“Then Winter” reminds us there will be a spring

Chloe Honum’s chapbook “Then Winter” was released from Bull City Press in 2017; I read it last year and reread it this winter, cherishing the intimate observations and vulnerable recollections of a stay in a psychiatric hospital. These poems offer solace and insight, equipping the reader with both empathy and knowledge of a time in the speaker’s life that was formative and very difficult.

Even though I’ve never been admitted to a psychiatric hospital, I’ve struggled with generalized anxiety and had several breakdowns, the worst of which was during the 2017 CUPSIs. And mental health breakdowns are, as you may know, atrocious and taxing and intense and heartbreaking. Winters, like RIGHT NOW, THIS WINTER, are especially hard for me (I live in Michigan). Seasonal affective disorder is bad. I can’t leave my house without layers of warm clothes and a hat and gloves and a scarf and boots, and I hate it. I’m tired of shoveling and scraping my car in the bitter cold. I’ve slipped dozens of times, and both my husband and I (as well as plenty of other people I know) hurt ourselves badly from falls. I miss hiking and being in the sunshine. I feel considerably less happy, and I know so many others are also grumpy and sad and so over winter. No wonder, then, that these poems take place in the grips of a snowy winter. And even without having experienced as severe a crisis as the subject of the book, I turn to these poems and am still able to relate and gain comfort, healing, and solidarity from them, and for that, I’m grateful.

Many of these poems are quite emotional and are tied to heavy moments; the details and snatches of conversation recorded in “Group Therapy” and “Early Winter in the Psychiatric Ward“, for example, place the reader squarely in the therapy sessions, hearing the difficulties of each patient, feeling the same heaviness and turmoil, longing for the same “miracle drugs.” In “Rest”, Chloe writes of wanting to rest with “dreams / like white petals absorbing ink.”

“I imagine myself in the ward above, for the more severe cases. I’m afraid I’ll float up and ask to be admitted,” Chloe writes in “The Ward Above.” For years, I’ve had troublesome thoughts about self-harm or intentionally crashing my car or of fainting and being found to have some sort of major health issue. They’re terrifying but also exhilirating, and the worst part is that I’m aware that they’re founded in a desire for attention, even if I know that it would not be a healthy kind of attention. These lines I’ve pulled from “The Ward Above” seem to carry the same weight; they’re an admission and a sudden desire, even if the speaker knows it isn’t actually desirable to have to be admitted to the upstairs floor.

This book also explores the concept of wellness and normalcy. “Maybe sense is not a place / I want to linger” she writes in “At America’s Best Value Value Inn in Crossett, Arkansas”. The book’s first poem, called “The Angel”, examines the othering that people with mental disorders or difficulties sometimes experience: “Since then, she has gone everywhere with me. / Occasionally, people see her and startle. They ask her if she’s all / right, but she speaks only to me…”

In “Note Home”, Chloe writes the beautiful line: “It it so important to go / on naming, even if all I said to you this winter was snow, snow, snow.” For me, it evokes the memory of my therapist teaching me of mindfulness. One way to combat mental wellness struggles is through meditation and a focus on being present. Some people count slowly; some pay attention to their breathing; others picture a place that helps them feel calm.

Mental wellness is a constant heave-ho, requiring work and emotional awareness that sometimes, we just want to ignore. Sure, yoga and getting enough sleep are crucial, but you have to be able to discipline yourself to do those things, and if you’re a parent or if you’re low-income or if something else in your life is a serious stress factor, it can be hard to do the hard work of maintaining good mental health in the first place. Thank goodness, then, for “Then Winter”, which reminds us that it’s okay to be in the off-seasons and to still be trying.

Then Winter” is available from Bull City Press or your local bookstore for $12.

Poems about yearning for balance: Tiana Clark’s “Equilibrium”

Equilibrium is brilliant. I underlined or sticky noted parts in Every. Single. Poem. The language is crisp, the content is necessary, and the pacing strikes the perfect balance between intense and thorough.

Take this image in “Tell Me: Harlem”: “& on my way home / read the braille of black gum / on the sidewalk saying — No, this is renaissance!

Or one line from the heavy piece “Broken Ghazal for Walter Scott”: “Again, in my Facebook feed another black man dead, another fist in my throat.”

These poems sink blows in between moments of vivid detail: “Sandy speaks to me / beyond her grave / her voice on YouTube— / ricochets.” It’s a relatable line for readers; we mourn with the speaker, burn with a collective sense of injustice.

Many pieces highlight parts of Black culture that are multi-faceted — historic yet sorrowful in their origins and sparseness. “Waking in the Vanderbilt Psychiatric Hospital” describes a stay in a mental health facility by including cultural traumas and triumphs: the Middle Passage, W.E.B. Du Bois, jazz, Langston Hughes and Harlem, Nina Simone, Billy Holiday, and Bessie Smith. We celebrate these icons, yet acknowledge that opression prevented (and continues to prevent) so many more people from accomplishing their dreams. There’s hope for a brighter, freer future at the end of the poem, but also a sense of acceptance that “black pain swinging, sweet and low” is a real roadblock, mentally, culturally, and financially.

The final poem largely went over my head, as it’s themed around the Greek god Prometheus, with whom I am unfamiliar. (I hope you’re able to grasp more of Tiana’s literary genuis!) Regardless, one section deserves mentioning in this review: the second section in the poem which discusses being of mixed race. “Mixed Bitch lets herself love— / the black inside: the white inside: the black of herself… // She was caught between two allegiances… The thing / that bound and suffocated her.” The poem wrestles with existing on two sides of a violence that is both unwanted and yet one’s self.

It’s a shame this book is only a chapbook – 39 pages total, as I was left entranced by the beautiful language and important content and would have loved to devour more. If you’re interested in reading these poems for yourself, Equilibrium is available from Bull City Press for $12.