thechapbookreview

Molly Gaudry Reviews Put Your Head in My Lap, by Claudia Smith

Put Your Head in My LapPut Your Head in My Lap

By Claudia Smith
Future Tense Books
ISBN-10: 1-892061-36-8
ISBN-13: 978-1-892061-36-2

Reviewed by Molly Gaudry

The sixteen short-short stories in Claudia Smith’s Put Your Head in My Lap (Future Tense Books, 2009) convey such tenderness it’s difficult not to develop a big-ass lump in my throat, the kind that causes tears to well and fall. This is a collection to read alone, wrapped in a blanket beside a crackling fire, a steaming cup of tea nearby. But beware: anyone who’s experienced heartbreak will relive that sorrow, those losses. Proceed, however, and be brave. Your reward is to discover prose that resonates with simplicity, prose that prompts aching and, subsequently, hope. You will want to reach for someone dear; you will want to dial up an old friend and catch up, someone whose voice once soothed. This is the complication in Smith’s writing: her words remind us of our pain, but the pain reminds us, inspires us, to reconcile with that, or those, we have lost.

In “Submarine Dreams,” a mother says, simply, “We came here a year ago. I was hopeful.” An obvious, but unstated, divorce later, she closes this story with the lines: “My son sleeps with me now. I sing to him, Mariposa, sweet dreams, butterfly, close your eyes.” And when she asks, “It’s a bad pattern to set, isn’t it?” I’m not sure whether she’s addressing us or her departed husband. “Good luck,” she sings, because her son “gets scared, dreaming, at night.” In the next story, “Valentine,” the narrator recalls how she and an unnamed “you” first fell in love; after falling “asleep together on the floor,” she kisses her lover’s forehead. She says, “I did it suddenly and softly, startling myself,” and I, too, am startled by her admission. It seems so natural, that kiss. And yet, it “was like touching the wings of a creature you couldn’t see but knew to be beautiful simply from the feel.” What she does next is just as startling: “I stood up and walked out of the apartment, down the stairs, into the street. It was cold and I wasn’t wearing a coat, but I kept walking anyway, thinking I couldn’t go back there because you’d be gone.”

A fiction professor once told me—and this is some of the best advice I’ve ever received—that physical objects in a story are best utilized when they pull double, or even triple, duty. What he meant was that though a coat can just be a coat, when it actually means something more than that, magic is born. The triple duty, or the magic, of the coat in “Valentine” is that while it is dormant back at the apartment, beyond reach, its presence tells us something about this narrator—that she’s willing to go without it, despite the chill, because the physical consequences are nothing compared to the emotional; to return to her apartment, to find the object of her affection gone, will leave her more bare than she already is, and the idea and fear of such exposure is something she’s unwilling, just yet, to face. It’s interesting, then, that this particular story opens with the line, “You once gave me an apple off a tree, and I thought about its significance, and wondered if you meant something by that, or if you were just handing me an apple.” An apple, a coat, a sleeping son: in Smith’s careful hands, they are more than anything we’ve ever encountered; they are precious cargo, worthy of quiet meditation and further exploration.

In the next story, “Half,” the unnamed narrator wears a locket her mother-in-law gave her; inside the locket, her husband’s black hair. She says, “I wore the locket at all times, even when I took a shower. I thought about the thin layer of gold between his lock and the flesh on my collarbone.” A locket, hair, a collarbone: again, the familiarity of such physical objects is recast in such a way that readers can’t help but ponder their symbolic meanings; again, Smith’s words—their simplicity, their frankness, the magic of their admissions, their very utterances—become more than words; they become experiences, revealed to us. And are we worthy? When else have we been entrusted with so much? I can’t say I’ve ever felt such a connection to a writer’s (dare I say?) soul.

In “Marks,” a woman learns the meaning of what it is to be touched, to be the one who does the touching. The father of her child has “a strawberry mark behind his left shoulder. When she traces it, he stands up and goes to lie down on the stone floor in the bathroom. She watches him through the opened door.” The door here—a physical object that can be opened or closed—is, while open, closed. The threshold is impassable. Her touch has gone, worse than unnoticed, unwanted, and, from worse to worst, even after they have had sex; and all she can do is continue to watch him until, when “he falls asleep, she leaves and looks in on their child.” It is up to us to learn the meaning of a touch, and when we read that she “would like to touch the whorl on the back of his head, but it would wake him,” there is only a deep sense of loss, something unexplainably clear: this is what it is to want to reach out, this is what it is to stop yourself.

I can feel my throat tightening now. Who wouldn’t? Fitting, then, that the collection’s final story, “Ice,” opens with this: “They will break one another’s hearts—well, at least, he will break hers, she’s not sure now about his.” And having read the other stories in the meantime, we, too, can’t help but be unsure about his, though we do know the fate of hers. Which is why, I’m sure, I opened this review with the word “tenderness.” If these aren’t prime examples, I don’t know what else I can offer in my desperate urging that will compel you to buy this chapbook. It is required reading for any human being; perhaps, more specifically, any woman whose life hasn’t quite turned out the way she hoped it would at some youthful age when she was freshly scrubbed and innocent. We may still be freshly scrubbed, but the scrubbing, over the years, will have certainly taken on a different purpose: no longer to cleanse but to cast away the sorrows of our past and present lives. Claudia Smith understands this; and I can’t help but think it’s because she’s been there. So tonight, wrapped in a blanket, I will raise my cup of tea to her and hope that as I blow away steam, so too will I blow away her hurt, if only for even a moment.

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