Shoshanna Wingate, one of the weekend’s standouts, captivated the audience with powerful and emotionally sincere poems read from her recently published short collection Homing Instinct.
Content aside, Homing Instinct is a handsome, limited edition hand-sewn chapbook meticulously assembled using specifically selected archival papers and print pigments, making it a work of art in its own right, and a delight to handle. Congratulations to Frog Hollow Press for constructing yet another distinctive bibliophile edition.
Home and all of its accoutrements, conventions, and cultural imperatives are made accountable in Wingate’s collection as it moves inexorably towards the final reckoning we encounter in the closing poem. “Neighbours” and “The Cotton Mill” come early in the book, and as companion pieces, work to both establish and entrench the prevailing thematic locus.
In “Neighbours,” tensions between adult realities and the child speaker’s narration of her perceived experience are subtly communicated, as in the offhand remark “my papa says it’s quaint and cheap,” describing why they are ostensibly squatting in an Appalachian backwater. The use of statement also works as an effective counterpoint to the bucolic scene, as when the speaker surprises us by suddenly entering the narrative in remarking “no one knows people live down here,” thus revealing her agency and perspective in the world of the poem. The children “drape the willows around [their] necks / like scarves, serve moss tea to frogs / on stumps that serve as parlour sets, / and fan [themselves] with ferns like queens” as the poem closes, and despite what the reader now knows of actualities, the notion of home as filtered through the speaker is as pure, satisfying, and real as we will encounter in these pages.
It’s this notion of belonging and the place of competing identities within the speaker relative to established definitions of home that Wingate wrestles with in “The City Dwellers.” As a “domesticated” space, home is rendered untenable here — something that can’t be, or refuses to be, fashioned to the speaker’s will. Having settled in the rural environment of the poem some years ago after having previously lived an urban and presumably itinerant lifestyle, she struggles to impose the learned sense of order she believes is necessary to realizing her culturally prescribed idea of home. The fence built by a neighbour, in all likelihood to block the untidy, unconventional space the narrator exhaustively labours to tame, is met with relief, as it brings “some outline of order.”
A similar feeling of perceived contentment or groundedness is communicated when Wingate writes off of her subject by interpolating a back-story episode wherein her speaker is put at peace by watching a former neighbour exercise his trained pigeons on the roof of an urban walk-up. But it’s precisely this imposed sense of constraint that is ultimately undermined as the poem moves forward: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall / That wants it down.” Frost’s maxim from “Mending Wall” couldn’t be more appropriate to Wingate’s purposes in “The City Dwellers,” as the order of the fence, and the compliance of the trained pigeons, although outwardly celebrated as efforts at containment, are ultimately indicted as absurd artificialities. The spanworms that decimate the speaker’s garden act as a clever thematic counterpoint to the trained pigeons we encounter in the middle of the poem. Emerging from their pupas, they soar over the “pockmarked garden, without / another notice, not for its destruction / or their battered homes, cared nothing for what/they left behind, nor dwelled on what survived.”
The message, then, both in “The City Dwellers” and the collection at large, may well be that we need to reclassify our notions of what home is and means. It seems much less a physical place, and more, simply, where we find ourselves. Wherever we are is merely a vehicle we put to use in the interest of perpetually moving forward. In Homing Instinct, Shoshanna Wingate gracefully communicates a timeless and difficult truth. It’s in the journey that home is found, not in some perceived final destination.