This is part two of Joan’s essay. Part three will be posted on Thursday, October 23rd.
When we look at the poetry of Lynda Hull, her poems seem to combine the backdrop of Di Piero and the internalization of Tretheway in her Collected Poems. And while the early poems are heavily textured, it’s easy to see, not only a change of perspective, but also a depth that developed in the poems written just before her death.
In the introduction to Collected Poems, Komunyakaa stated: “Hull’s poetry creates tension through what the reader believes he or she knows; it juxtaposes moments that allude to public history alongside private knowledge. Thus, each poem challenges and coaxes the reader into an act of participation … Measured experience informs these poems.”
This “challenge” and “measured experience” is what I believe culls the sense of place from within Hull’s poetry and allows the reader to dive in with all five senses. Hull is not only describing a place, but her experiences in that place. Hull is equally meticulous in describing the sounds of the trains and the longing they produce in her characters as she is the bead of sweat that trickles down the back. Hull tells the reader not only what is happening, but also where it is happening and why that is important to her, the characters and the reader as well. As Hull builds these physical layers around her characters, the reader is pulled into the same sense of claustrophobia and can almost hear the sound of the trains passing or the wind through clothes hanging on a clothesline.
The poems in The Only World, published posthumously, elevate the ordinary, everyday things surrounding her characters and push them onto a more personal level. In “Chiffon” Hull’s use of phrasing and word choice creates a tactile sense of heat:
“Fever, down-right dirty sweat
of a heat-wave in May turning everyone
pure body. Back of knee, cleavage, each hidden
crease, nape of neck turning steam.” (151)
Hull has rooted her poetry in experience and relates these experiences through an intense emotional response like a sense-memory she has already shared with her readers. These descriptions begin to feel like a sort of communally informed memory, which allows the reader to remember the feel of a trickle of sweat creep from the neck down their back. Hull then places unexpected images next to one another that enhance and expand the sense of place in a way that opens up the poem like a multi-layered image.
of lavender clouds among shattered brick
like cumulous that sail the tops of high-rises” (151)
This idea of a surprising “shock” of flowers among shattered and crumbling brick gives the reader the sense of a dilapidated part of the city, where these flowers persist to grow and rise colorful against the backdrop of the city. Hull’s deliberate use of interspersed short lines grabs the reader’s attention and tells them “pay attention, this is important.” The contrast of shattered brick and bright iris gives the reader a contradictory but solid sense of place. This contradiction in juxtaposed opening images alerts the reader to the fact that there are many layers and facets that make up this place and Hull intends to attempt to give as many to the reader as possible. Hull takes this even further when she transitions from sweat, brick and a shock of wildflowers to this somewhat hopeful flashback interaction with a group of young girls, labeling her “the cousin on the bright side” in this still innocent game of dress up:
“This morning’s iris frill
damp as fabulous gowns after dancing,
those rummage sale evening gowns church ladies
gave us another hot spring I, 1967.” (151)
“the endless rooftop season
and sizzle, the torched divided cities…
Camphorous, awash a rusty satin rosettes,
In organdy, chiffon, we’d practice
Girl group radio-hits…
Diana, me and Valerie doing Flo and Mary’s
These images set against the backdrop of “torched divided cities” and the significance of 1967, just before the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, shows these young girls, so far from the changes to come, as they mimic the girl-groups in gowns. But, Hull interrupts this setting of innocence on this rooftop with not only the suggestive omens in the actual streets, but the realities in the upcoming lives of the girls as well:
“a landscape flagged with laundry, tangled
aerials and billboards, the blackened
railway bridges and factories ruinous
in their fumes.” (152)
“JoAnn who’d leave school, 14, pregnant.” (151)
and then later:
She was gang-raped later that year. The rest,
As they say, is history. History.” (152-153)
But Hull doesn’t leave us in this setting of the clash between innocent role-playing and the reality of this place with these young girls. She ends the poem recalling the “cousin on the bright side” image and traces this reflection back to the iris, which seems to be a hopeful image:
to these iris, their piercing ambrosial
essence, the heart surprised, dark bitter.” (153)
Hull has transported the reader from the present to this conflicted past and then returns us back to this image of the iris all the while suspending these characters, and her readers, within a scene of shattered buildings, rooftops and the contradiction of the bright flowers as metaphor for the young girls.
In “River Bridge” Hull uses this sense of place in a much different way. We are given a series of venues that seem more like the vistas a nature writer would describe, but these are city scenes, that are all at once mysterious and alluring, but always vividly tactile. The reader becomes as encased as the characters within the motif of clotheslines, trains, trolleys, streets and bridges that seem at once to tower over and ultimately trap everything within:
slashes its path through the neighborhood, whirr
and pulse. The heart and fuse of distance filling
the room, hurtling through countless frames,
the scene—now that curtainless room of young men
preening shirtless before their mirrors, now
the ward of iron hospital beds. I’ve seen them.
By the screen, the white cat swivels her ears
to follow the train until it’s lost in glass.” (168)
Hull gives the reader increasing levels of place. There is what they inhabit but also all the things that are beyond their reach; the places they cannot touch; the things they will never see. The dual voice in this poem interjecting with “No not that one,” “I’ve seen them,” “Why That One?” in the beginning of the poem gives the reader a sense of an inner collective voice which becomes a deeper more questioning voice later in the poem: “so this is what its like to die” “now, now this sweet wrenched only” until this voice gives the reader a kind of soliloquy in part V:
“I am the stranger coiled on the landing, singing
this is the bridge of the flying hands,
the mansion of the body. I am the one
who scratched at your door, the one who begged
rough coinage. This is the blessing
&this is a hymnal of wings. Hear the heart’s
greedy alluvial choir, a cascading train
whirring the tracks; called back,
called back from the river.” (173)
This is the human reaction to this cacophony of images that have trapped them in … this is what has become of these voices in these places. The ending of the poem brings all of the elements in the sections together and the final line leaves the reader with the resonating “Someone feed them. Someone said get out of town” reflecting back to the “get-out-of-town-fast-story” from section II.
“The cat leaps again, a train, striking this time
a smooth oiled chord, as if there might be a
singing on the other side of the tracks.
Some Jordan. That otherness, those secret times
the bridges beneath the surface of life.
Pull on the rough coat and salt-wet shoes.
Let the liquor burn your throat. Did I do that?
Could that have been me? Those figures crossing
The bridge, setting out, always setting out.
Voices I must keep listening for in these sharpening
Leaves, among stacks and flames,
The smoking pillars. Someone feed them.
Someone get them out of town.” (174).
With these closing lines we have the convergence of all: the bridge, the trains, tracks, and people trapped within wishing for what is beyond this place, searching for a “Jordan” and finally the unresolved and resonating “Someone feed them. / Someone get them out of town.”
While Hull paints vast overshadowing places in which her characters are imbedded, Larry Levis gently places his characters in the places they work, live and dream. Place in Levis’ poems doesn’t so much overshadow or become another character vying for attention as complement them as if they are grounded in their surroundings; as if the place they reside is a natural setting like a tree in a forest or beach near an ocean.
In the Afterward, David St. John said: “Often, Levis’ championing of those at the margin of society—migrant workers, the disposed, a variety of spiritual transients—is set against a landscape of encroaching morality.” (228). How better to set these, then in a place that defines as much who they are as what they do? Which is exactly what Levis does.
In “Winter Stars” Levis opens with:
“My father once broke a man’s hand
Over the exhaust pipe of a John Deere tractor. The man,
Ruben Vasquez, wanted to kill his own father
With a sharpened fruit knife, & he held
The curved tip of it, lightly, between his first
Two fingers, so it could slash
Horizontally, & with surprising grace,
Across a throat. It was like a glinting beak in a hand,
And, for a moment, the light held still
On those vines. When it was over,
My father simply went in & ate lunch, & then, as always,
Lay alone in the dark, listening to music.
He never mentioned it.
I never understood how anyone could risk his life,
Then listen to Vivaldi.” (87)
In this opening stanza, Levis has deftly interwoven place around his characters. It appears seamless. By telling his reader that this happens “over the exhaust pipe of a John Deere tractor” and by naming the man (Rubén Vásquez) Levis shows that this is a migrant worker and that his father is the boss, or owner of the farm. Levis also tells his reader that this is a commonplace occurrence and not something out of the ordinary: “When it was over / My father simply went in & ate lunch.” Levis then goes one step further in setting up the levels at play here by telling the reader his father is listening to Vivaldi. And while all of the characters are in the same place, the distinction in the hierarchy is clear; the father is the boss, the man with the knife is the employee. The narrator, the owner’s son, is outside of this altercation, and in seeing this interaction from a distance, sets up the voice for the rest of the poem. While he is in this place, he isn’t a part of it, physically or mentally, but only as an observer.
“sometimes, I go out into this yard at night,
And stare through the wet branches of an oak
In winter, & realize I am looking at the stars
Again. A thin haze of them, shining and persisting.” (85)
This sense that the narrator has of being lifted up, out of this yard and into the stars further defines his sense of detachment from this place in his sense of longing to be elsewhere. The setting up of this distance in the beginning lays the groundwork for the way he views the depths of his father’s illness. But even in the analogy he uses to describe his father’s illness, he still stands outside what is happening:
“If you can think of the mind as a place continually
Visited, a whole city placed behind
The eyes & shining, I can imagine now, its end—
As when the lights go off, one by one,
In a hotel at night, until at last
All of the travelers will be asleep,” or until
Even the thin glow from the lobby is a kind
Of sleep;” (88)
Once again, Levis contrasts the father as being indoors, even his illness takes on the characteristics of a large hotel, with strangers dimming lights as they drift to sleep. But when the focus returns to the narrator, he is still outside:
“I stand out on the street, & do not go in.
That was our agreement, at my birth.” (88)
This metaphor for the relationship with his father is not only an emotionally distancing one, but also physically displacing. As Levis ends the poem, we are once again with the narrator gazing at the stars:
“”The pale haze of stars goes on & on,
Like laughter that has found a finale, silent shape
On a black sky. It means everything
It cannot say. Look, it’s empty out there, & cold.
Cold enough to reconcile
Even a father, even a son.” (88)
We are brought from the expanse of stars to this “final, silent shape / on a black sky.” The father now resides in this otherwise star filled sky as a dark shape that has replaced “everything / it cannot say.” And although this may seem at first to perpetuate the distance, even in death, between the father and the son, the very act of placing the father as a permanent fixture in this star filled sky, that has been the son’s refuge, places the father in a position of meditative significance. As if in the very act of carving out this space for the father, Levis seems to reach a kind of transcendent understanding. The symbolic continuation of the established relationship in this way shows an acceptance and understanding in which the father becomes a permanent and unchangeable presence. Could this acceptance, finally, be a symbol of that longed for reconciliation?
In “1967” Levis combines farm work with the clash of the narrator’s need to expand psychologically from the place the narrator lives:
“Some called it the Summer of Love; & although the clustered,
Motionless leaves that overhung the streets looked the same
As ever, the same they did every summer, in 1967,
Anybody with three dollars could have a vision” (180)
Levis is taking the reader completely out of physical place in this poem and venturing into the idea of altering reality without changing the place. But doing this, he alters the set physical properties and can take the narrator so far outside of the physical by adding the dimension of the mind in a definitive way:
“Some people spent their lives then, having visions.
But in my case, the morning after I dropped mescaline
I had to spray Johnson grass in a vineyard of Thompson Seedless
My father owned—& so, still feeling the holiness of all things
Living, holding the spray gun in one hand & driving with the other…
With a mixture of malathion & diesel fuel,
And said to each tall weed, as I coated it with a lethal mist,
Dominus vobiscum, &, sometimes, mea culpa, until
It seemed boring to apologize to weeds and insincere as well,” (180)
This somewhat comical stanza begins to point to the “generation gap” in the late ‘60s. This shift shows how he, the new generation, views even the weeds in a new way. The idea that he needed to apologize to the plants he is spraying is in direct contrast to the way his father or the migrant workers would approach this task. And while this does not specifically create a change in the place itself, it does create a difference in how the narrator views this place. Whereas in previous poems Levis has this narrator as separate from this farm, from these chores, here, through the psychological change, he is more in tune with it than previously seen.
“The bird’s flight in my body when I thought about it, the wing ache,
Lifting heaven, locating itself somewhere just above my slumped
Shoulders, & part of me taking wing. I’d feel it at odd moments
After that on those days I spent shoveling vines, driving trucks
And tractors, helping swamp fruit out of one orchard
Or another, but as summer went on I felt it less & less.”(180-181)
This internalization of the things around him becomes a separate consciousness and even though he absorbs these things, it is not the work, or a connection to the people, but the internalization of the place itself with which the narrator becomes singular. This is short lived “as summer went on, I felt it less & less.” And, once more we are pulled back into this distance that has plagued the narrator:
“As the summer went on, some were drafted, some enlisted
In a generation that would not stop falling, a generation
Of leaves sticking to body bags, & when they turned them
Over, they floated back to us on television, even then,
In the Summer of Love, in 1967,
When riot police waited beyond the doors of perception,
And the best thing one could do was get arrested.” (181)
As Levis closes the poem, the narrator is looking even further than the farm around him. He is viewing the world as though he were in the center of a whirlpool from which he is once again distanced. The momentary oneness he felt to the things around him has slipped away with the drug leaving his system and the reality of the world has seeped back into his conscious state. This recalls the ending of “Winter Stars” which finds the narrator outwardly in the same physical place but now with a more meditative understanding of the things around him.