Book Review: Karyna McGlynn's Hothouse
Karyna McGlynn is the author of two books of poetry, Hothouse (Sarabande Books, 2017) and I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl (Sarabande Books, 2009), as well as three chapbooks: The 9-Day Queen Gets Lost on Her Way to the Execution (Willow Springs Editions, 2016), Alabama Steve (Sundress, 2014) and Scorpionica (New Michigan Press, 2007). Her poems have recently appeared in Ploughshares, The Kenyon Review, West Branch, Black Warrior Review, Subtropics, AGNI, Witness, Ninth Letter, The Literary Review, and The Academy of American Poets' Poem-A-Day.
Karyna holds an MFA from the University of Michigan, and earned her PhD in Literature & Creative Writing from the University of Houston where she served as Poetry Editor and Managing Editor for Gulf Coast. A veteran performance poet, Karyna has been a member of five National Poetry Slam teams. Her honors include the Kathryn A. Morton Prize, the Inprint Verlaine Prize in Poetry, the Academy of American Poets' Prize, the Marion Barthelme Award for Editorial Excellence, the Claridge Residency, a Cullen Foundation Fellowship, a Zell Fellowship in Poetry, and a Hopwood Award. She was recently the Diane Middlebrook Poetry Fellow at the University of Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing where she served as Senior Editor for Devil's Lake. She is currently a Visting Assistant Professor of Creative Writing and Translation at Oberlin College.
A Review of Karyna McGlynn's Hothouse by R. E. Steele
Karyna McGlynn’s Hothouse is a breathtaking display of human growth, specifically of becoming a woman: “crawling across the bed…for my fourteen-year-old self reeking of controlled heartbreak”. McGlynn's collection blooms wit and candor. Her artful selection of language surpasses expectations and provides her work versatility. Lifelong influences and experiences, including Marvel superheroes, John Keats, and sexual empowerment, are packed into her wonderful metaphors. McGlynn underscores what we know of loneliness, heartache, and maturing.
McGlynn uses linguistic details to sculpt her work down to the sound and sense of a word. She does this skillfully with “Sensual Vocabulary,” where she begins in the opening line with the word "phonaesthetics," which is the study of why a word sounds pleasurable or discordant. By applying specific language, this piece displays how phonaesthetics can affect our reading:
Take the word austere, for instance. It does not mean what it should…
The best words always lie and are more expensive
than the rest…so blinded by our song and austerity.
This piece dissects language and focuses on how it is often not what we expect it to be. The narrator uses the word “austere” as an example, and then lists several other Latinate words such as “crepuscular” and “nonplussed" that mislead readers from their meanings based on theirs sounds.. She deliberates on how words are being used as we “spit them back out again”; showcasing the ways in which we reuse and recycle language to make it new again. Her last line brings us back to this argument. She challenges our expectations by refusing to use a common poetry device – initial alliteration. Austerity means strictness in manners or nature; but, rather than using “song and strictness" to create an alliterative clasp, she uses "austerity." This choice reminds us that language is selected with purpose, reinforcing the power of the written word.
McGlynn’s utilization of language flourishes. Meanwhile, her concepts of love confront her audience with tenacity. Poems like, “Our Books, Our Books” show us an outlook on writing and love as evidenced in the following excerpt:
If Love is the sicker of two sick,
sick puppies, what choice do we have?
We must bring it home and fix it.
In this poem, the speaker presents a love of writing while suggesting that “the question is whether to quell this profligate book writing.” As the Dad in the poem asks, “Would you rather write books for a living or find true love with an oceanographer?”, obviously understanding that the speaker of the poem will choose the former. In contrast is the family friend David, who talks about his failed attempts at writing as a career, “Give up this body of work, he says. It cannot love.” Thankfully, neither the "we" of this poem, or McGlynn, follow this advice.
We are guided through the speaker's sensual empowering of herself as a writer, a lover, and as a woman; and, in poems such as “Seventies Couch,” moments of vulnerability are apparent as she writes “take out your guitar, mask my tattered heart in minor chords.” McGlynn depicts the revelation of self discovery as a behavioral and cognitive development over the years of a young woman’s life. This is shown clearly in her work, making her collection relatable as a whole.
Love is shaped by dedication and commitment in McGlynn’s poetry. She dresses up maturity over the narrator’s lifetime, from Sally Bowles to dumbshows. Hothouse lets us sway through this exploration into adulthood hoping that we “…call this/costume a costume”. Hothouse is an arresting collection that deserves to be read and experienced.