In her new poetry collection, “Self-Portrait as Homestead,” Maine poet Jeri Theriault explores self through the people, places and experiences that are her real and metaphorical homestead.

In poems that sometimes span several generations, Theriault writes of the experiences of her mother and grandmother – as well as her own: a lens into the lives of women in her family over time. She also explores, in five sections, personal themes related to her parents’ deaths, youth, marriage, aging and loss.

Theriault is also editor of “Wait: Poems from the Pandemic,” which combines poetry with artwork, a collection showcasing a translucent approach that is not constrained by the spoken word or by the medium of the art; she is able to delve seamlessly between the two forms. “Self-Portrait as Homestead” is another example of her creative expression –  in this case, navigating place and time through words.

The first part of the collection begins with a series of poems about her father’s death and concludes with one about her mother’s death. In “Ode to My Father’s Body,” the first poem in the collection, Theriault returns, at least spiritually, to her father’s barber shop. There she experiences “the low-note harmonica/of my father’s absence & unfold[s] the map/of his body in the big window of his barbershop.” Theriault’s imagery shimmers between time and place, the corporeal and the structural space of a barber shop.

The section concludes with reflections on her mother’s death, observing that “you have one day to dismantle what your mother left behind.” While packing her mother’s things, she hears the stream bubbling behind her mother’s trailer and is glad her mother “fell asleep to water sounds.” For Theriault, the sound of water is like a gift that travels through time: “For a while you listen to the water … she bequeathed … the/ rhythms of those names you’ve known and lost … and found again.”

Her mother’s trailer reappears in “Single Wide.” It’s a 12-by-60-foot trailer that was “a kind of do-it-yourself retirement home.” During a sleepless night, Theriault can “understand at last what your/mother said after she bought the/single wide 12 x 60 … in the park by/the river.” Namely, that “she was rehearsing for her coffin.” Upon finishing the poem, the reader is struck by the physical layout of the words on the page: It’s a vertically oriented rectangle shape, approximating the proportions of a 12 x 60 single wide – or a coffin.


Other poems float back and forth between her youth and adulthood, including a time in her childhood when “The four of us girl cousins pack up/dishes … two weeks after Memere’s/ death” and shortly after President Kennedy was shot. Then she flashes decades forward: “Memere’s plates won’t turn up again/until forty years from now when Bea and I/empty our mother’s trailer to find them/ wrapped in news of assassination.”

In a section mostly focused on her mother, Theriault describes a photo from the 1940s, with her mother wearing “a beret & snug pea-coat/her face unlined/ & marvelous.” In that photo, her mother is “about to light her first cigarette” and “to ignite her need for the world/by pulling it hard insider her/unleashing/endless blue exhalations/behind closed windows/ in restaurants & cars.”

In “First marriage,” Theriault writes of “two nineteen-year-olds/too hot to wait” who later find that their ”weedy marriage/vine-wound/flings us forth/to spin in space … ready now/to travel unmarked/galaxies … ready/for strangeness.” Taking a multi-generational view of marriage she also considers her parents’ tempestuous union: “Steam/& hiss … mother volcano/father glacier. Seismic/rift. Hot/&cold. Grew old.”

A deeply personal collection runs the risk of having references that may be only evident to the poet. While some references are explained textually, like the ones to “Joni” and “something lost and something gained” in the poem “Both Sides,” there are “Notes” at the end of the collection to provide context for several less obvious references. Still, I would have welcomed more notes. The line “after Untitled 1975-1976 by Louise Nevelson” under the title of the poem “The Memoirist” and similar references had me scrambling for Google.

Near the end of the collection, Theriault considers aging in “Grandmother as Scylla” saying, “Growing old is erasure/–my body hidden … this face/unseen—while my girl-days/flick incandescent lilies &/underfoot moss.” Later, she takes a more directly personal and wistful approach: “You crave a villa/in Vilnius … vermillion flip-flops/and one more visit with your mother.”

This compelling collection draws the reader in with beautifully crafted poems that are as vulnerable as they are wise. The second-to-last poem in the collection, “Self-Portrait as Homestead,” sums up the ways Theriault considers homestead as homes, people and experiences, “all of it catalogued here … in this edifice/of doors and stories and bones.”

Dave Canarie is an attorney and faculty member at the University of Southern Maine. He lives in South Portland.

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