Michael Lithgow’s debut collection of poetry, Waking in the Tree House, offers up a mixed bag of styles, sensibilities and approaches as it attempts to reconcile the author’s inner world with an external reality. Here you’ll find narrative poems, observational poems, minimalisms and confessionals, all couched in a language meant to transcend the commonplace and amplify itself to the level of revelation.
For the most part, it works very well. Waking in the Tree House is one of those collections where the titular poem is well-deserved of being singled out. In it, Lithgow infuses the page with visions that are, as he puts it, “so often terrible … so perfectly, beautifully askew.” The poem is about a man who climbs into his childhood tree house after a night of drunkenness to discover he has outgrown the space, and yet is enraptured by the portal it provides into the slightly terrifying natural world around him. Lithgow writes:
… I lay prone
beside the soft puckering of sap. And such wind! What coy
stirrings sweep treetops at night, lifting away remnants of what
passes through us in the dark. The little house moved
with my weight; I was too big, too solid for that place.
The musicality of these lines is pitch perfect, yet belies the frightening realizations that the narrator experiences about himself as he trespasses upon his own youth.
Other pieces in the collection are, unfortunately, not nearly as successful. There were times when I felt Lithgow finished his poems in a very closed-off way, as if he were merely cresting toward a pre-determined insight rather than leaving wiggle room for the reader to find—or create—his own. An example of this would be “The old man was laughing,” a narrative poem about youth encountering the elderly, that ends with the line “As if there could be anything more important in the world.” Or “Bog dweller”, a metaphoric romp about “[t]he parcel of land” in your own head. It culminates with these rather wishy-washy lines:
How did it get this way? Me calling at shadows
in an imaginary fen, and you so near
though far away,
holding this light, guiding me home.
Despite these lapses and the occasional imprecise description (“The smell was wretched …”, from “A rescue”; or “I remember a man’s generosity,/a rough hand in mine, always treating/the child like a man” from “Accounts”), Waking in the Tree House does reward close and repeated readings. One of the other gems in the book is “The boy who planted his words in a flower,” which opens with a quote from Christian Bök’s controversial project to encode a sequence of DNA with verse. Here Lithgow’s words practically trip over themselves with zest and playfulness as he explores the ramifications of this queer hybrid of poetry and science. The reader will want to read it several times to revel in its delights. Even poems that frustrated me upon first encounter came to grow on me. This was especially true of the opening piece, “Swimming”, which struck me as heavy-handed upon first reading but quietly brilliant upon the second.
Overall, Waking in the Tree House is as much a mixed bag of quality as it is of form, but it announces a new poet well worth paying attention to and expecting greater work from in the future.