Paul David Adkins, a former So to Speak contributor, is the author of The Upside Down House (Yellow Jacket Press 2012), a beautifully crafted and uniquely feminist chapbook about a childhood in Florida.
As the book’s title suggests, Adkins turns the domestic space of the childhood home “upside down,” highlighting the uncanny and the mysterious in Florida suburban landscapes that include everything from a mini golf course to spooky Florida canals.
The speaker’s family, too, is turned “upside down” in these poems by “all the thunder in that house.” Not only across poems, but within poems, we find ourselves immersed equally in the love and the turbulence of the household. The parents are as sympathetic as they are flawed, ever complex in their tenderness and their anger.
The book is as carefully ordered as the poems are written. Each new poem turns to reveal a new complication in the family, and Adkins disrupts any linear re-telling of this childhood by jumping forward and back in time, resurrecting the dead and revealing the future all at once. For example, in one early poem, the young speaker hears a “black secret” by spinning The White Album backwards—the chilling sound of the poet’s name (“Paul is dead”) followed by, later, “Miss him/Miss him/Miss him.” In the very next poem, it is not Paul who is dead but the speaker’s father. The poem’s perspective then rapidly, dizzyingly, shifts from the siblings touching the coffin to the speaker imagining himself being placed into a coffin, then six feet up to the flowers placed above his own grave.
This powerful use of the imagination permeates the collection and puts us, significantly, into the mind of a child. A sense of wonder permeates these poems—treasures, secrets, and things hidden inside of other things delight the speaker, and, in turn, the reader, at every turn. A toy safe with five dollars inside, buried somewhere in the yard, marks a hidden prize tantalizingly within reach. A WWII-era army coat purchased at a flea market contains its own ominous treasure inside a pocket. A birthday cake becomes a hidden miniature world for the plastic Indian family positioned in its frosting.
This use of the child’s perspective offers Adkins a subtle and poignant lens through which to critique society in my favorite poem from the chapbook, “Fifth Grade Field Trip, Gold Coast Skating Rink, Fort Lauderdale, 1974.” In this poem, Adkins describes being chastised by a DJ for roller skating with a male friend during a Couples Skate. Adkins’ speaker recalls the honesty in their childlike innocence, ending the poem with an indictment that is all at once sharp, funny, and still painfully raw:
We didn’t find it wrong
to hold each other up
though the laughter now pricked us
like straight pins our mother failed to find
when we tried on the dress shirts at Sears.
It is moments like this, along with Adkins’ thoughtful, subtle representation of family dynamics and parental gender roles throughout the book, that mark this text as distinctly feminist. Perhaps what is most striking about Adkins’ writing, here and in countless examples throughout this chapbook, is his use of transformative metaphors to subtly convey complex emotions.
In “America Loves Bowling!,” for instance, the father, returning drunk from the bowling alley, transforms through Adkins’ description into a pin (“red-faced and teetering/like a glanced pin”) and the house into an alley (“that house, with its hardwood/swept to a shine”). The implications of violence here echo in their chilling silence.
Similarly, in “The Christmas Tree and My Father,” it is the father, not the tree, who “wilt[s]” in the Florida heat, and the father’s beer that “sweat[s]” after a frustrating attempt to saw the tree’s base that works him into a rage.
Adkins treats us to a double transformation in “My Mother Combing Key Largo After the Labor Day Hurricane, 1935,” when the speaker’s mother hopes to find doubloons and finds instead an unopened bottle of beer:
The cap tumbled to gleam at her feet
like a coin.
She sipped, and sipped again,
assumed the brine was beer.
Perhaps the most fitting example of Adkins’ mesmerizing use of metaphor comes in “Coconut Grove Nightclub Fire, 28 November, 1942.” In this poem, after a magician’s cufflink starts a fire at a nightclub, Adkins describes a man rescuing survivors from the flames thusly: “in the alley a man/pulled them out/like scarf after scarf after scarf.”
In The Upside Down House, Adkins, too, takes on the role of magician, and he, too, has ignited a fire—one fueled by the power of transformative metaphor, and one that will surely burn in his readers’ imagination long after closing this book.