Now You’re the Enemy
James Allen Hall
Fayetteville: U of Arkansas
James Allen Hall has a mother thing, and his book is a rich experience because of it. Hall’s poems in Now You’re the Enemy form a vibrant collection about family life specifically (though not exclusively) and the speaker’s relationship with Mother particularly. I have no idea how factual this book is, nor do I care because the book and its author mythologize family, mother, and love. Hall’s is an exciting voice; you’ll want to acquire this collection, rejoice in it, and let it haunt you. Trust me, it will.
Hall unifies his book in part by beginning several poem titles with the words “Portrait of My Mother as . . . ,” then using such phrases as “the Republic of Texas,” “as Rosemary Woodhouse,” “as Self-Inflicting Philomena,” etc. In addition, his calling a couple of poems “Family Portrait” and using “Portrait” in the title of others show us his deep concern with multiple images of the same idée fixes (mother, father, lover, self). Thus, the collection feels whole and allows Hall to play with language for good ends: “My mother in a white wedding dress digs a tunnel”; “After my mother won independence in 1836,” “My suited father ties his hands around her,” and so on.
The very troubled relationships among the family members are never sentimentalized. The father is not merely “the heavy” in many of the family poems, for instance. Seeing his father naked, the speaker “ began/examining myself with a flashlight under the covers./I am his body. I will become a man/and will not know how to be radiant.” The brother of the speaker seems in one poem to have been a tacit conspirator in the speaker’s real or mythologized rape (or am I being too literal?); in another, the speaker is fondled by a man in a hospital who “flattened his hand against my zipper,/lowered it until I emptied out.” Sex in this book is often, not always, imposed rather than welcomed, which does not make for comfortable reading, nor, in this context, should it.
Hall does not confine his concern for the domestic to the speaker’s own family. One of the book’s best poems, “The Egg,” takes the cliché of an overworked mother and baffled father; then, in dramatizing the simple act of cleaning up after rage, brings us almost unbearably close to a family where the man “takes measured breaths, he wants/to believe the world will be different for the next one [baby],/the one he does not want to be born.” Here the father, who has cleaned up an egg the young mother threw at her own child’s face, is the mirror hero to the speaker’s heroic mother in the other family poems.
The book is genuine, not perfect. In “Pleasure,” one of the book’s best poems, Hall writes “My brother who turned into a tree,” a good enough line except the previous ones have made the point; Hall gilds the lily here unnecessarily. (It’s the kind of line that screams “creative writing program.”) Hall ends the second poem from “Four Letters from SPC Elycia Loveis Fine (Occupied Baghdad , May 2003)” with “Tell your mom she’s a dirty whore,” a line that doesn’t belong here or anywhere else in this book: a good friend would have told Hall to take out this one speck of unwarranted misogyny that clashes for no good reason with the poem’s persona and the persona of the whole collection. Also, some might find that the tone of the second half clashes too sharply with that of the first, although I like the deliberate disjunction, and Hall brings us home with “You Send me Roses” and “Love the Shattered Thing,” both wonderful poems. In fact, I would have ended the book with “Love the Shattered Thing” and not “Portrait of my Lover Singing in Traffic,” which seems to me perhaps more properly the first poem of another collection.
But these are the slips of a first-rate artist. Hall ends one of the “Family Portrait” poems by saying “In the light my father makes in the dark/I was mothered into art.” That’s a journey on which Hall takes his readers, and it’s a trip well worth taking. You’ll love this book, and I look forward to Hall’s next.
Thomas Dukes is Professor of English at The University of Akron. He is the author of the poetry collection Baptist Confidential and the forthcoming Sugar Blood Jesus: A Memoir of Faith, Madness, and Cream Gravy. His writing has also appeared in a variety of journals. He is the world’s biggest Julie Andrews fan.