A Review of House Bird by Robert Fillman

Review by Jon Riccio

Terrapin Books, 2022

Nostalgia’s Possibility in Robert Fillman’s House Bird

I cannot think of a better reading environment than my childhood home, where I spent last winter and spring, for Robert Fillman’s House Bird (Terrapin Books, 2022). Several poems illuminate a neighborhood experiencing as many rites of passage as its speaker, domesticity and ekphrasis the salt by which Fillman’s readers step from porch to mailbox. A few years younger than me, Fillman’s allusions to rattails and Kurt Cobain cemented my early interest. I finished his collection certain he would have inherited my paper route had I been allowed one. Fillman’s specificities are foundational to reminiscence, 

       I suddenly think 
  of my grandfather’s coal cellar 

  in the back corner of his house, 
  how dark it seemed, the way the light 
  only shafted in from its one 

  narrow window, how at thirteen 
  I spent hours helping my pap crush 
  bags of aluminum cans we’d 

  later haul to the scrap yard, sell 
  for a few measly bucks, 
  (“Cleaning out the basement closet”)

My grandmother stored pop cans in a similar cellar adjacent to her exercise bike. It’s been a decade since I pedaled that square footage shared with a clothes chute, yet the speedometer is stanza-ready as ever, nostalgic writing most convincing when clarity is the pulse. On the other hand, nostalgia’s hazard is a slippery effervescence that sidesteps bittersweetness. Fillman’s approach counters this—

  I walk past your house and think
  about all those nights we sat
  on the cold linoleum 
  in the kitchen, fingertips
  guiding the heart-shaped plastic
  across your mom’s Ouija board.
  We tried to summon spirits
  in the dark, a dim candle-
  lit circle the only way
  I saw the fear in your eyes,
  (“Elegy for My Cousin Laura”)

His poem might have segued into Ouija esoterica. The title, however, zeroes in on mourning rather than conjuring, both acts dependent on “heart-shaped plastic.” 

House Bird’s “Service Record” and “Doo Wop Dream” show the directions writing may take with backstories twenty to thirty years before the speaker’s birth. In “Service Record,” a furnace’s oil burner is inspected on the first day of winter 1964. This is confirmed by the worker’s maintenance tag having “some years later fallen off.” With only the worker’s name, Vince, “Service Record’s” I turns historian, researching the Farmer’s Almanac to determine weather conditions (“51 degrees”) before pondering Vince’s life: “What did you carry in your lunch pail? / Was that thermos filled with coffee?” These blue-collar inquiries bring to mind the I of Philip Levine’s “Fear and Fame” dressing in

  wide rubber hip boots,
  gauntlets to the elbow, a plastic helmet
  like a knight’s but with a little glass window
  that kept steaming over, and a respirator
  to save my smoke-stained lungs.

“Service Record” imagines Vince’s visual life:

  mid-fifties, browline glasses,
  frosted hair combed back, maybe
  a gray workmen’s jacket
  over your coveralls, your name
  sewn on the left breast pocket

We construct Vince’s world—morning grooming and company uniform—in a poem that begins with LBJ-era oil. Fillman treats past and present not as chasm but opportunity, from Vince’s eyewear to his collegiality, “always / one to show a new guy the ropes.” In subsequent stanzas, we learn the narrator and his wife bought this house from owners who’d lived in it “since 1946.” The address stays the same, its biography does not.

Fillman’s ease with architectural flashback extends to the hospitality industry. Whereas “Service Record” paints on a canvas of kindness, “Doo Wop Dream,” which first celebrates “those 1950s Vegas-style // two-story beach rentals with their / neon signs and plastic trees,” turns dejected because of negated longevity. Fillman writes

  We never stayed at one, and they 

  didn’t stay either, replaced by 
  apartments, condominiums, 

  the same space but none of the pop. 
  Older now, I see how tacky

  those U and L-shaped motels were,
  that what they offered was not quite 

  real, a glimpse into another 
  kind of life, one I’d never know.

I’m convinced the same de-computerized room key follows me from check-in to check-in, but “Doo Wop Dream” (whose sparkle for places we romanticize) reminds us that highlights and letdowns are housed side-by-side. This creates a whim-wince as opposed to a win-win, Fillman’s “Rattails” likewise adhering to the hyphenate. 

One follicular rite I escaped, my middle school was so inundated with rattails that homeroom looked like a live-action Secret of NIMH. Fillman speaks ethos to nape, declaring “All the neighborhood boys had them.” Whimsy lies in recollection. We Gen X-ers and our warren-amiable trends: “Dev sported his like the mud flaps / drooping from his dad’s battered Dodge.” Whim induces a chuckle. But substantive? What keeps poems such as “Rattails” from capsizing is our wince on receiving either an alas, which “Doo Wop Dream” delivers, or a gut punch. My go-to gut punch is Patricia Smith’s “When the Burning Begins,” its opening: “The recipe for hot water cornbread is simple: / Cornmeal, hot water. Mix till sluggish, / then dollop in a sizzling skillet.” Alliteration stirs mirth. At no time do we expect the second stanza’s end-command to

  forget that I’m telling you it’s the first thing
  I ever cooked, that my daddy was laughing
  and breathing and no bullet in his head
  when he taught me.

The wallop of “Rattails” is that

           Ricky lost his
  before us all. We found him crouched
  barefoot beneath his uncle’s porch, 
  blood dried on his lip, two black eyes

  forming a single drainage ditch.
  He held out a hand, the last strands
  of his childhood trapped in his palm.

Ricky’s clutch is our wince. Whether a regular occurrence or the uncle’s way of manning him up is nonessential. Moments this powerful forgo that type of interrogation. “The Batter” is “Rattails’” more starkly resigned sequel. We make the acquaintance of 

    Bobby Smiegel,
  who had been on the losing

  end of it, both on the field
  and at home,

his father’s abuse known household to household. Dinged by the ball, Bobby has a moment of what amounts to sissyness. In response, he weaponizes the bat

  with a single swat against
  a tree, which could have been one
  of us on his knees begging

  for his life, 

Who wasn’t privy to a Bobby growing up, intervention unthinkable—

  one barrel later exchanged
  for another, but back then
  we couldn’t have known how close
  Bobby was to his final out.

Suicide or patricide, that is the reader’s call.

Listen to Robert Fillman read “The Batter

Fillman achieves greater depth when he combines the domestic with transitionally based rituals. While “Pulling off the Outlet Covers” is not a practice in my bailiwick, I understand parenthood’s hesitancy with electricity, its calling card “the small plastic // circles of protection that we / depended on those early years.” Fillman’s words made me think of amulets. Observe our kilowatt sorcerer “Slipping the butter knife behind, // prying them loose from their sockets.” What else but a kitchen utensil, whose use the child will soon learn, to mark incremental time.

The father in “Blessing” takes one last walk about his house before the new owners’ arrival, pondering emptiness with benevolence. Just because you’ve boxed everything doesn’t mean happiness can’t convert to “the energy we leave behind.” Fillman muses on the physicality of benediction, welds it to incantation—

     I rub hands across
  plaster, squeeze every brass doorknob,
  make my way outside, where I raise

  my arms beneath the full moon, cast
  a spell at the point of the roof
  aiming to protect every brick,
  every shingle of crumbling slate. 

—real estate thriving post-crescent.

“Salting the Driveway (with Help)” caps the domestic with a grandfather’s ghost assistance. This task becomes an occasion for “wrestling with questions” familial and existential:

                 will my wife
  and kids get home safely from shopping?

  Who’s watching me fling handfuls of salt
  on the asphalt? Is this all there is?

Worry, perception, and meaninglessness needle the speaker who looks for resolution in the downfall “thinking this snow is no different // than the snow that fell years ago on / my grandfather.” Mid-poem, the ethereal “points to a patch of black / ice I’ve missed.” This ritual requires the intercession of a grandpa referenced throughout House Bird, part of its dedication in memory of Fillman’s grandfather, Robert Feller. He “tells me it’s okay, looks / like he wants to say more, but a wind / slips down my neck.” Wished-for guidance from the here-no-more is my strongest connection to Fillman’s poetry. Driveways are not a given. Grief is. 

The quandary with ekphrasis is balance. Does the poem distinguish itself or leave heavy interpretive lifting to the original? Fillman draws inspiration from Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth, nuances accomplishing his ekphrastic mission. The titular “House Bird” (after Wyeth’s Bird in the House) commences with cause and effect:

  The evening light dislodged it
  from its perch, shot it straight through

  an open window, stone-gray
  stopped on the mantel.

Seen below, Fillman’s surprise shift is the focus on silence as it overturns the logic that since paintings aren’t sonic, why resort to auditory detail? Not so in these couplets, their emphasis on flavor also breaking expectations:

           How quiet
  the bird became. It might be 
  straining silver, or pulling

  the summer’s edge from its beak,
  which tastes of goldenrod

  and zinnia seeds and mud. 

Pivoting to senses other than sight is Fillman’s ladder out of the reporting labyrinth. 

An earlier technique, backstory where we least expect it, provides insight into the man in “Summer Ending,” based on Hopper’s Summer Evening

            He thought
  he’d won her, balanced his job all summer,
  fishing on the lake, kept her simmering
  like a boiling pan.

I’m toggling between my notes and the art, just now appreciating the creases in his pantlegs, the ceiling-embedded porchlight. We have a rustling of intention and reserve, “In his dark blue shirtsleeves, hand on his heart, / he wouldn’t dare drape the other across / her bare upper arm, at least not tonight.” Viewing Summer Evening, I hadn’t thought about the house’s interior, but Fillman finds Hopper’s key: “The closed door, a small / gap in the curtains, people in the house / probably sleeping, inches between them.” These lines reveal a literal compactness accompanying an image that queries the difference between intimacy and proximity.

“The Shell’s” strategy (after Wyeth’s Her Room) is to populate the writing with an absent protagonist:

  He left the door open
   like he always does,
  the sash windows closed    
   but the curtains drawn
  so we can look out
   on the shore and pretend we know
  where meadow brush meets
   the water.

A singular He leads to a remembering I—an innovation, double absentees—who “can see him then, all sinew, / pointing toward the scalloped white shell / orphaned on the desk,” the shell awaiting an adoptive breeze. 

House Bird is a record of decisions alongside rituals and what ifs—

        Then I imagine
  what I would do differently
  the next time: Am I still married
  at thirty-seven? Do I take
  that job in Nevada? 

Ricky, Bobby, married ice melter (even Hopper and Wyeth, who influenced the poet) are where nest and threshold’s ripple effect meet. I’ve added Fillman to my syllabus. Remember, he can pull a writing prompt out of an inspection sticker. His work is that pedagogically valuable.

Jon Riccio’s AGOREOGRAPHY was recently published by 3: A Taos Press. He serves as the poetry editor at Fairy Tale Review and an editor for Ran Off With the Star Bassoon.

Robert Fillman is the author of the chapbook November Weather Spell (Main Street Rag, 2019). His poems have appeared in such journals as The Hollins Critic, Ninth Letter, Salamander, Spillway, Spoon River Poetry Review, and Tar River Poetry. His criticism has been published in ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the Environment, CLAJ: The College Language Association Journal, and elsewhere. He holds a Ph.D. in English from Lehigh University and teaches at Kutztown University. His debut full-length collection, House Bird, which had been a finalist for both the Cider Press Review Book Award and the Gerald Cable Book Award, was published in February 2022 by Terrapin Books.

House Bird, Terrapin Books