by Robert Fillman
(Terrapin Books, 2022)
Reviewed by Jennifer Judge
Robert Fillman’s debut, full-length collection House Bird is a book about living, dense with the kind of imagery that grounds the reader in the landscape, but throughout the book, another sort of other world appears that Fillman writes about with equal intensity, a ghost world populated by dead cousins, a grandfather, and even a repairman. In the final poem, “The Blue Hour,” Fillman writes,
I remember the steam whirling
from chimneys like hundreds of souls
lured by stars, stretching their new wings
beneath the moon’s hollow shiver
one chance to cross over from this
realm and sail into the flute song
of silver light […]
This is just one example of the careful rendering that makes us cross over into Fillman’s world, one that is filled with fierce moments of light and joy despite the hardness of day-to-day living.
House Bird spends at least some of its time exploring childhood and innocence lost. A friend crouches beneath a porch, black eyed and tears flowing, having been the first among a friend group to lose his rattail in the poem “Rattails.” In an earlier poem, the speaker’s father smashes a video game beneath his shoe in front of his sons and is remembered as “the cold, bright force / we feared and loved.” Moments of violence ripple throught these poems—a baseball teammate abused by his own father, a friend discovers his dead rooster—but ultimately the men in this book want to do the best they can, and sometimes fail. There's the uncle who has just been kicked out his house by his wife, who sits with the young speaker as he rambles on and on about things unrelated to the uncle: “The empties lie on the lawn / like a thousand cuts.” The book is filled with men like this trying to figure out how to be, finding a clumsy sort of tenderness. “He was always careful / with the giving,” Fillman writes about the father in another poem, “his hands / like a slow, warm current /feeding another.”
Poems about childhood serve as a natural springboard into poems about the speaker’s present life, whether that means getting a ring sized because marriage vows “are easier to honor / than they are to forget” or engaging in serious doubts about life choices in the poem “Toast.” Here Fillman writes, “should I / tell my family […] that I never / asked for buttered toast, or a cup / of instant coffee and cartoons / for my life.” But it is those earlier experiences that prepare the speaker for tenderness, the touch of the father’s cool hand on the speaker’s hungover neck, the things the father “guided / into me with his hands.” Poems like “For Snowflake,” about the speaker attempting to keep alive his son’s dying kitten, echo earlier moments such as “Starling in the Furnace Room,” where the father accidentally kills a trapped bird in order to protect his family from a perceived threat, and “When Kurt Cobain killed himself,” in which the mother must share the news with her son that his idol has died.
Ultimately, House Bird makes peace with its ghosts, both living and dead, and settles into moments of joy: the wife and children returning home from the store after a snowstorm, the careful gesture of walking each person to the house, the knowing glance shared between a husband and wife that is charged with sexuality, the care the speaker offers to his own children. No matter what happens, the speaker finds a steadying in nature, in life’s daily rhythms. In “All day long there’d been papers,” Fillman writes about leaving the sterility of an office for a field: “he let the scent of earth / breathe its dim life of decay / into his bones.”
Fillman never settles on easy answers but instead grapples with the complexity of what it means to be human and to be responsible for other humans. Feet firmly routed in the present, House Bird understands fully what the past has given to us.
Jennifer Judge is a poet, professor at King’s College, and coordinator of the Luzerne County Poetry in Transit program. Her poem “81 North” was selected for permanent inclusion in the Jenny Holzer installation For Philadelphia 2018. Her work has also appeared in Rhino, Literary Mama, Blueline, Under the Gum Tree, and The Fictional Cafe, among others. Her first book, Spoons, Knives, Checkbooks, is forthcoming from Propertius Press. Learn more at jenniferjudgepoet.com.