Like flashes of lightning, the 62 poems in Barbara Helfgott Hyett’s Come Thunder illuminate pivotal moments in a long life that reveal meaning in the seemingly mundane. Told in the first person by a woman named Barbara, they use plain language and striking images to explore the speaker’s evolution: how the little girl becomes a woman, a mother, a grandmother, and something like her essential self again when she’s alone in old age.
The poems in “Atlantic City,” the first of three sections, are rooted in childhood. They investigate the way its forces and impressions shape our characters. Many of these poems contend with a feeling of aloneness (sometimes perceived as abandonment, and exacerbated by a fear of the dark), and the way that imagination can both comfort and terrorize. Stuffed animals soothe, but they also exert their own personalities. In “All Night the Waves,” a teddy bear “will not be quiet.” In “I Never Said I Loved You Best,” the speaker is torn between her loyalty to her old ratty bear that is secretly her favorite and a new arrival her brother won for her at a carnival, “neither / soft nor pretty, how I / pitied him and dared not / hurt his feelings.” She’s tormented by the thought that he can sense her disloyalty.
Like the other latchkey kids in “Dead-End Street,” the speaker makes a city block her playground. The children open fire hydrants for relief from the heat, and to wash “our bloody knees, and our grime.” Yet a receptivity to the natural world distinguishes the speaker from her rough and tumble playmates. Sitting alone on the stoop after dinner, she notices “the sky, a seaside / circus already wired for light.”
In “Chloe Price Dance Studio,” the speaker covets and spontaneously steals a box of fancy stationery she finds in a closet. On the way home, she mentally spins a web of lies to explain the presence of such a luxury in her family’s working-class lives, while justifying the theft to herself as a way to support her writerly ambitions. A stern admonition from the self (“Barbara Joan, you have / to take that stationery back!”) booms like a thunderclap—the conscience revealed.
Elsewhere, the young speaker must contend with disappointments—not getting coveted roles in school musicals, getting a bad report card—while reconciling herself to the understanding that it’s not her voice nor her grades that’s the issue. The rejections seem related to something else essential about her—her character. She gropes toward an understanding that a teacher might be anti-Semitic. In “The Christmas Show,” cast as a magi, she notices that “all / three of the three wise men are Jewish girls. / Why is that? ” Twisting her mind around the logic of the teacher’s casting decisions, she internalizes the rejection and finds herself deficient (“Lois’ socks never slipped down into / her shoes like mine, slipped on account of my / skinny ankles, I guess”). The child might experience her own potential as unlimited, but it’s kept in check by people in power. Teachers write “Barbara is not a good citizen” in “Report Card”; she is “too aggressive for a girl” in “Pick-Up Games.”
Puberty is marked by an onslaught of confusing feelings. The speaker pines for her brother when he leaves for college, but she’s disgusted by a sexually graphic love letter she finds in his coat pocket, in “My Brother’s Closet.” She’s likewise horrified by the brutal mechanics of sex she learns about in “Health Class.” Yet in “Lifeguard,” she’s ripe for this experience herself. Seduced by an older teenager at the beach, at thirteen she “was new and starving / for his tongue.” In this poem, we learn that her father has died, “my mother, / nearly crazy.” This traumatic, life-changing event is not the central news; it’s context for what she was willing to do, and perhaps why she was willing to do it.
The idyllic family picture in “One Sunday”—mother playing piano, father singing (“Happiness! Nothing less.”)—is complicated in the long poem “Wartime.” Here, the speaker is in utero. Her pregnant mother tries to abort her with a hanger in the bathtub: “I fought with my will, / which rose out of me—No!” A section called “The Spoils” evokes sexual molestation by her father. She recalls all the places in the house where he touched her inappropriately, while her toys express feelings maybe she couldn’t. When we see that “my doll / was crying” and “keeping all her buttons buttoned,” we feel her agony and resistance; seeing “Teddy deciding not / to love me,” we feel her shame and misplaced guilt. Yet the section ends not with blame but with compassion: “On my pillow / my father talking to me / in a voice sadder than I / had ever, until now, known.”
The collection’s middle section, “Transparency,” entails a single long poem. In “Monarch in a Jar,” the speaker is an older woman, transfixed by watching the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly. This nighttime vigil reminds her of watching over “the faces / of my children” when she occupied a different, simpler role in their lives: “I was / nothing but lullaby then.” Yet when it comes time for the butterfly’s release, he’s developed his own attachment and is resistant to leaving: “He climbed out over the lip / of the jar (I couldn’t believe this!) / out onto the back of my hand.” The speaker is profoundly moved when at last he flies off: “let me too be flung out, wholly / new, into that selfsame lucky span.”
Many of the poems in the third and final section, “Proof of the Spinning World,” are closely observed descriptions of other inhabitants of the natural world, including beetles, slugs, cats, and sloths. The human interactions are mostly marked by pain and loss. In “Floods,” the speaker is abandoned by her husband. “East Boston Federal Courthouse” presents her son like a wild thing, paraded in chains; “Falling” shows him dying in a hospital, as she poignantly calls across the bridge of his fading consciousness: “Brian! It’s Mom.”
After this emotional battering, “Last Evening” is picture of resilience and strength. After a long stretch of nights falling asleep in her reading chair (and staying there), the speaker returns to sleeping in her own bed, “the pillow / surprising my hair.” This everyday act is actually a momentous act of self-care by a person unused to showing herself kindness: “I swear I wanted to / celebrate my return / to the customary, but / was unaccustomed / to self-congratulation.”
Whatever has debilitated the speaker in these poems seems to have ground down the poet as well. Alexis Ivy, a student and friend of Helfgott Hyett’s, was tasked with not only writing the collection’s introduction, but in helping bring this “lifelong project” to fruition. When Ivy describes watching her mentor agonize over word choices and line breaks, there’s an urgency and high-stakes aspect to the work she’s witnessing. Again and again in this collection, we see a poet writing at the top of her form.
The collection opens on a lighthouse and closes on a ferry. Water marks the territory of the unconscious. Recollections wash in and out of these poems, sometimes repeating, like waves. Flooded by memories good and bad, Helfgott Hyett has wrung beauty and meaning out of each and every one of them. The clear-eyed scrutiny and emotional intensity of Come Thunder transforms the everyday into the epic. It has all the power, gravity, and finality of a last will and testament. Like a thunderbolt striking and scorching the earth, Helfgott Hyett has left her mark.
Come Thunder, by Barbara Helfgott Hyett. Lily Poetry Review, October 2022. 108 pages. $18.00, paper.
Michael Quinn writes about books for literary journals, in a monthly column for the Brooklyn newspaper The Red Hook Star-Revue, as well as on his own website mastermichaelquinn.com.
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