The Yellow House, by Robin Behn. New York, NY: Spuyten Duyvil, 2011. 72 pages. $14, paper.
The task of writing a brief review is often difficult when the book is very good, but it is a particular challenge when the collection is as complex as Robin Behn’s The Yellow House. Rarely does a poet hold a metaphor so firmly and explore so obsessively the many voices and characters that make up a book’s universe. Each poem is a jarring but lovely surprise that leads us through reflections on color, art, and language, and constantly acknowledges the yellow house as an entity with agency and with a soul. This house writes stories, reads, provides “tours” of art books, has aspirations, speaks, and is sometimes even God.
The yellow house also nurtures its relationships with the people who inhabit it. In “Reading in the Yellow Room,” the boy would leave the house and go to the library with the woman, and
The yellow house, above it all, would wait
for their return with the five unread volumes
and give them the yellow chair to read in,
and listen hard, itself, because stories never last
half as long as they should.
This is how the yellow house came to decide
it would be a place they could actually live in
and let their stories story it
so they would never die.
The house understands its role in the lives of these people. The woman dreams of its rooms, the boy speaks to it, and in fact, all the characters (listed “In Order of Appearance” at the beginning of the book), including the horse, interact with the yellow house.
Behn’s use of language is genius, particularly when the house is speaking. Consider the opening of “The Yellow House Gives Tour Number One of the Big Art Book,” in which the house says, “O.K. Kandinsky arranges the neurons into temporarily breathing humhums. The glint is right now being so that the eyebrow of earth sharp dance with pretty chasm that ski.” Such beautiful broken language. Such eloquence.
In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard states, “Through poems, perhaps more than through recollections, we touch the ultimate poetic depth of the space of the house.” Robin Behn embraces this philosophy in The Yellow House, and through her poetry allows us to examine our own relationships with the houses in our lives, the houses that spoke to us as children, and where our own stories are storied.
[This book review originally appeared in Mid-American Review, Fall 2011]