The Mending Worm by Joan Houlihan
New Issues Press, September, 2006
Reviewed by Tayve Neese


Trends in recent modern poetry have largely abandoned the attentiveness of compressed language. The tight lyricism of Dickinson, Bogan, and Celan has been marginalized, and the norm has evolved into a predictable lengthy form that is at times too indulgent and prosaic, yet embraced. Joan Houlihan's second book of poems, The Mending Worm, winner of the Green Rose Award from New Issues Press, is a collection of much needed precise and distilled language. The compression of these poems, most under twenty-lines, is bouillon-like, and their nourishings center around loss, aging, and impermanence. Relationships with loved ones and the inevitable changes of intimacies are extremely central to many of the poems. The loss of relationship seems to usurp even a fear of the speakers' personal experience of death. Longevity by way of science and technology has extended this period of aging in the twenty-first century. Humanity, trying desperately to further distance death and aging must still face the same fate people have grappled with throughout history. Although the denial of death may be more prominent in our modern society which turns to technology as God, we are still finite. However, we have a much longer period of time to contemplate our decline. It is more prevalent within the psyche. Houlihan's work explores these facets of contemporary loss and decline, letting language reveal what is deepest.

In the first of the five sections of the book, Houlihan's poem, "Unrelenting," shows this loss of aging through its direct lines. "To keep things the same, where do you stop/ to worship and repair? It is natural to decline. I decline." The imagery found within her lines are also motivated by loss. "The modicum of life that strung the little necks/ of crocuses, that lulled the feeble seed/ into its disease called grass." It is also the internal components of sound within the lines, by way of assonance and consonance, which give her lines a vice-like quality. All is tight, from her startling language to patterns of sound, found consistently throughout her work.

The concept of loss in "Unrelenting" is one present from seed, from the very beginning of life. Houlihan approaches loss from all stages of life, from the mother left by the grown child, to the death of family as in "From the Empire of Missing Uncles." In this poem the speaker feels the loss as if experiencing it as a child, saying, "But you know I've come back to you, small and denied,/ for that penny arcade card you kept in your pocket-." Focusing on other moments of childhood with a sense of unsentimental nostalgia, we read again of the speaker's feelings of loss and need to go back, as in "All the Cold Mechanicals," in the fourth section of her book. Here, she addresses a child hood friend:

"How much smaller we've grown, each season
Rising unrefreshed, more empty of us.
Come to the window, my childhood friend.
See the branches cast in snow again
And freckled over with melting."

Houlihan describes the aging process as shrinking or becoming "smaller." Similar description is also found in "Ardor" in which "turned out and without / such fortitude we will diminish/ unfairness of limbs, shrunken."

To escape this diminishing, many of Houlihan's speakers go back to the moments of life that have passed in order to reclaim them. In her title poem, "The Mending Worm," also the last poem of her book, she embeds direct lines between brilliant imagery.

"Easter comes early-
cups and cutouts, pinwheels and horns-

toy beauty so long in the ground.
This is what I want: to return
the same way I came."

Her directness of the line, "This is what I want: to return," is more poignant due to its embedding and has greater resonance. The speaker wants this return not only for the self, but for the growing child "at the start of a man." The element of return and repair is furthered by the image of the worm moving "through the pores of the earth" is as if a needle is pulling thread to mend. While the reader is left with a sense of repair in this final poem, we know that the repair is only the speaker's longing and "impossible."

Houlihan's speakers are consistently struggling with this impossibility of loss and describe themselves as "a blown surface," or as someone "wrecked." However, in the poem "Unrelenting," in the first section of the book, this speaker recognizes and accepts the impermanence of life, as we the reader must also recognize and accept. This speaker calls the inevitability a "lesson of snow," and knows that "As grass turns the color of last things, wheat and rope,/ what can I do but walk over it."