Your Invitation to a Modest BreakfastBy Hannah Gamble Fence Books, 2012
Review by Michael Schmeltzer
Many times in fiction I’ve found characters I love, characters I genuinely miss and want to visit often: Atticus and Scout, Frankie Landau Banks, Meg and Charles Wallace. They occupy that unique memory-space where my childhood friends reside. And like those friends, these characters continue to entertain and teach as I go through each phase of life. Their words and actions, which remain constant, take on new wisdoms.
In other words, some characters grow old with us.
And I know I’m not alone in this sentiment. Even as I type there must be people falling in love with Mr. Darcy, Gatsby, Holly Golightly. Someone is crying over Garp.
However, as a writer and reader of primarily poetry, I’ve never wept over a poem. I marvel at an image. I read poems aloud to take in their music, repeat lines like favorite lyrics (“Hard on the land wears the strong sea / and empty grows every bed.” – John Berryman). I am moved, literally at times, by language rendered beautifully. But verse-induced tears? No. There are numerous poetry books I’ve reread but it wasn’t to visit a character. Until now.
Enter “Your Invitation to a Modest Breakfast” by Hannah Gamble. Bruce Smith calls Gamble a “domestic mystic along the lines of…Anne Bradstreet.” It takes no stretch of the mind to imagine Berryman himself (who paid hefty homage to Bradstreet) would have fallen in love with Gamble’s poetry. I bet Henry would have shoved over every Dream Song incarnation and been completely justified in doing so.
Gamble’s award-winning debut collection is the first book of poems I’ve read where character affected me as much as musicality, lineation, or prosody. It’s easy to recognize a poetic voice in a well-written book. It’s often easy to recognize a poet using someone else’s poetic voice in a well-written book. But Gamble’s work extends beyond voice; her voice attains a sense of personhood. I can’t recall a book where the voice is so peculiar, idiosyncratic, so interestingly three-dimensional it made me care for the speaker. This book reads with the familiarity, warmth, and sometimes cutting insight of a trusted friend (albeit a rather odd one at times).
Who wouldn’t want someone in their life who says, “Celebrate finishing / the things you begin. / Celebrate harder.” And in the way Holden Caulfield wants to be a catcher in the rye, the speaker wants to keep us safe in her own way:
If the world feels like
it will shake you,
wear your puffy windbreaker
indoors. Now a stranger
could bump you in a doorway
and you might not even feel it.
If that doesn’t make you smile, you’re probably the type of person who will not sip from a cup of imaginary tea given to you by a child. And while Gamble may be childlike in her whimsy, curiosity, and what we can perceive as honesty, this is not to be mistaken for a childish book. This isn’t a completely innocent or naïve speaker, but one who defines “innocence in my own way.”
Part of the wonder and welcoming tone of the book stems from Gamble’s interplay between internal and external, the world outside and the “human home” which is “the envy // of creation.” There is a division, yes, but it’s a threshold she invites you to cross. Gamble’s work is intimate and casual, conversational and humble. The title poem welcomes the reader with the opening line “It’s too cold to smoke outside, but if you come over, / I’ll keep my hands to myself, or won’t I.” Her work is flirtatious and playful; not the direct stare but the sideway glance.
In an interview over at the Late Night Library, Gamble states “Berryman made me really, really want to talk in a strange way, and to be able to get away with saying things that don’t make sense unless you squint a little bit or maybe are half asleep.” She is the squint, the dream-state in dusk or dawn – it’s in this gauzy space Gamble excels and shows us a person worth getting to know. Then getting to know better.
In this age of Twitter and texting, we are inundated with both intelligent and inane information. We are seasick with trends. However, the deep and shallow shout outs are exactly what give something dimension. People are not constantly brilliant or ridiculous. We contain multitudes. In many ways, certain poetry books are so polished they resemble models in a magazine: pretty beyond possible. As a reader, I crave a wrinkle, a flaw. Sometimes I want people – as well as poems – to be “sweet and funny / rotting things.” There are poems in here, of course, I don’t connect to as well as some others. But these few are easily forgotten and forgiven, the way we can forgive a rare and careless act from a friend.
Certain authors are quirky and confessional; at times these confessions feel constructed, premeditated. Gamble’s work feels spontaneous in a way that is hard to replicate. It is completely organic. Her poems surprise and remain unpredictable much like the most fascinating people I know. In this way Gamble’s book, from the most heartbreaking statements (“It’s easy for her to love me as her past // but hard for me to love her as my future,” “All I ever wanted / was no cruelty,” “Everything I want to tell you / would make a wonderful sound / hitting your windowpane”) to the most lighthearted (“Instead of doing your laundry, / put your quarters / in a gumball machine” or “I walked out into the yard, / trying to vomit and drink milk simultaneously”) is magnificently human.
Purchase it today at your local bookstore or through Amazon.
Hannah Gamble is the author of Your Invitation to a Modest Breakfast (2012), selected by Bernadette Mayer for the 2011 National Poetry Series. She has received fellowships from InPrint Inc, The Edward F. Albee Foundation, and the University of Houston, where she served as an editor for Gulf Coast: A Journal of Literature and Fine Arts. Gamble has been a guest on podcasts such as Radio Free Albion with Chicago poet Tony Trigilio and Portland's Late Night Library with Paul Martone. Her poems have appeared in The Laurel Review, Forklift Ohio, and jubilat. She has written for the Poetry Foundation and the Poetry Society of America.
Michael Schmeltzer earned an MFA from the Rainier Writing Workshop. He has been a finalist for the Four Way Books Intro Prize and Levis Prize, the OSU Press/The Journal Award in Poetry, and the Slapering Hol chapbook contest. He helps edit A River & Sound Review and has been published in PANK, Natural Bridge, Mid-American Review, Water~Stone Review, and New York Quarterly, among others.