Brandel’s formally structured lyrics, as carefully arranged as a chest packed with tissue paper and clove oranges, lure and invite the reader with beauty and craft, then hiss and coil and buzz with needled wit and blade flashes of human insight. These are poems Emily Dickinson would have delighted in and sent daringly to friends. This is a collection where six lines and twelve words in a poem about a teakettle sear and brand so hot, the reader finds relief in the white space on the page. Domestic objects are both weapons of war and charms of love, often simultaneously, and the cycle of poems circling around each presented object — kettle, snapshot, penknife, coins, silence, book, and skeleton key — work both as a dance and the creeping threat of a predator pack.
A Wife Is a Hope Chest demonstrates brilliant facility with form and capacious understanding of the capabilities of plain-language verse. This is a poet’s poetry collection, even as it is a volume that invites any reader to become infected with its unforgettable imagery, pointed humor, and dark charm.
Christine Brandel is a writer and photographer. Her work has appeared in such journals as Callisto, Public Pool, Queen Mob’s Tea House, The Conium Review, and Gravel. She also writes a column on comedy for PopMatters and rights the world’s wrongs via her character Agatha Whitt-Wellington (Miss) at Everyone Needs An Algonquin. She currently teaches at a community college and serves as a hospice volunteer.
I didn't know what to expect of this collection, but it surprised and impressed me. These strange, imagined scenes, like fairytales, are compelling. "The Blackmailer's Lesson" is by far the best poem here; I've already read it countless times and love how it progresses around and within itself, far from simple. Others I enjoyed include "A Wife Is a Hope Chest," "Biting the Rind," "The Worst Thing in the World That Could Have Happened," and "Fingers and Bones." I do think the collection could do without some of the shorter poems, and Brandel could have been a bit more careful in her handling of abuse/sex themes. I somehow feel as though this collection does in poetry what Tallahassee by the Mountain Goats does in music, showing the raw and sometimes unforgivable parts of a relationship's dissolution, everyone realizing the extent of the horrible things they can feel and do. A friend once said that the endings of relationships you deeply valued can cause you to lose your dignity, to look in the face how far you would go to hold onto someone even when it's futile, even when you're begging, even when you're compromising so much of who you thought you were. I kept thinking about that with this collection, what that actually means, what that actually looks like, and, crucially, how we overcome it and ask for better, ask for what we really deserve.
Looking for a book of poetry that will sneak in and punch you in the gut? This is the book for you. It opens with the title poem, A Wife is a Hope Chest, and we're given the first look into what may be an imperfect relationship: "A wife is a hope chest in which you keep / the thing you will need for a good life. / ... 2. A snapshot of the woman / you wish you had married. Push it through her / eyes, put it in her head." From there the poems give us a little bit more, but keep us going till the very end.
Brandel writes poems that hint at things rather than come right out and say them. These poems make you think, make you turn the page back and reread them, make you suck in your breath when you realize just what they're saying. From The Beauty of Love: "A naked fight, a drunken haze. / ... The sutures sewn, incision sealed. / A guarantee the future healed... / ... You pulled away, you ripped / apart. An open wound, a piece of art."