Dawn Tefft reviews Nikki Wallschlaeger’s HOUSES (Horse Less Press, 2015)

Houses by Nikki WallschlaegerI am a gondolier from a family of gondoliers, he said, it’s a tradition, a creative tradition, for us to navigate what you take for granted.

Houses, Nikki Wallschlaeger’s new book of poems, steers readers between houses placed adjacent to one another despite drastic differences.  Some houses are spaces of privilege and myopia. Some are spaces of oppression and resistance.  Regardless, every “house” is a prose poem titled after a house of a particular color.  The boxy form asserts that houses are supposed to be equivalent: standardized structures for protecting the lives playing out inside of them.  The content emphatically reminds us that this is not the case, that people’s relationships to their environments are shaped by larger socio-economic forces.  Some people own their houses.  Some people rent them.

“Yellow House” lays bare the mental architecture of the more oblivious beneficiaries of western colonialism.  The poem moves back and forth between the logic of neoliberal humanitarianism and privileges sustained by exploitation.  The voice in the poem declares “As a westerner, I will teach displaced families how to make s’mores,” a humorously searing criticism of those who believe in the superiority of Western culture and their own humanitarian largesse in teaching that culture to people forced to immigrate due to disastrous Western economic policies.  The speaker also desires the “open-air markets” frequently associated with “third-world” conditions, here branded as exotic and therefore romantic.  The poem pulses with the hypocritical rhythms of contemporary consumption: extraction, appropriation, condescension and nostalgia for what has been lost.  

Again and again we see into houses where the typical methods for producing change are exposed as insufficient or even contributing to socio-economic inequality rather than addressing problems at their roots.  Thus, “being vegan is never enough” and “mean girls [. . .] become liberals and work at non-profits.”  The alternatives to these flawed mechanisms for change are often moments of domesticity or community carved out of the spaces inside of or between the houses.  We see one such moment in “Silver House”: “When the city dies, the garden erupts.  The avenues are not crowded, so we watch each other before s/he fills herself with old light, which is not nostalgia.  We’re using the past instead of letting it use us.”  “Silver House” starts out as a “motown vacation,” and it is possible to read both destitution and grassroots activism into the rest of the poem.  The poem speaks of sleeping in shifts, looking out for cops and tending to others, which appears to be happening under the night sky.  The people of Detroit—reeling from the effects of institutionalized racism and poverty—aren’t looking to nonprofits or other institutions for help, but to each other.  Whether they are involuntarily houseless or consciously reclaiming public space, they survive through unsanctioned communal efforts.

Such moments of beauty in Houses are always fleeting.  In “Bleu de France House,” “Whether it’s a locked neighborhood in Watts or a detention center for neglected girls,” people still paint flowers and poems.  But like other moments of creation in the book, this one soon collapses under the weight of horrors that make it all the more necessary.  The poem moves quickly to an ending where, “Neighbor, our hearts pumped blood in the same room looking onto lakes that teenagers willingly drown in.”  Art is a means of survival, whether through critiquing the spaces we’ve created or through imagining new ones, but the book never holds out art as the solution to our problems.  

“I might be making you uncomfortable” could serve as an artist’s statement if taken outside of the context of “Glitter House.”  The voices in Houses are unrelenting, jumping between owner and renter, dollhouse and detention center.  They demand that we ask ourselves which houses we live in.  How we live in them.  And why.  

–Dawn Tefft

Dawn Tefft is the author of the chapbook Fist (forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press) and the e-chapbook Field Trip to My Mother and Other Exotic Locations (available to read online at Mudlark).  She has poems forthcoming or published in Fence, Witness, Sentence, and H_ngm_n, among other journals. She holds a PhD in Creative Writing from University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and works as a higher ed union organizer.

Nikki Wallschlaeger is the author of two chapbooks, Head Theatre (2007) which etched itself out of her palms unexpectedly & I Would Be the Happiest Bird (2014). Her hands continue to talk, which is why she writes. Publications include Esque, Nervehouse, Coconut Poetry, Word Riot,Pirene’s Fountain, Burdock, Spork, DecomP, Shirt Pocket Press, Horse Less Press, and others. She is currently working on a manuscript of poems called Crawlspace. She lives in Milwaukee with her spouse and sons.