Kintsugi, an abiding Japanese art form, models the power of healing honestly.
Handling broken pots and other vessels with care, the artist tends fractures with a lacquer mingled with gold, silver or platinum powder. Kintsugi never denies the initial break, but rather seeks a more thorough beauty and integrity.
“This unique method celebrates each artifact's unique history by emphasizing its fractures and breaks instead of hiding or disguising them,” Kelly Richman-Abdou wrote this year for My Modern Met. “In fact, kintsugi often makes the repaired piece even more beautiful than the original, revitalizing it with a new look and giving it a second life.”
Columbia poet Lynne Jensen Lampe brings no gold dust to her debut collection “Talk Smack to a Hurricane,” out via the Toronto-based Ice Floe Press. And yet she follows the true kintsugi masters, wrapping ink and paper around wounds inflicted by mental illness, familial rending and casual cultural misogyny.
The cracks never disappear; they fuse with the distinct, striking beauty of Lampe’s verse.
Much of the collection exists in conversation with, and to shed refining light upon, the mental illness of Lampe’s mother. As press materials and these poems detail in different fashions, her mother received diagnoses of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
To call Lampe’s poems “unflinching” in the face of such gravity would actually do them a disservice; they flinch often, wring their hands, ask unanswerable questions — they also return to her mother’s side with love, offering the embrace of a rare empathy.
A woman of letters
“Five Photographs Square with My Mother’s Truth” opens the book, establishing its tone and the degrees of distance between Lampe and her mother, between the nature of their respective realities. The poem also gestures toward the poet’s willingness to bridge that space with words.
In one snapshot, Lampe is a girl smiling at her mother’s behest: “I mug for the camera, / snug in her arms & out / of the drifts, feed myself / a mitten of snow. She wonders / how she’ll pay rent.”
In another, only Lampe’s infant hand enters the frame. Her mother portrays beauty and hints of distress: “Caught in profile, she smiles / her cheekbone & chin / into a question mark / without a question.” In yet another, Lampe lies on a “green vinyl couch,” head in her mother’s lap; mother attends to daughter with a sleek yet fragile grace.
“Like always, she / calls me Doll, hopes I never / break the way she does.”
Further poems drive and enflesh a narrative Lampe knows well, and reveals a line at a time. “Locked In/Ward, Looking Out/Ward” resembles the inner monologue of someone housed inside a psychiatric ward — their concern drifting toward the immediate and minute, then toward the contours of their life in punctuation-less fashion.
“They say I can’t leave but my / brain is a door,” Lampe writes in a staggering kicker.
“Delivered” introduces a crucial section of the book, detailing a letter penned by Lampe’s mother. Written just after Lampe’s birth and read just after her mother’s death, as the poem’s opening lines detail, Lampe holds the letter up as proof of life — “Eight pages of onionskin, / every sentence fat with hope / smelling of joy & cedar” — then contrasts its strokes and spirit with her mother’s eventual diagnoses and words that separate and ultimately bond the two.
Lampe creates a sequence of erasure poems from the letter itself; she dignifies her mother — entering her words into the record — while diving deep, oxygen tank fixed, surfacing with pearls of true meaning.
A sense of collaboration suffuses these pieces, as Lampe tells truths with her mother’s help. “The Bottle Mother” is particularly staggering: “The baby did / cause the break / The I Am / sent me His Son / a lover / and this child,” it begins.
Fragments make the whole
“Talk Smack to a Hurricane” underlines an even more fundamental relationship than blood and bone structure. We are whole people made of fragments, these poems remind us; the fragments often speak loudest, and by giving them hearing, we attend the whole.
This sense rings clearly through poems such as “Stars Scatter the Field Yellow” and “At the Other Hospital,” which discuss the family’s Jewish heritage. It presents itself in “Fingered” and “Figure of Speech” as Lampe observes the treatment of women.
The former traces the records of institutionalized women, and ends with what a culture so often internalizes: “Palmistry considers conic fingers a sign of creativity, / intuition. Psychiatry considers womanhood a disease.”
The latter opens with a security blanket as a sign of endurance before puzzling over two words so often applied to girls: “late bloomer.”
“Why are women always / explained away by flowers?” Lampe writes. “We bud, blossom, open. We / shrivel, wither, dry up. & it was a man, not the artist herself, / who said Georgia O’Keeffe was painting a vulva again & / again.”
Faith makes its presence felt throughout these poems, both a consolation and causing questions which hang in the air. Lampe is often at her best in conversation with the Divine or when drawing a chalk outline around its presence.
“Now/when I drive the river / road, God rides shotgun, spins / the story of hell & heaven, / twin parties with hungry guests / ready to feast on fava beans / & figs,” she writes in the title poem.
In “Chiaroscuro,” Lampe parses Christ-haunted parts of speech: “Could. Conditional tense, / what we wish for. Hope for. / The gaze is everything. / Silence scabs thought / & all dead belong to the King. / God. Religion’s needle, / dull blue bruise. Hurt / means feeling & feeling / means alive.”
Whatever pieces of herself, or her family history, Lampe clings to and turns over like a coin, she returns to words as a bonding agent something sufficient to hold it all together. Writing colors, natural features, even the topography of human nature, she excels at conveying how precious life is; ever-deteriorating yet wholly worth preserving.
And words become the means to broker peace — with the essences of our loved ones, and with the work they leave us. One of the collection’s final poems, “Stirring the Ashes,” is an ode to this labor of love in all its beautiful sadness. Spilling her mother’s remains “in dark water,” returning her to the elements, Lampe writes not of the sea-bound substance but the heavenward spirit.
“She, beyond bone, is / cloud food & ever rising, / no one’s broken fire.”
In its honesty, “Talk Smack to a Hurricane” models healing or something like it. Each of the book’s broken vessels, especially Lampe’s mother, emerge exquisite and whole. Even as the fractures show, their beauty speaks a better, more enduring word.
“Talk Smack to a Hurricane” is available in a variety of places, including its publishers, locally at Skylark and Yellow Dog bookshops, and in St. Louis at Spine Bookstore and Cafe.
Aarik Danielsen is the features and culture editor for the Tribune. Contact him at email@example.com or by calling 573-815-1731. Find him on Twitter @aarikdanielsen.
This article originally appeared on Columbia Daily Tribune: Columbia poet Lynne Jensen Lampe finds healing in the 'Hurricane'