"A House Made of Water" by Michelle Lin

May 28, 2017

'A House Made of Water' by Michelle Lin

Michelle Lin (@michellelinpoet) may have tweeted that she wrote her poetry collection to incite us into “sobbing uncontrollably forever,” thereby turning us all into houses made of water. By imparting stories and anecdotes of trauma, alienation and relationships that are fraught with tension, she may have well succeeded.

What is a house? What thoughts and memories does the word "house" evoke? Lin seems to deftly explore this question in her collection. The first few poems direct us to memories of mother, an elm tree, father, girl-hood. This is a watery house “born and bathed” that promises to be the most unstable of structures. On the one hand, the voice is drawing itself a bath and watching the water drip. But then it turns up the temperature recalling an image of something cooking all the while reminding us that the house is not just flowing with water but with blood. “You are the blood. You are made and made and made.”

A House Made of Water is a collection of poems that both constructs and deconstructs notions of house and home. At times, Lin's book feels more like a museum of abstract architecture with exhibits as varied as a dog/cat/bird, Greek mythologies, mother and Mortal Kombat characters. Symbols and themes appear as decorative motifs in this museum. You will find dentils next to moldings in several exhibit rooms: “intimate as the skin between her teeth” and “torn so easily by teeth and love.” The motifs of identity and value find their way into the symbolic figures of father, mother and grandmother.  At one display, we see a grandmother who shows love by overfeeding her granddaughter sugary foods, the result of which is “the music of metal instruments and marked cavities.” Loss and emptiness is at once extracted and exhumed from this image and sound.

Other displays appear as pagodas with a mother figure as the central axis. We move around the axes in these rooms along with the daughter as she grapples with a disquieting, embedded pain and the need to break free. She chooses a villanelle to do so: “You, your love of windows, skies, and bruise, Mother I am letting go because it is what mothers do -- I wish. I never had you.” In letting go, the house made of water becomes a womb allowing for a birth and rebirth. The water also serves as memory, permeability, fluidity, volatility, change, unknowability.

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                  Michelle Lin

This building is not in need of any facades as there are few walls and almost no floor plan. There is no portico -- this house defies any sort of classification and is therefore, not in need of an entrance. Somehow, it is all held together, but it seems as if at any point the entire structure will collapse and be overrun by waves of emotion just high enough to keep from completely subsuming both writer and reader. In the titular poem, Lin allows for a reprieve, “For family, flood an anthill. Watch them hold children in their teeth to save from drowning.”

Lin defies expected functions, instead, choosing to explore the creative and transformative possibilities of words. The artwork and artist she chooses for her book cover indicates a desire to work with memories and relationships, finding ways to reformulate them to create a personal psychology and self-revelation. Artist Sara J. Molcan has created a face that is layered like the poet’s own making and re-making of identities; a self-discovery project

Lin's collection reveals a nuanced understanding of critical and feminist theories, as well as eclectic interests in dreams, memories, mermaids and video games. Reading House Made of Water is a most challenging yet rewarding experience for Lin's work is so resistant to traditional narratives and simple resolutions. The poems in the volume lyrically move us from room to room, all the while challenging the notion that any room, wall or door exists in our individual or collective existence.  


Jenn Lee Smith

Jenn Lee Smith

Jenn Lee Smith is a writer and producer. She grew up in Taiwan, rural Utah, and California ethnoburbs. Visit her at jennleesmith.com