Poet David Winter’s debut collection, Safe House is a svelte but fierce chapbook. The compilation’s title is honored throughout the text by the themes of misplaced intimacy, desire, and imprisonment. Winter creates a collection of poems that function as individual spaces of shelter or safety. Some prove to be faulty and some are ethereal.
Past work of the poet’s has been published in The Atlanta Review, Four War Review, and The Nervous Breakdown. Winter is a true advocate for poetry and has led creative writing workshops in LGBT senior centers, public high schools, and county jails. He is currently an MFA student in Creative Writing at The Ohio State University and an associate poetry editor for The Journal, the award-winning OSU literary publication.
Safe House offers poems ranging from short-line pieces to scrolling lyrical works—many propose questions and subsequently answer, while others leave particles air bound and illuminated like dust in the rafters (in a beautiful way). Winter leaves no poem merely in development—each piece is methodically structured, welcoming, and contains its own ambiance—a very particular “safe house.” Often, these poems begin with the flooring and build in an upward motion leaving the reader gazing toward the ceiling of the piece. This escalation is seen in the final stanza of “The Absence of What Once Filled Me”:
I know the condition of his arm implies a trauma:
a flight of stairs taken too quickly, control lost
at the dojo, a schizophrenic client’s final episode.
It does not disturb the cold beer my hand grasps,
the barstool I rest on, or my open, listening ear.
Throughout Safe House, Winter assesses delicate relationships often between men—his subjects are ultimately tender, but tightly bound to their structure—all reflections of “safe houses”: imposing exteriors with hearts that harbor comfort to the speaker. These are songs for the calloused and discontent. In the poem “Parole,” which was previously nominated for a Pushcart Prize, the poet recounts a conversation with a prisoner leaving his house, freshly released on parole:
Left hand in your mother’s
Right hand in your woman’s,
You face glass, you face
The man who has come home.
You tell me you learned home
From the anti-place
Here, Winter showcases his talent for deciphering the infidelity of a moment: a prisoner released back to his family, reflecting upon the safety or home he felt in custody. He is greeted by his mother and love but his heart belongs to another space—the anti-place or his safe house. Here we see a theme of the collection illuminated: the availability of love, the giving of it to something or someone displaced.
Winter’s complexity and control showcase his commitment as a student of poetry, but his images are not fixed—he is vivid and unusual in his affection for his subjects. In “Photograph Taken After She Burned The Other,” Winter describes photographic images and the deflected memories they contain. The work includes the strongest of his metaphors:
Her body cropped by the lens,
Mouth open to exhale the warmth
my skin remembers onto a branch
decorated by blossoms of snow.
All that month the cold light
Would rise slow from underneath
The gray lip of town ….
Here, Winter showcases his ability to breathe into his work and ignite a flame within his Safe House.
At his best, the poet brings fortitude and presence to the houses of his collection. At his worst, he is crouching by the porch steps, tricky and contrite. Winter can act as a guiding light or a complex, heedless storyteller. Two works within Safe House follow the relationships of Luciano Serafino, a fictional Italian mobster whose relationships are the subject of the Winter’s gaze. Safe House the collection is named for Serafino’s comforts in the piece “Luciano Serafino’s Safe House”—yet the Serafino series is sporadically included in the book (two works are devoted to him) and difficult to include in a conversation with the other, more lyrical works of the collection. As Winter says himself in “Luciano Serafino’s Safe House”: “it felt like a movie”. These pieces contain bold images but the speaker’s intimate, secretive relationship with Serafino sits backseat to the wordy, visceral story. Here, Serafino’s “safe house” is introduced and vanishes at once:
… I dressed Lu in jewels
that night, and for two weeks we made love
in a safe house. I’d never seen him so weightless,
strutting around in pearls and lace like my eyes
alone appraised him. When our father sent word
to return to work, he nearly left the family.
Winter returns to his thematic evidence that love is often extracted from traditional spaces and illuminated by “un-place.” The poet’s devotion to Serafino continues in the piece “Luciano Serafino’s Lover” as the speaker recalls his affair with the man and his ability to make him anew again. There is a cyclical quality to Winter’s collection. One in which his poems disintegrate and reform or present themselves and unravel. Perhaps the presence of Serafino in Winter’s debut will be expanded in his future collections. I wanted to find him in more places—waiting in the wings of poems about longing like, “What Vanishes,” “Genesis 22:2,” and “Laments With Cello Accompaniment.” Perhaps he was there, hiding. Perhaps I just could not see him.
Safe House, by David Winter. Thrush Press. $10.00, paper.
Emily Rose Larsen is pursuing an MFA in Poetry at San Diego State University. Her work has appeared in decomP, The Scrambler, Obsession Lit Mag, and others as well as in the 2012 Saul Williams anthology, CHORUS: A Literary Mixtape. You can find her on Twitter @emroselarse.