New collections to make life more lyrical.
Richard Hamilton’s Discordant (Autumn House Press) at times synthesizes a war correspondent’s urgent observations with a poet’s ability to invent fresh syntax. Always, there is death, whether state-sanctioned or otherwise, that must be reported on and reported to. Hamilton manifests this obsession in a series of four poems titled “Dear Self After I Was Dead.”
Each of them initiates questions to move the lyric forward or let the imperative voice give way to questions, to borrow a phrase from Rilke, that must be lived rather than answered. From “Dear Self After I Was Dead, IV”:
“Does human perception, the perceived sound haunt?”
later gives way to:
“The poem never means instantiate.
It is not a facsimile copy of history.
It is not organized forgetting”
The forms are varied and interesting while the voice remains emphatic, even rhapsodic at times, in its attempt to find a syntax to understand the systems that aggrieve Black folks in America.
The poems are always aware of their proximity to the power of Black literature and the African American canon that has sustained generations of poets. One such poem, titled “Another Country,” harking back to the book of the same name by James Baldwin, is made up entirely of questions, the first of which is, “Why are people like the worst cyborgs?”
While surprising, flat-out funny, and evocative, that question is indicative of the way these poems are defiant. What I mean is they often defy the contexts they propose in their titles, while always managing to bend our eye and ear towards reconsidering the assumptions we brought to the table. Ashes to ashes.
Functioning almost like title cards in silent film, or something out of Goddard, the book takes short poems, not more than two lines or so, and enlarges their typeface so that it is broken, hyphenated, and expansive over several pages. The first compares the speaker’s body to the bullet-ridden body of Fred Hampton. The second, which ends the book, declares in an almost Cartesian tongue-in-cheek, “Incidentally, I am here.”
Anchoring the middle of the book is a long hybrid poem titled “Object.” The poem moves from the prose-poem block to lineated verse and back again, creating a kind of dossier effect as we move through the systemic engines of war, education, health diagnoses, and history. Interjected throughout this poem are various definitional asides for the word “object,” which can give the poem the artifice of an academic essay, while its syntax remains able to access lyricism.
Juxtaposition then becomes Discordant’s mise-en-scène: All of its singing performs next to a backdrop of subjects that the reader may find difficult to harmonize, not because the content is inscrutable, but because the disruption of an unstainable status quo seems to be the goal of these excellent poems.
The poetics of place and myth make the long story — “Where am I from?” — short in Summer J. Hart’s Boomhouse (The 3rd Thing). Hart’s debut collection opens with “Winter Island,” a prose poem that lets the mythos of place rise and fall with insistent euphony and startling imagery. I was initially reminded of the prose poem “Aunt Anna” in Valzhyna Mort’s Collected Body, the way that the lyricism attends to the spell-making the poem is after and how the narrative follows as an almost incidental aftereffect.
But where Mort centers a character, Hart lifts the “Winter Island” out of the grit of a simple diegetic setting and into the realm of origin story. One can hear this most in the diction used. “The girl…”; “The horse…”; “The men…”; and “The storm…” form a kind of anaphora that signals familiar other-worldness — though it may be fairer to say a defamiliarized natural world. “This is a skeletal forest. Heave & pull,” the poem announces near its conclusion.
What most intrigues me about this threshold is how it grounds the reader in a kind of vignette style that becomes a touchstone for when the book returns to that form, which it does often. There is a decent amount of fragmentation in these prose poems, but they are often unified through voice. One example, “Boy Crazy,” has a speaker whose longing to connect with other girls and with a spiritual history is palpable. The fabulist overlay serves the poem well, arriving in the second section at lines like:
“The new dog howls down by the river. He has one blue eye & one brown one because his half wolf / half dog. The air is spiced in the cologne of lupines.
I close the window.
I’ve been warned about the unpredictability of half-things.”
An image from the first section of a crop-top on which “Boy Crazy is printed across my chest” seems so quotidian next to these fabulist elements, but that’s part of the poem’s strength. What others may perceive as anti-porous borders between a real and mythological world, the speaker sees as the everyday synthesis required to survive in this place. Folklore is serious business in Hart’s poetry. To reclaim a story may be the first step in reclaiming a land.
Continually, I was astonished at the invented descriptions of the natural world, ones that seem free from cynicism while not abandoning the kind of wonder that carries caution along with it. And so, these descriptions also enter the book’s concern with the personal lore within a Native family. Hart, a member of the Listuguj Mi’gmaq First Nation, crafts space and place into a human shape without a hint of exploitation. From “Protection from Unwritten Spells”:
“The wind-chime wakes me. My father is standing at the gate. His eyes are opaque — as unreadable as river ice. I ask him where he’s going. When he doesn’t answer, I hand him my map.”
The stanza above might as well be an ars poetica, or at the very least, a reminder that Hart is handing herself (and the reader) a map as much as her father. Boomhouse is an act of cartography in that way. The book even has a poem titled with coordinates from the geographic coordinate system — a real place folks can visit while accompanying these narratives. That establishes a soft reversal of Marianne Moore’s “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” Here is a real place where history and myth and family stories are equal. The invitations these poems evoke are intimate. This is a collection I will read and reread for many years to come.
Steven Leyva’s poetry collection is The Understudy’s Handbook.