Book Review: The Museum of Kindness (Susan Elmslie)
Reviewed by Ann E. Wallace
Have you ever wondered if there is a museum devoted to kindness? As Susan Elmslie tells us in the title poem of her 2017 poetry collection,
There isn1t one. I Googled
And so, in response to human fascination with the macabre and to fill the void illuminated by such places as the Museum of Medieval Torture, Elmslie creates a Museum of Kindness for her readers.
However, before she arrives at her project of compassion, to which the final section of Museum of Kindness collection is devoted, she provides the raw experiences that necessitate it. The first section of the book, titled "Material," delivers us into Elmslie1s personal history. At the opening, we see Elmslie as a ten-year old girl conjuring an imaginary world out of a cardboard box. This girl seems younger than her nine-year old daughter years later fascinated by beheadings and other acts of human depravity. Yet, Elmslie1s playful moment is disrupted when her mother1s adult friend makes a callous joke that she should not invite anyone to see her box. The mother scolds him. But it is too late; the ultimately unkind comment has disrupted her innocence, and she is left turning over the unknown double entendre in her head, finding "No safety in words. And more room."
This line forecasts much that is to come—an often delightful, through at turns devastating, play with language and the way words give meaning to experience. Elmslie writes with a sharp awareness of language, which is expected in a book of poetry, but here the content and its vessel—words—which deliver the meaning have dual importance throughout. Indeed, by the time I reached the piece "Genre," just pages into the collection, I was entranced, as Elmslie recasts herself, over time, as one genre after another. This one seems particularly apt:
I was Jumble Sale, recovering
Museum of Kindnessis largely a project of holding remnants of the past up to the light to see why others have chosen to let them go. The deliberate disposals and amnesias are understandable in many instances, as Elmslie chronicles some horrific moments in literal detail. And so, when I came to the second section, "Trigger Warning," I should have expected, but still was not prepared, for the fact that her warning is literal: the first poem takes us into her campus office where she is hiding with her students as a homicidal gunman has opened fire. I sucked in my breath sharply when I realized that this is not a metaphor and that Elmslie had indeed been caught in a campus shooting that claimed the life of one person and injured many others at Dawson College in Montreal in September 2006. This incident, traumatic on its own, in subsequent poems is layered on top of another, of the intentional arson of her family1s home by quarrelling tenants when she was a child.
Spaces are not safe in Museum of Kindness, and in "Threshold," the third of four sections in the collection, Elmslie takes us to the edge of her fears. In the poem "Event Horizon," Elmslie worries someone might slice open her pregnant belly and take her baby. The thing about Elmslie1s fears is that we need to be wary of passing them off as irrational, impossible, because this is a woman whose childhood home had been intentionally set on fire and whose workplace was attacked by a gunman. People do bad things in her world. Indeed, the poem continues:
And then, before my baby was two months old, it happened
The maternal body is not safe, and, as she already knows, neither is the family home. As Elmslie asks, "What, exactly, is / unthinkable?" Not much, apparently. This section is a turning point in the book, when we settle into the patterns of the unthinkable, a "genre I1d shunt beyond the event horizon / if I could," that mark Elsmlie1s life. We realize here, belatedly, that the shooting in "Trigger Warning" was not an anomaly, but rather one of a series of horrifying events—not just for Elmslie, but for all of us. Elmslie1s life is not exceptionally unlucky; most of us face the unthinkable many times over in life, and it is the repetition, the unrelenting nature, that allows readers to recognize that. Indeed, I identified so fully with Elmslie1s fears as I was reading these poems that I had to remind myself that my threshold moments are different than hers. But the power here is in our ability to identify through the worst of her experiences.
So it is important that this liminal section of the book is dominated not by panic but by love, particularly the kind of love that arises out of a desire to protect and provide respite. When one of Elmslie1s sisters is being treated for cancer in "Adventures in Microgravity," Elmslie writes of bringing her newborn to the hospital and being present. She provides the respite of microgravity, a state in which—as Google tells me—gravity1s pull toward the point of no return has loosened its grip. For the sister is the woman who, after Elmslie1s daughter was born, "checked the stitches of my tear, / warned me not to look." And again, when Elmslie is on bedrest in a later poem, she tells us, "My sisters carry all of us uphill," whirling around her, caring for her. This is a family that quietly gathers, approaching the event horizon, when life can and does spin out of control, together.
We know this about them before we learn that the unthinkable has happened again, when Elmslie1s second child—perhaps the same one she feared would be sliced out of her body, perhaps the one she carried through the high-risk pregnancy—is born with a serious unnamed health condition that brings frightening tests, treatments, and prognoses. In the poem "Threshold," addressed to her young son, we see the family straining together against forces larger than them:
It took two nurses and your dad to hold you
The father sits vigil while the infant son enters "the whale1s gut" of the MRI machine. His mother, Elmslie, sits behind the observation glass, shielded but not shielded, with no one warning her not to look this time. The unthinkable is happening again, and "we rise with each swell, dip / with each trough, look / to the far shore."
The journey is a long one, and the remainder of Elmslie1s collection is a reckoning with how to navigate the difficulties of raising a special needs child whose future has been marked by dire prognoses and guarded expectations. In "After the Diagnosis," dedicated to her husband Wes, Elmslie appeals, "Tell me that joy persists." But after she makes the request, she witnesses a kite bouncing free in the wind. Small moments like this comprise this astonishingly beautiful collection of poems, in which we watch a family buoyed by love and hope.
Elmslie could have ended her collection there, on the triumph of a family weathering—and finding joy amid—the unthinkable. But as I mentioned at the start, her project is larger. As a special needs family, they are often alone at sea, with no maps to follow, no guides to ask. The final section, then, provides precisely that. Elmslie curates her Museum of Kindness, gathering together, in a series of persona poems, stories of those who have created kindness. From Mark Twain to Joe Kennedy, Sr., from Pandora to Eve, she relies on found objects and known myths to give voice to the pain and love that have silently fueled so many real and mythic legends.
In "My First Daughter," bedridden, post-stroke Kennedy reflects on a family photo that includes his oldest daughter Rosemary as child, before she was institutionalized as an adult. He expresses regrets he could never voice: "You learn / what rules to break. I1ve never talked." And in found poems, Darwin mourns his beautiful namesake who died at nineteen months, while Twain struggles with his daughter1s death, asking "Why did I build this house, / two years ago? To shelter this vast / emptiness?" Elmslie is taking us into previously unrecorded private pains, adding imaginative layers to stories we think we know—positing Icarus as a perfectionist, Pandora as "the one who opens the can of nuts / stuffed with a snake at the office shin-dig," Eve as annoyed with Adam1s silence, Sylvia Plath as a babysitter.
Some of the persona poems bring a touch of humor to this collection, but all bear unvoiced secrets. They tell of a human history, even mythic history, that is laden with losses, exiles, and regrets. If the common factor of humanity, whether you are Charles Darwin or a Kennedy, is loss and suffering, then common human needs are kindness and compassion. Elmslie brings this back to her family in the title poem:
For our family, invitations are understandably rare.
With a child who does not behave like other children, as a family they are kept separate, their difference a point of painful isolation. It is easier for people to look away than to acknowledge the child who was born different, who remains different. However, in her Museum of Kindness, Elmslie includes one friend who invites them to his holiday party each year, a friend who does not exclude that which is uncomfortable to witness.
Elmslie is grateful but confesses that she never sends a thank you note, offering that in the Museum of Kindness "There1d be a wing devoted to the best / intentions." She too is human. And kindness freely given requires no thank you. Elmslie does not take the time to peel a beloved clementine so carefully for her son in order to be thanked; she does it out of love, protecting him from the bitter rind. Her friend does not extend a party invitation in order to feel altruistic; he does so because he wants them to enjoy a moment1s respite from the bitterness of life.
True kindness is selfless and joyful. Indeed, Elmslie1s collection convinces me that we all may be well served by a Museum of Kindness that shows us that joy can and does persist, even after the unthinkable.
Title: The Museum of Kindness