In the Living Room
Nathan Hauke
Lame House Press, 2009
Review by Jeremy Benson

Like Manhattan's Five Points or the front lines of a rebellion, the intersection of family and religion is a rough-and-tumble place. No metaphor can quite capture the absurd on-again, off-again relationship where the two overlap, and certainly not the barren wasteland where the two separate and withdraw, claiming irreconcilable differences to create a vacuum—"no-man's land," which turns out to be inhabited by actually quite a few men and women: agnostics, atheists, questioners, the unloved and self-exiled.

It's likely that Nathan Hauke, at one time or another, either took a stroll through the no-man's land, or merely pondered what it might be like. His chapbook, In the Living Room, sits right on the edge. As his poems re-explore the fields and rooms of his family mythology, they churn upon the ethics and inconsistencies of the religion passed down to him, ultimately seeking a space where individual doubt can peacefully reside and thrive alongside a familial belief.

"These are the sheer facts of salvation. Learning the mirror and field guide, a/process of mapping," the collection begins in "Deerfield," before describing a streamside habitat of cicadas and aphids, under elm trees illuminated by "light falling down on ferns." Though not a strictly pastoral writer, Hauke's environments are necessarily anchored to the notions of family—with aunts and grandfathers tromping through soggy fields in winter, or fathers mowing lawns—and of a higher being. "Deerfield" (the first of two poems with the same title), closes with the slightly ominous line, "The caterpillar's jaws are never to be far out of the mind, even in/ecstasy of light falling down on ferns."

(One may recall the prophet Jonah, who was constantly running off into his own barren no-man's land, sitting under a shady vine as a worm chews through it.)

Hauke first establishes these concepts in terms of fertile land; yet when "wet asphalt" opens the second and flagship poem, "In the Living Room," the obvious misplacement is as shocking as asphalt is hard. Hauke later uses Chicago's El, tinfoil, and other man-made images in contrast to his otherwise natural surroundings, to further suggest discomfort, that something is amiss. While for Hauke, light and nature may represent a higher being, man-made objects and their disruption of nature represent humanity's rules ("a process of mapping") that restrict God's essence in the form of religion.

Likewise, "In the Living Room" opens wide Hauke's, or his speaker's, arguments against his family's religion, trading organic metaphors for straight-forward arguments:

"They are building our family in heaven. I want to take comfort

in this, but I can’t stop thinking that the promise of grace

narrows into judgment.

I can’t stop thinking that choosing one version of God cancels


The two—mechanized and organic, family and religion, doubt and belief, humanity and godliness — come together in "Jubilee." Hauke writes, "Love’s echoes everywhere. Explain family — a river's curved map of grace." In his continued explanation he then lists objects and situations: pollution, current events, moss and mud, "How the unwrapped condom on the curb this morning is beautiful." The set joyfully places images of beauty in nature beside equally beautiful yet surprising symbols of human involvement.

"The moment between peeling and peeled,

dusk's light and dark

strips of leaves."

Finally, like the essence of all families and religions, grace shines through.

On Friday July 30, Nathan Hauke will join Kirsten Jorgenson and Jeremy Benson as the featured poets at the Court Street Gallery's Last Friday Poetry Event. The event will begin at 7p.m. with music from Jonathon Ferris. Cost is $3. The Court Street Gallery is now located at 417 Hancock Street, Saginaw 48602.

© Jeremy Benson, 2010