with poems set in England, Jamaica, Australia, Lamu, on the Zambizi River. Though at times disorienting, these poems use distance as a means for the self to escape conflict and focus on recovery and rebirth. Overall, the collection leaves the reader with a firm sense of story despite its revolving door of unanswered questions. 

Donna Vorreyer is the author of Every Love Story is an Apocalypse Story (Sundress Publications, 2016) and A House of Many Windows (Sundress, 2013) as well as eight chapbooks, most recently The Girl (Porkbelly Press). Her reviews have appeared in The Rumpus, Quarterly West, Sugar House Review, Cider Press Review, Tinderbox Poetry, and other journals.