Cursivism, Will Hubbard’s slim, debut volume of prose poems published by Ugly Duckling Presse, begins with a simple piece of advice that may be one of the most challenging charges facing anyone who is trying to figure out how to live, “just let it happen.” Though the mother’s instruction refers to how to tend an orchid the speaker has wooed into blossom mid-winter, it also applies to everything and anything our lives might encompass. To live by that advice requires difficult virtues: restraint, patience, and faith. Hubbard’s poems exhibit all three.
The poems that comprise Cursivism humbly speak at the same time as personal anecdotes, somber and revelatory reflections on the past, whimsical tales, and truths. These poems are modestly anthemic for members of Generation Y— those of us waking up to the fact that we’ve inherited a fraught world of questions that don’t have answers, and where many days feel like a tightrope walk that demands an unattainable balance between making something happen and letting it happen.
However, Hubbard’s poems never lecture or preach, nor are they pessimistic. For every mention of panic and longing, there is also mention of a miracle. And even at their most historical or questionably fictitious, the poems are grounded in daily life and voiced by a steady speaker who we want to trust. The diction comes from a careful vernacular; these poems don’t flaunt their economy of language, but they do owe some of their mystery to that economy. At times it feels like the author dares us to fill in the unnamed subject of a sentence, paint a context, imagine the untold parts of a story— and if you heed Hubbard’s imaginative challenge, the poems will not disappoint.
Before I go any further, I want to briefly consider whether these pieces are poems or whether they are something else. My answer is, both. I address this question in part because on the back cover of the book, poet Matthew Rohrer refers to Hubbard’s writing as “discrete little blocks of prose that move like poems;” and at a recent reading, Hubbard himself introduced some new work by saying, “these actually aren’t poems, and neither are those,” referring to what he had just read from Cursivism.
Perhaps classifying Hubbard’s work is beside the point— whether it is considered poetry, prose, prose poems, extended aphorisms or simply a little book of great writing, may not matter to some readers. These might as well be inscriptions; or etchings on the face of a rock that you are lucky enough to notice during a walk through the woods; or maybe they are bits of talk you overhear someone saying as you pass him in the street, which stay with you and draw up forgotten or neglected or denied or new ideas in you. My impression is that the words that come together in Cursivism do what poems do. They teach me about the world and even about myself. They call to be read again and again, and with each reading they reinvent themselves and stir new thoughts.
Despite my open interpretation of the form of Hubbard’s work, I don’t think for a second that they were constructed haphazardly or arbitrarily. Their form is inseparable from how they function. The absence of line breaks focuses our attention on the relationship of the sentences to each other; where line breaks would affect the pace and tone in a stanzaic poem, sentences affect the pace and tone here. One affect of the lack of line breaks is to somehow subdue drama, or rather, control it, when it might call more attention to itself if the poem was lineated or broken into stanzas. In the poem on page forty-five, the speaker recounts a shocking experience from childhood, but the shock is executed with matter-of-fact directness. Hubbard tells us,
. . . . Aware of my burgeoning creativity,
my grandmother gave me a set of razor-sharp whittling
knives for my tenth birthday. I promptly made the scar
that extends across four fingers of my left hand and
stared at the curiosity until it shook. The family was
awed that blood could so variously paint four walls of
a bedroom. (45)
The energy of this memory is locked in the curiosity that fixated the boy “until it shook.” The sentences direct us to follow the scene along until it explodes, as if without sound, when the boy stares at the cut he has made across his own fingertips. Even his family’s reaction— awe— appears visually, not sonically. The poems in this collection maintain a kind of diminuendo, a ruminative soft-spoken quality, even when they depict blood-painted walls or the soreness that comes from longing for someone absent.
The poems are quiet as the “soundless dark” (28) of a mysterious destination where some brew of sacred communication takes place. Encoded in the quietness of these poems are unassuming, almost deceptively simple love notes, as when the speaker says, “There is a limit to how tangled two things can get. But it might feel good to fall and get caught by you” (31). However, the book is not without its reticent mention of a wound, a love unreturned or expired, as the speaker reveals with the subtlety of a ventriloquist, “I read that you are to be married. The calligrapher wrote my apartment number wrong, but the postman is a friend of mine. He slipped it under the door while I was shaving” (46). Hubbard is able to tell an entire story, allude to a chapter, or many chapters, of a person’s life, through his juxtaposition of the ‘I’ and the ‘you’ in a brief sentence. There is so much unsaid, but the space that comes after the poem shakes with tremors from the magnitude of the past slipping under the door, into the present.
Another formal aspect is what I see as a kind of fracture line; which in biology is the natural line along which a cell will split, into uneven parts, when it is frozen. After the second or third sentence in many, though not all, of these poems, I felt this fracture— whereat the poem takes an imaginative leap and brings us along with it. The leaps do not seem formulaic to me; they are organic and thrilling. The poems that do this attain strangeness and give rise to a sense of displacement, which makes us pay attention to every word, circle back to the beginning and consider what has been born out of the pairing of seemingly incongruous parts.
In the poem I just discussed, Hubbard leaps from ancient Greek writing techniques (“Until the sixth century B.C., the Greeks wrote from left to right on the first line, then back from right to left on the next, and so on” (46)) to a marble traveling “in a grade-school friction experiment,” and finally to a wedding invitation that shouldn’t have come but did, interrupting a man while he’s shaving. Thus, Hubbard’s poems bring the world together by joining what it has been, what it is, and what it might be, in an original, unexpected, and worthwhile way.
The content of the poems is rewardingly dynamic. But we can credit the speaker’s steady voice with stewarding the readers through Cursivism‘s impressive imaginative range— from memories of acute childhood alienation to Egyptian mummification techniques to “(e)vidence that longing remains, even in eternal things” (4). The speaker’s voice does more than regulate tone; it becomes a persona, something like a silhouette, a suggestion of a person who prefers to stay partially concealed from view. Hubbard’s assertion that “Reading in silence looks like nothing. It feels good because effortless concealment has electric potential” (59) might well characterize the speaker himself and what at least appears to be his “effortless concealment.” Other poems suggest that practicing privacy, cultivating a penchant to withhold, is attractive and rewarding. “In fact, there is undeniable appeal in her withholding. It has nothing to do with sex. She simply stays free of everyone” (38), Hubbard observes. And, “A good device. . . .Has something to hide from everyone” (61).
Even when these poems are shifting between showing and obscuring, or pausing to set flowers on a grave, or letting the mind settle on an old scar, or surveying the gaps that separate us from each other, usually they are also talking about language itself. With his signature tone of telling a riddle, Hubbard describes a place where
. . . .Members
of the Irish bardic orders went regularly to prove the
sincerity of their desire to communicate. . . .In other
times it was simply an island that could not be reached
easily or at all. To go there was an acknowledgment that
curiosity was stronger than habit, itself stronger than fear. (28)
Even if Hubbard is referring to a place that exists somewhere on a map of the world, by refraining from naming it, he invites us to dream of and define the “there” for ourselves; it will probably be different for each of us. I think of it as a realm of inspiration, perhaps, a place where words come from, a place where communication between people is possible if we have enough courage and determination to go.
The cover art, Hubbard’s own illustration, says something of the book’s fascination with and commitment to words strung together— even when the words and their meanings are indecipherable. The cover is all but consumed by a formidable tangle of squiggles, which from some angles appear to be the title word, “cursivism,” overlaid more than a thousand-fold. But maybe the cover is some kind of representation of what it would look like to see all the words we have ever spoken or written joined together; or maybe it is everything as Yeats saw it, “a series of concentric, downward winding spirals. The sort of unified outlook that leaps in the heart” as Hubbard recalls on page thirty-one, or the “string of blasphemies” that “feel like they are keeping you alive” (54). Hubbard’s design, like his writing, presents indefinite interpretations and requires of the reader much of what life requires: patience, an open mind, and the willingness to be surprised. Like I was when I read this poem, one of my favorites of the collection:
IF THE FEELING overwhelms, your lover is being
unfaithful. Poets of the Japanese Edo court knew this,
and weaved yearning easily into cherry blossoms or
hearty autumn grass. For them, moving clouds were
messengers enough. Granted, staring out a window
at wet asphalt is hardly like listening to a bamboo
thicket fill with snow. The feeling of sickness in the
morning eases with a day of activity. Returning at
night it can transform into a pleasant, vital dream.
Only then is the lover listening, hoping against all odds
that you will send some sign of conviction through the
I love the ingenuity, and evocative natural landscape in the phrase, “weaved yearning easily into cherry blossoms or hearty autumn grass,” which unexpectedly follows a nod to a vulnerable experience of panic and suspicion. And I don’t want to say one analytical word to disturb that bamboo thicket filling with snow. The poem owns every movement it makes, from the view of wet asphalt to waning sickness to the fickle wind, all the while balancing the uneasiness of dread with the beauty afforded us when we imagine. In a few places in this book, Hubbard suggests he is waiting for the thing that will change him, that will break though. “Something about you will be different,” he writes in a poem about watching a delivery truck back in and out of a garage all day, “A sunburn, maybe” (5). His work is a testament to the fact that what we imagine has the power to change us, though maybe not in a way that can be measured in sunburns or lengths of days. Hubbard’s poems impart the knowledge that despite the struggle it can be to navigate day in and day out, change is as unpredictable as the “fickle wind,” and our best bet is to let go, and “let it happen.”