Live from the Homesick Jamboree, by Adrian Blevins.
Wesleyan University Press. $22.95.
Cracklingly vernacular, the poems of Adrian Blevins coo and whine, filled up on the junk of everyday speech: “be intellectual hillbillies / in peace I guess and drink wine I guess and smoke a little pot maybe,” she writes in Live from the Homesick Jamboree, her second book. More than a little pot hangs over its earliest poems, fogging up their syntax and semantics. I’m not always sure what’s happening in them, but I think I’m glad it is.
The volume is a bildungsroman in poetry, and its beginning covers Blevins’s. Of her first years, she writes, “everything was always awash,” and so, generally, is her poetry—awash in adverbs and adjectives and ands, lending itself to lists that seem to unspool quickly and endlessly, and to include everything. “She’s still sucking on smokes and sticks and the husband’s aristocratic cock / and the roast beef and buttered bread,” she notes in one poem, and in another, “this was before any of us went away and changed and died and such.” In Blevins’s work, speed both exhilarates and frustrates. When she blows past details, we might yearn to slow down her writing and our reading, but her lines dart across the page, and we can’t help but follow. This book is partly about the inability to slow down: she asks, “What about the escapade of staying at a standstill?” And she notes to her younger self, “You could dive, you loved the river, your hair was silken, your skin magnificent. / O, it wouldn’t last forever, why were you so ignorant, you squandered it, / you let fly the splendor.”
That elegiac mode is rare for Blevins, who specializes in a nutty, nervy poetics of pissed. She must deal with a “supposed bed” and a “so-called library.” She has birthed a “no-mercy child who won’t stop sucking and wanting and whining.” Unflappable Terry Gross makes her flip her lid:
Why does Terry Gross
have to say fresh air the way she does? What is wrong
with her? She should be beaten within an inch
of her life. She should be shot. I have really got some
with Terry Gross. Terry Gross really thinks she’s hot.
Blevins also has “some issues” with rednecks, her father, and her ex-husband. What tempers her temper—what makes her rage strangely lovely—is her affection for what she hates. For Blevins, those emotions seem to drive each other (at top speed, off a cliff). “Though naturally I love them they are a monstrosity,” she writes of, I’m afraid, her family. She ends that poem: “my high-hilled, prattling sweethearts—O my brothers and sisters / of hoodwink and swindle and fiddle and twaddle and drivel and hokum and tripe.” (She tends to conclude poems in gasps that are, so to speak, breathtaking, though in the context of this collection, they can feel repetitive. One poem ends “Amen, Amen, Amen”; another, “sucking and sucking and sucking it in”; and a third, “God darlin’ God darlin’ God darlin’ no.”)
Blevins isn’t crazy about anyone, it seems, including herself: “Poor old errant me,” she writes; “you unacquainted little wench, you mess, you error”; a “fiasco” of a woman. Self-criticism also marks her first volume, The Brass Girl Brouhaha (2003). Here she is on being born: “It’s been almost thirty-six years // since I flopped out of Mama in my own lolly-gagging, impertinent way.” Blevins engages us in an odd exercise, offering every detail of her life even as she warns that it’s less than great. But her tepidity on “the enterprise of me” rescues Live from the Homesick Jamboree from seeming entirely self-regarding. I say seeming rather than being because the book is entirely self-regarding; it just regards itself with something of a sneer, so that we want to pour the poet some tea and remind her of her good qualities.
In The Brass Girl Brouhaha, Blevins decries Anne Sexton as “defunct” and “whiney,” but she’s writing in the tradition of Sexton, Plath, and Olds—frank poets of female experience. (In fact, Blevins seems of such a temperament that she might openly confess, as it were, to being “defunct” and “whiney” herself.) To hear Blevins describe it, motherhood—long considered “natural” by the masses—is in fact unnatural, disturbing, even funny. She may owe something of this attitude to Plath, who, in response to her child’s cry in “Morning Song,” “stumbles[s] from bed, cow-heavy and floral.” Plath attends to the inelegance, the ridiculousness of what Blevins dubs “the nation state of the motherland.” (Blevins also writes a poem called “Morning Song,” where she likens giving birth to being “severed in two with an ax.”)
Even Blevins’s most outward-looking poem ends by folding inward. In “Watching The NewsHour,” she writes about war in another country, about the death of a soldier who is not her son. But in the end, the poem becomes about her—more specifically, about her inability to write it:
It is just so wrong of me not to know what to
call the paraphernalia
the boys are given to extinguish the women inside them
by killing off the women inside the others, but I don’t have that
kind of dictionary here.
“Paraphernalia” comes from the Greek word for “bear,” and these lines bear nearly more than they can carry—as do the boys, who appear to be pregnant with women. They also seem to be aborting those women with paraphernalia that’s reminiscent of both penises and guns. This chaos of images feels paradoxical, a controlled display of Blevins’s failure to control her vocabulary, even her tone: is “just so wrong” sincere or sarcastic? Among the many war poems that have appeared in the last several years, this one stands out for both embodying and naming the difficulties of the genre. It stands out, too, for its focus on the problem of responding to images of pain. We might spy Woolf’s Three Guineas and Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others lurking in the shadows, and more particularly Sharon Olds’s “Photograph of the Girl,” which describes a victim of starvation in whose body “the ovaries let out her first eggs, / golden as drops of grain”: in both poems, death mixes with an unlikely fertility.
Blevins is a master of incongruity. Particularly in her gentler moods, she offers ravishingly impossible phrases: “we were an orchard of water in a cabin,” she writes in “Why the Marriage Failed.” And, in “Dream in Which I Find Myself Confronted Yet Again With Why the Marriage Failed”:
She sewed my boys britches with needles she dipped in blood and picked fine lettuces she grew with seeds she germinated in her belly and hence concocted a salad some said could sing.
Like Hart Crane, she forces disparate elements into the same space, crafting contradictory structures that complement a poet so desperately in love, and in hate, with her world and herself.
Incident Light, by H.L. Hix.
Etruscan Press. $17.95.
“It is impossible to state just how in love I am / with my own body, the white snows of me,” writes Dan Chiasson in “Lincoln’s Dream.” The compulsion to poke fun at confessionalism is probably as old as confessionalism itself. The compulsion to confess the secrets of others’ lives, in others’ voices, dates back much further, and has inspired dramatic monologists ranging from Richard Howard to Carol Ann Duffy to H.L. Hix. Incident Light, Hix’s eighth book of poems, describes the experiences of his friend, Petra Soesemann, from her perspective. His questions and comments provide the titles, which the poems—“her” responses—tend to ignore, swerving instead into associative reminiscence that more closely resembles forgetting. As in Galway Kinnell’s poem “Conversation,” incoherences forge an imperfect intimacy. Hix’s model may have been psychoanalysis, which emphasizes not only how patients answer questions, but also how they don’t. (One imagines Freud nodding with pleasure when the question “Do your half-sisters consider themselves German or Turkish?” prompts an account of Soesemann’s experience working with two lesbians.)
Avoidance, confusion, disjuncture: the same mechanisms at work in Incident Light prompted its composition. In middle age, Soesemann, an artist, learned that she’d always believed the wrong man to be her father. Hix then launched an investigation into the life of his (presumably very patient) friend. Rather than the philosophy and literature that have inspired and infused Hix’s previous work, Soesemann’s journals, papers, and interview tapes function as founding texts for Incident Light, which Hix describes in an introductory statement as “biography whose first fidelity is not to facts, but to imagination, biography that loosens reality’s hold.”
Incident Light shines when the reality of Soesemann’s experience seems strangest. Like Bill Clinton, she often finds herself in situations requiring further explanation: you might call her incident-prone. In one poem, she chats up a plane passenger who turns out to be a murderer; in another, a road trip lands her near a porn store in a blizzard:
Others must learn sooner what I only gathered
then, that a life might never make sense: there I sat,
trying to make myself into a person,
at a place that was a place only because one
highway crossed another there, in a window booth
butt-to-butt with some trucker twice my age, staring
through a blizzard over fuel pumps at a porn store,
thinking if I want fries and a burger well-done
I’m shit out of luck, but if I want a dildo,
I can have a dozen.
—From “What were you most afraid of as a child?”
The coincidences prompting this incident—the strange meetings of one road with another, one backside with another—underscore the incidental nature of Soesemann herself: she’s the product not of marriage, but of mishap. And yet the moment she acknowledges that “life might never make sense,” she begins “trying to make [her]self into a person”: she exists at a crossroads between passivity and proactivity, chaos and reason, nonsense and form.
Hix hails from a similar intersection. Throughout his work, he operates like a subtle interior designer, patterning his passages so delicately that you barely register each poem in Perfect Hell (1996), say, as a jagged sonnet. Instead, you notice raggedness, edginess, edges: a man with a crooked penis, a woman with one arm. Even in Hix’s clarion Rational Numbers (2000)—his second book, which may remain second to none—personae surface like flotsam after a shipwreck, many hinting at a devastated history or present. “No one of me matches another,” he writes in that volume, but his ten-line stanzas match each other, asserting rhythm amid confusion.
Incident Light, likewise, is vigorously, if near-invisibly, formal, and it rings with many voices. Soesemann might speak in jazzy riffs (“We/were fifteen that small-town sneak-out-and-smoke night”) or with Anglo-Saxon accent (“that stagnant place stayed strapped instead of staunching/the spill of sons and daughters”). Of course, this is still Hix writing, so that on some level the book—rather than capturing Hix in conversation with Soesemann—finds him chatting with himself, or with versions of himself.
If this volume complicates the identities of both writer and subject, it’s only fitting that the poems themselves face identity crises. In playfully problematic repetitions, titles recur pages after they first appear, as if to demand that the second (or third, or fourth) poem by any given name answer the question they pose. So how can we specify which poem is which?
Even as he favors discombobulation, Hix also likes lending lucidity (alas, sometimes to request it back). Just as his sonnets granted subtle order to Perfect Hell, and his ten-line stanzas to Rational Numbers, and—up the scale—his octaves to Chromatic (2006), a syllabic scheme determines nearly every poem in Incident Light. This common dna becomes apparent only after considerable testing (that is, counting aloud while tapping your fingers). Like Soesemann, then, we discover an underlying explanation that—once we’ve noticed it—seems both surprising and obvious. Most poems are eight lines long, with eleven syllables per line. The few longer poems vary the form but usually maintain syllable counts, often to satisfying effect. One of these, “Sex is Turquoise,” may mark the first naughty use of syllabics in all of English poetry. This tercet describes Soesemann’s mother encountering the Turkish man who—minutes later, one presumes—will become Soesemann’s father:
Another day, coffee and a long talk,
he takes her fingers
lightly to help her from the chair, and she does not take
The first line of each stanza has ten syllables; the second, five. The third, with fifteen, includes the sum of the parts of the first two, and embodies the commingling that will produce Soesemann. (So does the physical form of the stanza, whose first and third lines seem to embrace the second.)
Productive disorientation of the sort this volume favors is like pleasant drunkenness: it demands ongoing control. At their best, the poems in Incident Light resonate with nearly forgotten rhymes and lines, and with confusions that stir rather than shake you. But I sometimes found myself wishing—like a patient stretched on a couch during a meandering therapy session—that Hix might drop certain lines of inquiry. Since Incident Light is as much braid as book, one wants each strand to fully engage the others, even the others’ gaps and mysteries. Some—for example, the poems entitled “What is your favorite song?”—don’t, and feel slack.
Most poems are taut here, however, and worth the time: if reading Blevins feels like scooting, reading Hix feels like strolling, then pausing to admire the architecture. In the stunning poem “Beyond (A System for Passing),” first published in this magazine, Soesemann tells an unidentified listener—presumably the man she grew up thinking was her father, who is now deceased—that she
last listened for your voice
last night, these long years after, will listen next
when next oppressed by blue-gray, as I am now,
as I, thus lost, am always by your absence.
This poem about listening calls us to listen, not only to its many sound echoes but to its divergent meanings. Just as Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man throws Stephen Dedalus’s intentions into doubt with a well-placed “by” (“I shall try to fly by those nets,” he remarks, resulting in generations of scholarly head-scratching), the portrait of an artist that is Incident Light concludes with a “by” that branches into many byways. Does the speaker mean “I’m always oppressed by your absence”? “I’m always nearby your absence”? Or—my favorite—“I am by your absence in the sense that a book is by its author—your absence permits my presence”? Existing not in spite but because of loss, sorrow, disappointment—this phenomenon fires Blevins’s confessionalism and Hix’s ventriloquism alike.