If I Squint, I See Them Clearly
With its host of defunct genomes, a rupturing cosmos, malevolent gods, a derelict body politic, and endless war, the poems in this collection act as harbingers of the wasteland America may soon become.
Garrett Hongo once called Hummer ‘s poetry “a hectoring witness compelled to translate the banal urban atrocities of our current civilization into complex testimonies and transcendent prophecies.” Hummer’s tenth collection of verse, Ephemeron (published with LSU Press’s Southern Messenger Poetry Series in 2011) may be his most oracular yet. With its host of defunct genomes, a rupturing cosmos, malevolent gods, a derelict body politic, and endless war, the poems in this collection act as harbingers of the wasteland America may soon become.
Much of Ephemeron merges the mistakes of the past, the present, and (what Hummer imagines) the future will bring into a highly fictionalized but disturbingly realistic future. Take “System,” for example, in which a geneticist is sliced open to reveal “a schematic of precise and interlocking logic / So familiar that the men with bayonets stepped back…” or the similarly eerie “Inventory” which opens:
Hogsheads from the provinces. Bundles from caravans.
Crude crates from the holds of ships. Urns of oil and wine.
Embroidered sacks of opium tied shut with silk twine.
Thirty slaves. Women: eight. Men: nine. Sundry children.
And on the farthest dock, a pile of junk: cracked cudgels, broken
bandoliers, body armor stained, punctured, and stove in…
Hummer takes the notion of personae to a new level in this book. Unlike his previous work, in which his poems are written from the point-of-view of an imagined character or from his own, Ephemeron combines these points-of-view to create a future self navigating the wasteland and recording what he encounters.
Similar to Walt Whitman in Hell and the books that have followed, Ephemeron is sequenced like a book-length poem rather than a collection of random verse gathered in a single place. It relies more on repetition and the compounding and coordination of visuals, locales, characters, and structures to tell its story. Many of the poems are lists of lengthy, acrobatic prose couplets separated by an asterisk. Here are the first few sections of “Biography of Eros”:
The witnessing of things in the mind. But what mind? The lovers lay on the
bed, handcuffed, saying Please, and just for a moment one of them knew.
Sleeping, one of them moaned. It was the dream of the interpenetration of
souls. Death is in everything, crystalline arsenic dissolved in alcohol.
They wore raptor masks. One used a small flexible whip. Its marks were
radiant traces of ichor. Thus the walls of the sanctum were broken.
These lyrics act like monologues or solo riffs, utilizing image and imagination to carve out a space in the book that’s almost pure voice. These poems are rather unique to Hummer’s verse, which rarely uses the prose line or is so violently elliptical. But Hummer doesn’t get seduced by these highly musical lists, bringing more familiar narrative poems into the fold in order to anchor the collection and its reader. The title poem, for example, addresses the infinite smallness of life and the miracle of life— regardless of cynicism— with simple but wildly imaginative lines. A poem about a middle-aged father about to become a father all over again, “Ephemeron” opens:
Those are windflowers glowing in the outer darkness
just beyond the gateposts. If I squint,
I see them clearly: white windflowers, flicker of star gas,
bridal-veil nebula— an infinity bent
By the gravity of dawn and rain, but opening.
It astonishes me again: I am fifty and pregnant,
And beyond the bedroom window September is gathering
Its cosmological light.
“Ephemeron” is also a poem about god, fate, and that which makes up the physical and metaphysical human body: “it is they who assemble, in the amniotic sac, / Bits of star-grit, skeins of DNA, the holy chemistry / Of existence.” Hummer has always been concerned with the building blocks of reality and how they affect our behavior in the world. In some of the best poems in Ephemeron, this fascinations leads to a captivating convergence of the concrete and abstract. Take “Fallacy of Composition,” for example, which begins: “The sky darkens with flying bodies: the extinct birds / live in the mind, therefore the birds live. / The color of the day deepens with memory. All the wreckage / of history is eclipsed.” and goes on to list images of various undoings: “The blacksmith raises his hammer / and the red hot horseshoe straightens into an iron bar. / Consciousness moves like a shadow through the forest / and whole peoples are restored.”
“Fallacy of Composition” represents one of the central themes of the book: our longing to undo the mistakes we’ve made, to reverse what has made the world such a hazardous place to live in. Global warming, terrorism, political unrest, the stagnant economy: these issues have become a popular subject of contemporary American poetry with books like Rodney Jones’ Apocalyptic Narrative, Carolyn Forche’s The Angel of History, Brian Henry’s Quarantine, and Robert Wrigley’s Beautiful Country. Ephemeron is pre-apocalyptic vision that fearlessly examines where we are, where we’ve been, and where (Hummer believes) we are likely to end up. Ephemeron, most of all, is a beautiful entreaty to the 21st Century, to “a god’s favorite trick— / the accrual, like money in the bank, of our undoing.” “Now that all the people have vanished,” he asks in “Ad Hominem,” “who will deal / with the swarm of tiny annoyances that defined / Human existence? … What god will try / to train the cat to shake its head and curse?”
Read “The Last Meal of the Iceman,” a Rumpus Original Poem by T.R. Hummer, Day 4 of our 2012 National Poetry Month Project.