Love and loss, recovery and despair—the grand passions of traditional poetry do not take place in some rarefied other world. To write about ordinary life in domestic spaces does not exclude the ambition to depict these feelings. The poems of Lori A. May’s Square Feet, each a brief peek into the life of a recently married heterosexual couple, remind us that it is the small and the ordinary—the square footage of a home—that must hold our most powerful emotions.
These feelings, at times, transform domestic space. In grief over a miscarriage, a sink full of soapy water and dishes to be cleaned becomes a place “where hands soak / in remnants of life.” Crumbs of food are, of course, precisely remainders of the life of a plant or animal, but it takes the loss of a life close to oneself to see them that way. Grief, contained in a home, can also be a “five stage process neatly housed / between a bucket and a sponge.”
Material goods become, not inconsequential, but symbolic of the changes the couple, and their relationship, survive. For this reason, “We hold on to the broken / chipped bowl.” “The Christmas Box,” “the cardboard box / a seasonal sarcophagus of tinsel” holds ornaments “received as gifts / collected on vacations” that stand for the hoped-for future that may never come “when a tree, real or manmade, / will grow in our desired home” Each bauble holds yearning, and they would not be in a “sarcophagus” were that yearning not accompanied by a sense of despair.
In “Estate Planning,” it is a serious concern to wonder “Without children, who will honor / our trinkets?” Trinkets may be, by definition, of little value, but nonetheless they carry great value. Without anyone to save and gaze upon these small possessions, death becomes more final. Their stories disappear. “We’ll take our silence to the grave.”
Possessions also reflect what can and cannot be shared. In “Separating the Whites,” some of the fabric cannot go together. Her “spunky silks and satins” require different handling from his more practical “sports socks.” Some of their fabrics, however, can come together: “t-shirts, tanks tumble, / their cottons fluffed and aired / as they cohabitate in cycles.” These cycles are of separation and togetherness as well as different settings on the washer and dryer. In the bathroom, in a poem with a title that calls readers out as voyeurs—“You Know You Want to Look”—the list of what belongs only to her is longer than the list of what is his. It is also neater, both in image (his deodorant, for instance, is “barely capped”) and in the form of language, as her list lacks all but nouns and limited adjectives, while his goes so far as to include prepositional phrases. She, in other words, has a neatly scrubbed list of neatly scrubbing products; he has messily detailed products that are enough to make do, and yet they share one sink, two faucets, and one “smudged mirror.”
Mundane objects record the stories of how we come together, and how we come apart. Lori A. May, in Square Feet, climbs inside their everydayness to find the extraordinary love and extraordinary pain that they can be a part of, even in what is, after all, a rather ordinary story—or perhaps especially because it is just such a story. We all experience, or have the potential to experience, grand passions in our ordinary lives. Square Feet participates in a poetics that recognizes, and reaffirms, this possibility.