Rebecca Dunham’s The Miniature Room begins appropriately with an epigraph by Gaston Bachelard, known for his philosophical writing, The Poetics of Space: “The miniscule, a narrow gate, opens up an entire world.” A primary focus of Bachelard’s studies was the way humans interact with their domestic environment, especially the manner in which we are affected by our experiences in intimate spaces such as the various rooms in our homes. Likewise, Dunham’s poetry in this collection continually examines the smallest details that might be overlooked if not magnified under the lens of her poetic lines, themselves often compressed into short poems containing tightly controlled stanzas. In fact, if readers recall one of the definitions for “stanza” in its original Italian is “room,” the poetic connection between the intimate spaces of our surroundings and the compact language Dunham presents in the stanzas of her poems seems even more apparent.
Much of the inspiration for Dunham comes from artists who specialized in reduced forms, such as miniaturist paintings, still life drawings, or boxed collage assemblages. Even when the source of her work is a larger painting or a found photograph, Dunham zooms in on a detail from the art or a minor feature in the picture. Nevertheless, the poetry in this collection that uses visual art for motivation rarely appears restricted to simply an ekphrastic explanation of an artwork. Instead, the objects studied usually serve to initiate intriguing twists and inventive turns toward an imaginative or introspective direction. Additionally, Dunham’s lovely images are frequently as vivid and luminous as the framed artistic visions she examines.
The relationship between mother and child, Rebecca Dunham with her young son, continually appears as another significant theme in the pages of this book, and these thematic poems are appealing as a series that shows an even more intimate glimpse at the poet, particularly exposing emotions of her motherly love, a fear of vulnerability, and an anxiety for the future. Repeatedly, in these pieces the child might be viewed as another “miniature,” one that opens up to the speaker and her readers an entire world of possibilities, as well as a new life that can be celebrated, yet at the same time urges further concerns, including thoughts about mortality or the mere end of innocence and beauty as witnessed regularly in nature’s seasonal shift.
As is the case with many first books by poets, some of the poems contain hints of influence or recognition of past masters. Observing Dunham’s careful crafting of lines and meticulous attention to detail, one should not be surprised to find “Phial: Elizabeth Bishop at Age 6.” Indeed, if any previous poet’s characteristics might be seen as model for Dunham’s work, Bishop represents a likely candidate. In “Oxidation,” the poem immediately following the poet’s nod to Bishop, Dunham again directs readers’ memories toward a past poet and, in this case, a specific classic poem. When she describes rust patterns (“the fine / red lace cast its veil”) in the blue paint on an abandoned wheelbarrow, the obvious connection between this poem and William Carlos Williams’ red wheelbarrow only seems to enhance a reader’s delight. Elsewhere, in “Curator of Fruit,” one cannot help but think once more of Williams’ plums when Dunham concludes the poem, which previously had mentioned plums among the fruit, with lines that describe “the sap’s inexplicable rise / to sky, & early morning, love / heavy with the smell of winter / pears, firm & crisp & cold.” Less successfully in “Vernal Equinox,” Dunham evokes readers’ recollections of James Wright when she borrows one of his most famous phrases for her closing lines: “I want to break / into blossom, my limbs flailing / in air’s current like a man on fire.” Here, one’s familiarity with the “break into blossom” phrase seems to slightly undercut the surprise, originality, and impact in the poem’s final lines.
On perhaps a trivial note, I must wonder about the effectiveness in the idiosyncratic use of ampersands throughout the volume. In the works of a number of poets, as well as in some poems held in this collection, such a mannerism doesn’t draw much attention or cause distraction, and in many cases may even add to a persuasively casual voice. For example, I remember when Larry Levis adopted that technique in mid-career, contributing to his poetry, which had become more expansive and conversational. However, given the splendidly organized lines and precise language of Dunham’s tightly constructed poetry, the use of an ampersand sometimes seems off key, more informal and less elegant, amid those grace notes in the eloquent voice her poetry often presents. This tactic is particularly noticeable when the ampersand begins a line or a sentence, or both (“Harem of Saint Marcia”), and when placed within a poem with a somewhat formal sonnet organization (“Ontology of the Miniature Room”).
Putting aside that admittedly minor quibble, I find the wealth of details and depth of textured images in this book to be captivating. Rebecca Dunham’s exquisitely refined poetry exhibits the finer attributes usually associated with miniature paintings and still life arrangements. John Ashbery once wrote about Joseph Cornell’s box compositions, “matter and manner fuse to form a new element,” going on to label the art as one that is “enchanted.” When we consider the original meaning of “enchanted” refers to being put under a spell by the power of song, this term may also apply well to lyrical poems in The Miniature Room. Indeed, in this collection, Rebecca Dunham combines precisely described images with compelling and compact content, presenting a fresh blend that lends toward a rich and rewarding reading of her enchanting poetry.
Dunham, Rebecca. The Miniature Room. Truman State University Press, 2006.