Robin Ekiss’s The Mansion of Happiness

The Mansion of Happiness by Robin Ekiss
University of Georgia Press, 2009 (84 pages)
ISBN: 978-0820334080.

Imagine: a dollhouse in every room—

in every room, another room,
in every girl, another girl

Robin Ekiss’s first book of poetry The Mansion of Happiness examines illusions—the illusions of childhood, of family, and of the world. The poems in this collection take the reader on large journeys through miniature landscapes, darkened corners where dolls dine on tiny pies and porcelain grows warm in the doll maker’s hands.

The Mansion of Happiness was a Victorian board game—one of the first published in the US—and, as Ekiss notes, “it was predicated on strict moral standards such as piety, honesty, prudence, and humility.” In Ekiss’s book, the reader leaps from poem to poem as if they were squares of different colors on a game board—each tells its own story, but all of the stories are haunted by the same mist of confession. In these poems, it turns out, piety and prudence are more often illusions than reality.

The poems here are intensely personal and the reader is introduced to the childhood characters as if they were dolls pulled one by one from their hiding spots, slightly dusty but full of complicated histories: father, mother, little girl. As Ekiss examines what it means to be those things, she turns the dollhouse around. No longer do we see flowers and white picket fences, we see everything. The walls have been cut away, no doors remained closed.

With the walls gone, Ekiss turns her attention to things kept hidden—the sexual abuse of a father, a mother’s ambivalence.

The father in these poems is described as a “shadowboxer” who “talked only to the dark.” Incidences of father’s darkness surface in these poems for a moment and, almost before we realize, are pulled back under. Mostly, he hides away like a shadow. When he appears, he disturbs. In the poem “Mansion of Happiness,” the father sexually abuses his daughter by playing a game and, later, tries to convince her that a ventriloquist’s dummy is a dead child.

He insisted the dummy wasn’t
   a doll—but a body
with its water removed,
     the remains of a child,

its chest filled with chalk.

Still, it’s the mother-daughter relationship that takes center stage in this collection. In “The Question of My Mother,” the speaker examines her mother’s life alongside her own femininity, her yet un-used ability to bring forth life.

Among the things the body doesn’t know,
it is the dark box I return to most:
fallopian city ingrained in memory,
ghost-orchid egg in the arboretum,

A few lines later, she wonders, “What would it take to make a city in me?”

Images of childbirth and fertility recur throughout The Mansion of Happiness. In “First Birthday,” the speaker’s mother’s womb is a “blue kiln” and an umbilical cord clings to the speaker’s neck like wisteria. Here, the speaker becomes a “doll drowned in a jar.”

“The Bones of August” is a dirge in seven parts. The speaker mourns her mother while wondering how much love really existed between the two. The daughter is damaged: there was “nothing more harmful / than her rare affection.” The poem ends with questions: “Are you anything? / Did she love you?” The speaker responds:

To go forward
          is to surrender
the necklace of tears she gave me—

                 this failed body
      with my name on it.

Ekiss spreads secrets out on the table for all to see, yet she does it so delicately that the characters feel like ghosts whose sins have been forgiven. In the second-to-last poem in The Mansion of Happiness, “Ships in Bottles,” the speaker feels exhausted by the pain she carries; she’s ready to let it go.

I’m tired of writing

                   about the living as if
          they were already dead

Let bygones be. Let me empty
         the typeface of the table,
above which ships

                  launch themselves
         into open air.

While the majority of the poems here are very personal, Ekiss occasionally ventures away from the intimate, as if she needs to catch her breath.

Her gulps of air are historical poems with subjects culled from the Victorian age: dancing girls at the 1889 Paris Exposition, Houdini, magic shows with disappearing ladies. These poems are often without the vivid imagery of her more confessional poems and show less of the spookiness that seduces her reader. The historical poems are more abstract and, therefore, less interesting to me.

What’s gripping about The Mansion of Happiness is the chance to peer into someone else’s dollhouse, a voyeuristic moment into someone else’s secrets. How reassuring it can be to know that we, in our own hidden worlds, are not as alone as we thought. Ekiss leads us on a room-by-room journey precisely, yet delicately. She leaves the scenes as they were and the characters’ actions unchanged. It is up to us to judge.

Amelia Cook, after spending her twenties exploring warmer places like Honduras, Ecuador, and Tybee Island, has returned north and is settling in to her third decade of life in her home state of Wisconsin. She spends her days as Assistant Director for International Admissions at Madison’s Edgewood College and her evenings freelancing and teaching creative writing. Since 2007, she has been a regular contributor to Isthmus, Madison’s arts and entertainment weekly, covering local theater and other miscellany. Her earthly pleasures include Friday night fish fries, This American Life, and sharing a pitcher of Spotted Cow Ale with friends and family. She is pleased to be pursuing her MFA in poetry through the University of New Orleans.

Boxcar Poetry Review - ISSN 1931-1761