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Creative Engagement with Joseph Riippi’s A CLOTH HOUSE (HOUSEFIRE PRESS, 2012)

After reading Joseph Riippi’s A CLOTH HOUSE I am overwhelmed with many sentiments concerning the psychic and physical sensations of home. Home is not always a positive place to remember. There are often dramatic effects as we attempt to recall it; recoils, tremors, anxiety attacks. There are the ways your mother’s face looked a little more ghostly when she was up after 10:00pm (“The kind of face my mother was wearing on the other side”). There are the ways that though you never wanted to, you were forced into ‘dead heading’ the roses once a week; how you tarried there a little too long before throwing all of those gorgeous petals away—how sometimes you filled your pockets with them and then as if it were a subversive act to do so, laid them under the grapefruit tree with tears in your eyes.

Joseph Riippi’s A CLOTH HOUSE is full of similar painful and stimulating details of its own (the above stated details are of my own effect-oriented feeling of home): “They made love in that truck once, my parents. Just once”/ “I can always smell you better when I’m pregnant” [] “you smelled so hard of fish” / “Born in an upstairs bathtub” / “Understood the difficulty of getting pine sap out of cloth”/ “I imagine she simply touched her belly where you were, saw in an instant that old widowed woman painting in the house on the beach” / “He says his favorite music was my mother’s singing voice, and he means it”/ “Still sometimes diving after lost jewelry. Sometimes he would drop his own wedding band just so he could go in after it. It was something to pass the time. He tells me that once he found it resting in a seashell like a pearl, and he knew that it was our mother who had done that, it was her saying hello, saying she loved him.” My experience of these details is that they are primary sutures for the text. Not the above included only (there are many more details that I wrote down in my notebook that I did not include in this review simply due to size considerations). These details (that are sutures), bring a deep lyricism and what feels to me like an image-addiction to the text. We become addicted to A CLOTH HOUSE’ images. It is addicted to its own images.

Is this a book of dreaming (“Perhaps all of the bad was never even real” / “I don’t like to remember this but I must in order to change it”) and remembering simultaneously (“Adults push children further away from real life sometimes and deeper into dreaming”)? Is it a place where it might be possible to reconceive of the childhood that one inherited? To dream it entirely anew? No, it can’t be only a re-imagining because of the following, starkly conveyed types of inclusions (the Sheriff told the family of the missing mother: “She was found with fresh cuts to the legs and arms and face, that she likely bled out before she drowned”/ “They did not think I would remember their sentences like I did”)–but, interestingly enough such gruesome inclusions (of what the voice in the text proposes as real memory) are put side by side with the following types of phrases which really hint at the possibility of memory being something that is at least partially made or created: “A woman cannot grow into that of which they are already a part” / “He is good at forgetting, a great builder of new memories that let the old stay lost.”

“His dog’s joy was plain”—the writing in A CLOTH HOUSE is also quite plain. There are not very many ethereal traits to this book. There is a lot of the very ground of memories, stories and ways of telling them. I appreciate the short-ish paragraphs and the themes that are threaded throughout (the yellow sheet, a general feeling of anxiety all throughout the text (“I write this out of fear, fear that if I do not I will be doing nothing from today until I die”), father as an independent thinker and philosopher(“He came home announced, riding sounds”), the way father smelled of fish, island living in a place that always rained (“Sometimes I think of birds in the rain and it makes me wish I was one, that I could fly and swim all at once”), the way mother was tender and also aggressive, weather, the stick by stick building of the baby crib that would eventually kill the baby, the stalwart dog (“A person cannot smell themselves, not like a lover or a dog can”), the wish to become a mermaid (“I just wanted to ride away more and more after that, be a mermaid”).

On page 29 A CLOTH HOUSE announces that it is being written for the sister that we learn throughout the book, dies. Between page 47 and 48 the speaker leaves the island for many years, and returns. It is an interesting sensation (as a reader) to be thrown directly into the past now, many years later, after only that one page passes (between 47 and 48). What is it to leave and return? How does it affect us? At the end of the book (87) we get “What happened in the years between” leaving and returning to the island—but we only ever get this after having stuck with the whole book in order to get what juice exists in that highly intended gap.

This book is a bit of a “Private god.” We can never really tell if it is memoir or fiction (it never lays that out for us). Moving through its memory (something different than memoir or fiction, perhaps?), however, we find ourselves wondering if it is better to verify facts or to just feel while within a “cloth house.” If the “cloth house” is a bendable architecture that can be collapsed, is it not the case that we might want to bend with it (like with the waves of the sea)? Allow ourselves to be swallowed up by it; subsumed in it? I know I felt myself attempting to move through the book, with the book (its disturbances, its violences, its beauties) as a way to take it seriously. To join it. I am saying that regardless of if it is memoir or fiction or something else, I believe it. I believe in it. I believe by way of it.


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