For this TFI microreview & intetrview, I present close readings of two poems from fellow CantoMundista Emily Pérez’s collection, House of Sugar, House of Stone, as well as share some insights from the poet in their own words.
To the Artist’s Child – Emily Pérez
Sweet unwanted one:
seek out a new address.
Like the squirrel cared for
by cats, the deer nursed
by a dog, find a corner
in a nest of a kindly
mother hen, one who knows
no other love or job. Go
before this woman turns her head,
before ambition starts to snarl
and pull. Go before the house
grows hot with urge,
with inspiration. Go before
her silence sheathes
instead of sloughs,
before she shuts herself
into her room, pregnant with new
creation: the kind that will
sit still and never utter,
the kind that brings deep
feeling but not trouble,
the kind she can, if she’s
not satisfied, start over.
Several poems in House of Sugar, House of Stone draw from the world of Grimm’s Fairy Tales and ingeniously connect that world of fantastical circumstances and consequences with contemporary family life. Reading through the collection, I found myself noting the influence and color these poems lend to other poems grounded in meditations on more personal and local circumstances and consequences. Both realms of narrative deal with possibility and ideas of accountability. The more personal poems, however, present a struggle with artistry and responsibility that is all the more relatable for its directness.
In “To the Artist’s Child,” the language of fairy tale is incorporated from the start in the tone of the first line “Sweet unwanted one.” This borrowing of tone is continued in the conceit of the poem, an extended address that sifts through what easily could be material of fairy tale narratives in order to make a human connection. The animal relationships mentioned in the poem have an innocence shared with the child of the title. The poem frames these relationships as examples of selflessness in order to set up a contrast to the role of the artist, which is deemed as being necessarily selfish. This turn pushes against the romanticized conventions of the artist creating in an inspired solitude, recontextualizing the connotations of sacrifice and dedication within the terms of parental love. This push, rather than diminish the value of either side, presents the stakes of being both a parent and an artist in a clear and vivid manner. By evoking the emotional consequences of both roles, the push and pull of what matters in the world of these poems is redefined.
This exploration of the tension between familial obligation and artistry continues in “Pre-Term,” the poem that directly follows “To the Artist’s Child” in the collection. In this poem (shared below), the animal imagery of the previous poem is carried over, only this time it springs to mind in the form of apprehension as the speaker mulls over the implications of the desire to write during prescribed bedrest. As the speaker engages their conscience via the lyrical momentum of the images, the possibility behind each “if” utterance is charged not only with a sense of accountability but also the emotional split of wanting to honor two kinds of creation.
The dynamic tension and interplay between these two poems represent one of the most insightful and moving moments in the collection. Where one poem achieves a space of reckoning indirectly via metaphor, the poem that follows dives right into that reckoning with the kind of unflinching honesty and human clarity that one finds in the best lyric poetry.
Pre-Term – Emily Pérez
And if he comes in the seventh month
before the thirty-second week. And if he looks
more newt than squirrel, lids still fused
and head enlarged, pink hands
just shy of webbing. And if his skin
hangs off his bones, still wanting fat.
And if those bones are cheese, not stone,
more air than marrow. And if his lungs
are zippered shut, alveoli suction cups.
And if his little body, lighter than a new potato
vined in tubes and cords, a heated lamp
to keep it warm, is borne away to another room
for close revision, and you still chained to your own
blank bed, then, then, will you still wish
you’d defied their orders: risen, written?
Influence Question: These two poems, in their respective ways, explore and say complicated things about the high stakes involved in both the artist’s life and motherhood in an open and engaging manner. What were the challenges in writing these poems and how did you work through them?
Emily Pérez: I wrote “To the Artist’s Child” when trying to conceive. In our house, I had a writing room slated to become the baby’s room. The baby would literally “take the place” of my writing; the two would be competitors. Writing was the selfish act, the act over which I had control, and I feared that I might prefer it. I feared also for this hypothetical child; this poem was a warning.
Years later, three months before my second son was due, I started having contractions every time I sat or stood. The only hope for my son reaching a healthy birth weight was eight weeks of bed-rest. I decided to interpret my captivity as a gift of time to write, but I was stressed and uncomfortable, and my brain was mush.
Frustrated at not fulfilling my ambitions, frustrated that I even had ambitions beyond protecting my baby’s health, well aware of the irony that I wanted to be “more productive” as I “produced” a child—I was battling myself. I feared the conflict would adversely affect my unborn son. I started “Pre-Term” during this period. Though that baby is a healthy, beautiful four-year-old now, the trapped writer-self in that poem still rattles the mother-self.
I want to be honest in my writing even when the ideas scare or shame me, to acknowledge that my ambitions are important, even in a world that says mothers should value children over everything else. While “To the Artist’s Child” was a thought experiment, “Pre-Term” is about an actual child who will one day read the poem. I am not too concerned about him feeling betrayed; I imagine that when he reads it, he will recognize a mother he already knows. I am more concerned about the ongoing tension within myself, a tension familiar to many parent-artists: how to adequately honor and tend to both the children and the work.
When I wrote these poems I was right that there would be ways my children and my art compete, especially for how I use my time. The thing I did not imagine then was how my children would feed my writing and how, as they become aware of me as an independent person, my writing would feed my children.