The Poetry Project

On Dream Rooms by River Halen

Spencer Williams

I encounter Dream Rooms in the backseat of my parents’ van as we zoom across the watery edge of California to arrive at my sister’s house in Sacramento. The comfort of River Halen’s book helps to soothe the anxious empty of the roadside views, and by extension, the cumbersome traffic we stall in. The entire trip I’ve been referred to as “he,” though the occasional “she” emerges from my parents’ mouths like a red pen scrawling over a student’s basic error, their untrained tongues struggling to accommodate what to them will always feel like a linguistical prank I’m pulling, despite six years of my being out reflecting back to them in the rearview. Refreshingly, Dream Rooms reads like knowing and welcome company for the perpetually misidentified, and as a result, is less concerned with fixating on commonplace splints of specifically trans microaggressions. The beautiful complexity of Halen’s writing is a balm against that feeling of self-estrangement. I fall into Halen’s poetics and prosaic histories like they’re made of feathers, emerging as a reader both new and comfortably animal, a suddenly shapeless body held safe inside the margins.

Like the old wads of gum plastering up the brick wall of Dream Rooms’ cover, River Halen’s book beams with color and trembles from the weight of its accumulations. In the glorious clutter of Halen’s archive, one finds animals both dead and alive, splintering their heads, feeling their cunts, and all the while blending into a mountainous array of sartorial objects, like “two sweaters, four T-shirts, a sports bra, eight pairs of slightly stretched-out underwear, a pair of jeans, a pair of too-tight beige cotton polyester blend pants…” This piling becomes a choreography of grief as the speaker traverses the aftermath of past heartbreaks and current estrangements. Similar to how a wooden chair burdened with the tossed contents of a closet inevitably transforms, with time, into a statue of sorts, Halen’s poems shift and expand intimately familiar tableaus of solitude into communal meeting grounds. In “Reason,” for instance, space all but collapses around the speaker, turning a good, old-fashioned bathroom crying session into a familial memory where “My family did not keep / books in a magazine / rack by the toilet / they just sat / with the light of civilization / bleeding under the door.” Time and time again, the present of these poems reaches backwards in time to waltz with history, with longing, the contents of the world held just beyond the door frame, where a “bald eagle’s nest” becomes a dueling sense of “love and casual / cruelty to my face.”

This rush of wildness is, of course, no accident. In the section titled “Some Animals and Their Housing Situations,” flesh and fur leave their traces upon the other, marking the thin line that divides human want from animal need. In the process of caretaking a friend’s rabbit—hilariously named Frog—Halen’s speaker is confronted with the double whammy of mortality’s indifference to animal innocence and capitalism’s lurking and monstrous silhouette in the spaces of an apartment that isn’t wholly theirs. Frog exists on the page as both a comfort and a trauma, a being to care for and another thing to mourn. Despite a veterinarian’s attempts at rejuvenation (following an accident causing Frog a head injury), captured beautifully by Halen as a “carefully choreographed series of trade-offs and competent hand motions that spell a gently glowing suggestion in the night sky,” the rabbit eventually succumbs to its wound, leaving a hole in both the apartment and the page. Such is the painful process of care. Sometimes our best efforts aren’t enough to stop time or reverse it. The speaker’s daily ruminations on apartment life are thus paired with dates that pull histories of extinction into the domestic. Always, something on the periphery is perishing. And always, we are only able to do the best we can to survive the day.

Surviving, however, is not some bloodless act. It is messy, sometimes brutally so. In the poem—is that the word?—“Six Boxes,” Halen’s speaker collects the abuses of male artists on a shelf, in book form. Their collective violations bleed into one another and then out, touching both the speaker’s personal and literary life. How does one put into language the random absurdity of violation? How do the “words of the rapists and manipulators and assailants” become tangible, manipulative units, things to view and consider and interrogate beneath the all-seeing eye of a microscope? For instance, as Halen’s speaker ponders, is there “an aesthetic” or “a grammar” that binds the various abusers’ texts together, like a code that can be broken for the betterment of us all? Halen’s work suggests this kind of scientific probing is a potentially fruitless labor if the expectation is to arrive at a clarifying solution—there is not, and may never be, any clean answer regarding our ability to anticipate, or solve, abusers and the dangers they unleash. Thankfully “Six Poems” isn’t interested in cleanliness. Even in writing this review, I’ve typed and deleted and re-typed the word “speaker” and have come away feeling unsatisfied with “speaker’s” implied remove, especially on the subject of rape. For instance, when Halen writes “I began to think more about honesty” in regard to the poet Frederick Seidel and his violations, it becomes nearly impossible for me to sever the ubiquitous poet-speaker from the poets themselves, to write on behalf of a cypher’s work, and to not hear the utterly human ache inside the questions posed about accountability and immunity, about trauma, about invisible marks left upon the body, marks that are still real because they are still felt.

I finish reading Dream Rooms at my sister’s house, in the middle of a windstorm that cuts all power, leaving us in total darkness save for the glow of my laptop screen, a couple flashlights, and a pile of half-dead iPhones. In the pitch-black center of our collective anxiety about electrical wirings and hot water, I think about how laughably pathetic we all must look from above, huddled together at the heart of this old, shaking foundation, rendered equally vulnerable in the face of unexpectedly volatile weather. I hold this image of our panicking selves with a line from Halen’s poem titled “Mirror,” because suddenly we are all lost in the dark. Suddenly my family and I have lost our bodies to this room that eats our light. I think about the line: “Hiding is OK. It’s OK. / I uncross my legs.” In the poems we write, we are able to dissolve ourselves, to hide, and yet, at the same time, be seen. And so I follow this instruction, my body trailing behind Halen’s poem to feel, however briefly, at ease.

#271 – Winter 2023