Woods Both Dark and Light: Kim Garcia’s The Brighter House
by Stacey Balkun
Once upon a time, Kim Garcia wrote a story of girlhood, part narrative and party fairytale; as rich with numerical meaning as biblical verse. In scripture, the number three represents divine wholeness, completeness, and perfection. In the Christian bible, this number is used to highlight ideas, thoughts, events, and figures.
Groupings of three are powerful; aside from helping with the memorization of oral texts, this number allows for two failures before success.
In fairy tales, characters must go through three tests or trials. The third child is the hero. Tales like “Rumpelstiltskin” capitalize on the power of three: on the third night, he asks for the soon-to-be-queen’s child, but he’ll spare her if she can guess his name in three days and each day, she guesses three times.
Three is the second-most referenced number in the Book of Revelation, after seven, which is equally rich in meaning. On the seventh day. Seven dwarves.
A sonnet is composed of seven couplets, linking it to prayer. Both forms are meditative ways of storytelling. Kim Garcia adeptly uses such forms as scaffolding to tell a difficult story, weaving a narrative of adolescence, inheritance, trauma, and hope.
The Brighter House begins with an epigraph from Tomas Transtrӧmer’s “Madrigal,” including the lines: “I inherited a dark wood where I seldom go…We are not without hope…I have graduated from the university of oblivion and am as empty-handed as the shirt on the washing line.” Immediately, we are placed in the dark wood, a place of trial and danger. But we are reassured: there is still hope here. By the quote’s end we are left not in the forest but in a domestic space: a shirt on a washing line, flashing white in the sun. Though often a place of safety, the domestic space is not without its own darkness.
Following this epigraph, the first poem in the book is “Tales of the Sisters: Snow,” in which a story of abuse is framed, quite literally, through false magic: through the paper snowflakes on a window, our speaker watches as her father “beats one sister and quiets three.”
In a later poem, “Tales of the Sisters: Bees,” the speaker’s “light sister” teaches our speaker “to blend into the white walls, to make [herself] dull, to slow [her] breathing when [she] is afraid, to lie still as snow.” Such paleness is ripe with religion in this poem heavy with christian imagery, but it also emphasizes an effect of childhood trauma. Here, invisibility becomes a safety tactic.
Throughout the book, we’re given seven “Tales of the Sister,” definitively linking religious imagery with fairy tale; sonnet with prayer. While creating such connections, Garcia does not shy away from what’s dark, difficult, or even dangerous. Poems like “Rumpelstiltskin” dive into persona, giving us an impoverished speaker who “had to sell off the jewelry,” then “mucked out / the house, but still the smell of barn.” Of the speaker’s family, she tells us her father “knew / what I was, what I’d be willing to do” and asks, “What mother promises her own child to a stranger?”
These nudges toward a traumatic childhood echo throughout the book, in poems like “Strangers,” “Tales of the Sisters: Judgement,” in which the father concedes, “‘Now maybe French kissing your sister was bad judgment,’” and “Tales of the Sisters: The Walrus,” in which a male figure manipulates the sisters: “‘We are so intimate,’” he says spinning his private verse, ‘We could be more / so.’” Ominously, the poem continues, “We must complete the couplet. We must return that tide.”
In this fifteen-line poem composed of couplets except for the final line, there’s a danger that’s only captured indirectly. Personal narrative blends with fairy tale so that this poem is both true and not; the male figure is both man and walrus:
Gray oyster flesh, smelling of the sea. He sucks the juice,
called nectar, from our shells. Takes the round, white pearl of our kingdom
within. Rolls it over his thick, pink tongue. Crushes it to powder between
his back molars. He opens his mouth.
“See?” he says, smiling, “Just dust.” (33)
When the dust settles. Ashes to ashes, and dust to dust. This image resonates with cultural meaning, and in the Bible, it is the material from which we were created, and to which we shall return. Garcia manages to invoke all of this connotation in a short, terrifying line to end a short, terrifying poem. At times throughout The Brighter House, it’s difficult to have faith that our narrator and her sisters will prevail, but like fairy tale protagonists, they overcome obstacles to complete their journeys back to a place of safety, that brighter house.
The Brighter House is not a house but a church; not a church but a book of myths. Not a book at all but a woods—a woods both dark and light, and crossed by streams and memory. Our speaker wanders through, encountering her two sisters, her father, her mother, and her past. There is more image, narrative, and divulgence of secrets in this collection than any review could ever hope to capture, as this book offers so many meandering paths: several stream crossings and berry patches and deep, dark corners which we readers can’t help but visit, though we know better.
In the dark or in the light, we witness not just trauma but also the many “living creatures that sing, wiggle, wag, and crawl!” because after all, “[i]t’s spring and the air is very strong” (Transtrӧmer). If nothing else, these images, like The Brighter House, offer hope.
Stacey Balkun is the author of Eppur Si Muove, Jackalope-Girl Learns to Speak, and Lost City Museum. Winner of the 2017 Women's National Book Association Poetry Prize, her work has appeared in Best New Poets, Crab Orchard Review, The Rumpus, Muzzle, Bayou, and elsewhere. Chapbook Series Editor for Sundress Publications, she holds an MFA from Fresno State and teaches poetry online at The Poetry Barn and The Loft.