In Heather McNaugher’s debut collection of poems, System of Hideouts, readers are treated to intellectual gusto, personal gutsiness, and aching tenderness. The collection covers a broad range of experience—childhood, familial, and sexual—in interrogating the construction of self identity, producing a collection of moving poems emboldened by emotional verve.
McNaugher’s most stunning poetic trait materializes through her unabashed honesty. These poems pilfer the experiences that many people keep silent about: from first lovers to first menstrual cycles to familial homophobia, McNaugher weaves her way through the secrets hidden deep within us, plucking them from our bodies for close self exploration. In “Max,” the speaker reflects on her first friend, who she unashamedly reveals had “the first family I’d hate.” She recalls suffocating goldfish and placing bets about cartoons, which Max always won. The speaker makes meaning out of this young memory:
“From this I developed my first self-defeating theory
of luck—boys have it; I don’t. It occurs to me only now
that a glossy T.V. Guide arrived each week at your door.
At my door was a woman on drugs.”
Through these brutal details and juxtapositions, the speaker cross-examines her first anger and traces its path to current angers about gender and class. As the narrative unfolds, the adjacent images of their two lives reveal stunning conclusions, and by the ending, the speaker has a grave epiphany:
“A poet now, I wax the sound of things. Still calling
you my oldest friend. Still hating
what I need most.”
The poet’s remarkable self reflexivity is buoyed by her masterful construction of narrative within the poems. Each poem exemplifies the poet’s talent in storytelling, choosing meaningful details to explore complicated notions of self. In “Two Scholars,” the speaker reflects on a relationship’s end through pondering the broken elements in a house: drafty rooms, long hallways, a “puke-green pit of a chair.’ Each detail builds upon the next to reveal the tenuous nature of the relationship between the two people—worn down, distanced—a union that’s clearly coming apart at the seams. Midway through, the speaker reveals:
“here, each day after school,
over coffee and your old Smith-Corona,
I learned to break my own damn heart.”
While the poet’s narrative details are finely tuned and specific, they are rendered so carefully that they often speak to a universal sense of human experience; these poems prove easy to relate to.
But the poems refuse simple quiet and contemplative gestures; they also intellectually stimulate in their exploration of two of the book’s major themes: sexuality and gender. Many of the poems make references to lesbianism and an overt exploration of our culture’s stereotypical expectations of men and women. In “Because I Am a Man,” the speaker broods over the difficulties of using a women’s room:
“Because I am a man
it is very difficult indeed
to relax and pee
under such circumstances.
‘I can’t work in these conditions!’
I want to yell from my stall, knees knocking
in the humiliating squat
of a lady.”
Despite the explicit humor in this ridiculous scene, it remains clear that the utter ridiculousness of it actually exposes some deeper problems and complexities in assumed notions of patriarchy. McNaugher fearlessly questions and blurs gender binaries in these poems, forcing readers to face hypocritical and harmful cultural values.
McNaugher’s first collection contains a trove of praiseworthy material: from thoughtfully stunning extended metaphors, to simple, pared down, heartbreaking assertions, System of Hideouts will read as if you are gazing into a mirror, carefully tracing the outline of yourself, yearning and searching to understand the dizzying mazes within.
Anne Champion is the author of Reluctant Mistress (Gold Wake Press, 2013). Her poems have appeared in Pank Magazine, The Comstock Review, Thrush Poetry Journal, Poetry Quarterly, Cider Press Review, The Aurorean, and elsewhere. She was a recipient of the Academy of American Poet’s Prize, a Pushcart Prize nominee, a St. Botolph Emerging Writer’s Grant nominee, and a Squaw Valley Community of Writers Poetry Workshop participant. She holds degrees in Behavioral Psychology and Creative Writing from Western Michigan University and received her MFA in Poetry from Emerson College. She currently teaches writing and literature at Emerson College, Wheelock College, and Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences in Boston, MA. She also serves as a poetry reader for Ploughshares. Find her online at http://anne-champion.com