Kati Waldrop, Review of Janis Harrington’s Waiting for the Hurricane

Review by Kati Waldrop

Family is one of the most troubling constants a person can have. Like root networks, it can be infected, or choked out by itself or other plants; like a mirror, it can be altogether too honest to look back into. Janis Harrington’s Waiting for the Hurricane, however, unflinchingly delves into her own—into the past of her parents, and into the ways that past reared its head into her own childhood.  It is honest and straightforward, with arcs rising and ebbing like tides, and in no way condemnatory: a feat I find remarkable. Somehow, Harrington has found a strange empathy with the parents who have wronged her, a filial connection surviving the poisons she relates to her readers. This is, I think, the most relatable part about Waiting for the Hurricane; how many of us have struggled with undergirding love and affection for our parents that has blinkered us from acknowledging what they’ve done wrong? In this book, though, Harrington lifts the veil from the mirror of her family and stares into it without shrinking: seeing, understanding, struggling, but never turning away.

In the titular poem, Janis-as-narrator recalls a moment on the beach:

“I let you come because you’re not a crybaby,
Daddy praises, carrying me closer
to churning surf. I never cry when he swoops
his jet-eyed ring: Look out, here comes
the bone-hook bird, landing on my shoulder, crooking
his finger under my clavicle, wriggling it deeper
as I squirm, as he teaches me, to stand pain like a man.
If the hurricane lifts our Buick, swirls it away
like the abandoned sand buckets and blankets, I’ll lose
my sisters.”

Here is a crux for many of the threads weaving through the book: Tim/Daddy’s toxic masculinity, Janis’ grooming for abuse, the distance from a family still longed for and beloved. What I find fascinating here is that Harrington never condemns her father for what happens—it is breathtakingly clear that it is wrong, of course, but there is no cheap pay-off of imprecative. Instead, she looks at him, and what made him, the culture of masculinity he grew up in as a farmboy, as in Betrayal:

“…he might as well be driving a combine,
while Bill firebombs oil fields and cities,
fifty missions, a Medal of Honor—grinning
from the Chicago Tribune.”

Or from Into the Ring:

“Left with the women while his father
and brother harvested corn, he found
an abandoned litter behind bales where Bill
stashed girlie magazines and cigarettes.
He ran to ask for milk, but Mother sent him back
with an empty seed sack.

He cupped a kitten, soft and blind, its ribcage
flimsy as a paper lantern. As he planned
sneaking food, a barn owl hooted
from shadowed eaves, as it had
when Bill pinned him, promising to let it claw
his eyes out. Anger rescued Tim—
knowing his brother wouldn’t hesitate.”

It is not sympathy. It is, however, the difficult work of empathizing, of understanding—a task made most difficult when the subject is someone who has wronged you. Nor does Norma, Janis’ mother, escape this bone-breakingly honest gaze; her obsession with youth and her despair of her lot in life are as eloquently captured as Tim’s twisted manliness in poems such as Wedlock or Voltage.

The language Harrington uses is deceptively simple; these are, after all, poems of the everyday, of the family, of the thing that ever lies at the core of our natures no matter how far a person might run from it. Her diction lines up perfectly, however, with that absolute honesty and strange, challenging empathy; it is not overwrought, does not make a show of itself, does not call for cheap pay-offs. It is perfectly in line with the subject matter, helping to lift and lower the tensions that shimmer through the volume like the dropping barometer prior to the storm’s surging over the shore.

Waiting for the Hurricane can be a challenging read, but one well worth it, I think. In coping with hurt, or with recovering from/dealing with a toxic family, it offers a rich well of comfort to the reader: that you are not alone in the desire to care, that it is all right to admit what family has done to you. Even outside the family situation, however, Harrington’s empathy strikes like a punch to the gut and is a welcome example of a quality most can name, but never describe.

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