The word hermit conjures images of isolation and retreat—a recluse living far away from society. And perhaps what is so surprising about Laura Solomon’s third collection of poems is that though it is titled The Hermit, it is full of life and connections, or at least attempted connections, with others. Throughout the book, Solomon takes on the roles of a world traveler, a truth seeker, and an emotional being set forth into the world, seeking companionship. However, the work also reflects someone who is deeply thoughtful and reflective—someone who perhaps despite her attempts for connections spends much time in her own head, considering her own dreams, desires, and relationship to language.
In “French Sentences,” Solomon writes, “I used to like words but now I hate them because I love them without reciprocity which means with every day I love them more and more because of hate // to comfort myself I take a lover but unfortunately he has a name which is another word for a word so constantly reminds me of my unfortunate marriage // this happens all the time to people so there is a word for it, prison.” This unrequited love of language is demonstrated throughout The Hermit, as the speakers of the poems seem to continually give and love openly, but are often left hurting or alone—left to their prisons.
Many of the poems are about a young American abroad, which adds another layer of alienation. The speaker is often at a remove from her environment, surrounded by languages that are not her native tongue, though she slips in and out of French and Italian with ease—luckily, for readers unfamiliar with the languages, Solomon provides a list of translations at the back of the book. Even with her ease with languages, the speakers are often alone, simply due to being American in a strange land that will never really feel like home. One rare moment where a character is unable to communicate results in a touching moment. In “From the Book of Comprehension,” a woman moves to Verona to be with a man, and though she learns Italian, there is no book on how to learn a dialect the man’s grandfather speaks. The woman and the man visit the grandfather, who is alone after the deaths of his wife and daughter:
the man and the woman visit the grandfather and plant for him a garden
the light is hot on the shovel as it blisters the man’s hands
the grandfather shouts and sweats and sits
the grandfather says something to the woman that she can’t understand
so he repeats it at a higher volume
he wants her to place the space on top of the barrel of water
the woman loves the grandfather and imagines the grandson as the old
man sitting under the tree
Solomon conveys a lot in that final line—it’s a tender moment, where the woman allows herself to dream of growing old with someone she loves. We don’t know what happens to the woman and the man, and though the book does have its moments of heartbreak and sadness, it’s moments like this that show something hopeful about the collection. Even if the day never comes where the woman can see the man older and sitting under the tree, she still experiences that radiant moment where she imagines it. It might seem a small victory, but it’s a victory nonetheless. “Feeling Sunlight” is another poem that gets at this feeling, describing the reawakening that occurs after one has been hurt or feels numb to experience:
the lungs ask a question the heart repeats
the nose knows more than it can say
the tongue tastes
the genitals wake
the mind believes again
it still exists
The poem ends with an image of a golden tornado, which perhaps refers to the sun mentioned in the title, but also hints at a destructiveness. Solomon writes, “there is nothing but this [referring to the lines above] / between / everything and the golden tornado.”
The lyric is the perfect form for exploration, and in her back and forth, repetitions, and contradictions, Solomon shows herself to be a master, expertly capturing what it is like to be human. “French Sentences” is a great example of this. The poem opens with an epigraph from Ted Berrigan asking, “Is there room in the room that you room in?” A New York School influence can be detected throughout the book, however is especially strong in this poem, with its conversational style and meandering sentences. In the poem, Solomon finds herself “thinking again after having decided not to.” There’s a natural ease as she moves from topic to topic, and the poem refuses to reach a conclusion—it can’t conclude. As Fanny Howe defines the lyric, it can only seek and ask questions and never settle or arrive, and this is precisely what is so human about it. Even though the poem expresses much melancholy, the reader is left with the knowledge that the speaker will continue to move ahead, and perhaps continuing is all that we can really hope for.
While the longer lines of “French Sentences” and some of the other poems recall James Schuyler’s prose-like lines, the complicated emotions and nuances in tone are reminiscent of another New York School poet, David Shapiro—who also happens to blurb this book, calling Solomon “part of a new visionary company that makes a photograph of exile, rhythm, and exaltation.” Also like Shapiro, Solomon demonstrates a range and playfulness of form, using question and answer in “Places,” epistle in “Hello, Nikola!”, variations of a tale in “The Stamp Collector & His Mistress,” prose in “The Autobiography of Alice B. Notley,” and breaking into song in “Tutti Fanno La Cacca Perché Io No.” Highlights of the collection include the longer poems, “French Sentences,” “Dream Ear, Part III,” and “Philadelphia.”
Overall The Hermit is a strong collection of poems, which makes me want to seek out the authors other work. There’s a charm to the poems that wins the reader over. The speakers come across as having big hearts and loving the world fully, and though this approach most-likely can only lead to heartbreak, we can’t help pulling for them. Though they have a keen understanding of loneliness, they perhaps best know what the opposite feels like too—as Solomon writes in “Philadelphia,” “everything / tastes better when it’s precious.”
Read “Like an Old Chest in a New House,” a Rumpus Original Poem by Laura Solomon.