What should fine writers do if some of the uglier, more obvious American political issues didn’t enter their poetry before the “election“ of 2016? In the case of the men whose work I explore here, poetry attains melodic, honorable engagement with a variety of challenges.
Ryan Vine is the youngest of the trio and presents scenes that can be stories. He won the Weldon Kees award and teaches in Minnesota. T. R. Hummer is the former editor of Kenyon Review, New England Review, and The Georgia Review. His own poetry has yielded prestigious awards. Norman Finkelstein taught for many years at Xavier University in Cleveland, and is steeped in classic, sometimes obscure, texts.
Vine proves himself a raconteur in To Keep Him Hidden, his first full-length collection. “Elegy for My Father” is higher in execution than the “undulating ceiling of cigarette smoke” that‘s so confining. The title and the first few lines are a single, twitchy sentence, so naturally elastic that lurking affectation is defeated:
who isn’t dead, but
I watched him die
every night slumping
in his shabby La-Z-Boy
when I was still a kid.
He sipped and slipped
far away across his vast
and silent sorrows
whatever they were.
When we had to, we’d
sneak past his snoring, duck
under the undulating
ceiling of cigarette smoke
like a layer of oil in water
and slip through the room
blinking TV blue. I wish
I could say that I cried
to him, that I fought.
But I didn’t. I only asked
one night before he could
disappear—and with a cool
detachment I had been
working on for years—Why?
His reply? I don’t like to talk.
I thought I understood.
Thirty years later I keep thinking
I’ve forgiven him. I have
tried many times. Now
across the kitchen my baby
boy cries at me—pleading—
but I can barely hear him
above the cooing of my
silence, which I’ve coddled
like a firstborn—perfect
little lover—who threatens
to outlive us all.
The speaker’s father is technically alive, but dead in a way the speaker hopes not to be for his own son. The word “threatens” anchors the poem in honest uncertainty.
Loss is never far away in these pages, and, in “Rule 21,” losses share equivalence with modest gains:
But he grew up on your river
or you on his
and he sat on the same muddy banks in the
summer dragging his feet through the current
and in winter crunched across the ice
hoping for eelpot, walleye or sturgeon.
Winter was his favorite, watching
the river freeze its first ice like a silver chrysalis
to punch through with rocks dropped from the bridge—the thawing and freezing again before
finally thickening to creak and moan for months.
In winter he felt like the world
understood him, the quick darkness, the light
snow falling so slowly it appeared to be stuck.
His fingers suddenly blue. He knew
how much a boy could lose. He saw
how easily it could all go.
The wheel ships in the spring, the big steamers
still came this far upriver when he was a boy.
The bright red paddlewheels pushed
the smokestacks turning the valley black.
Tourists pointed and leaned
on the lantern-strung gunwales
while he and Faye and Wayne and Fred
waded in the cold relentless passing
of the St Louis , holding their orphan
hearts like luggage for the long journey.
Here we enter enclosure and partial escape, that “long journey,“ laden with relentless recollection.
Vine begins the fourth section of To Keep Him Hidden with a quote by Mary Szybist: “What should be remembered, what imagined?” This suggests that some specifics reflect a reality created for the sake of each poem. If that’s the case, one can be even more convinced that he is in control of his craft.
T. R. Hummer’s approach to composition is steady and somewhat scholarly, with references to Heraclitus and metaphysics. In After the Afterlife, he conjures conversations with himself and others, and interacts with animals. His gaze is never sensationalized, even when drama is apparent or when the subject is “Ansel Adams on the Moon”:
It’s a question of contrast— the issue is middle gray / and just when you think you’ve metered it / It nails you to the wall. If I look at enough of these photographs / I get tired of Ansel Adams, bored with the way he thinks. / I hunger for something odd of Weston’s, or give it up altogether / and go back to a sublimely ugly burgher by Vermeer. / Adams worked so slowly for the lyric, his craft so absolutely conscious, / that half his subjects died waiting for the shutter to fall, / And the other half gave up and looked for different work.
This—about the first quarter of the poem—tells you that it serves as a photograph of any obsessive, creative person trying to get it right, implying that Hummer himself has tried to shape his own obsessions. The final lines include “dodged“ and “burned,“ last-century darkroom terms that perfectly illustrate risks and rewards of striving to be masterful:
[…]the moon rolled on against the film of the darkening sky, / While inside the camera’s negative space-all because the Maestro knew / his light-its waited to be dodged and burned.
Like the masters he admires without sycophancy, Hummer’s light is strong without being overbearing.
With “Constitutional,“ in which the speaker walks back towards “where all I love,” exists, Hummer finds solace, as opposed to complacency, watching two boys intent on winning a round of marbles after he’s seen a raven and a dove, mystery-infused opposites.
Choosing what to quote from Hummer is like choosing what to pluck from a hearty buffet. Here’s another taste, from “Antiquities”:
Slowly up the frozen slope, wheezing / like a ruptured yak, I make my way / To the viewpoint above our ice-choked river. / A fogbank has risen over the mountain / On the far side, but the morning sun burns / everything down. The river’s surface glows. / I assume the posture I saw an old Tibetan take / in a painting, propped against a rock face, resting / For the final flight. Its not so bad being ancient. / Ask the wind-smoothed boulder. Ask the fogbank. / Ask the moon, the next time you see her, / admiring herself in water: her pitted face / Is the price of enlightenment. Ask the river.
With visual nods to East and West (enlightenment calls to mind English philosophy as well as Eastern religions) and the way humans anthropomorphize—an ancient planet with a “pitted face”—Hummer again takes his place with spacious grace.
Norman Finkelstein is a mystic. In From the Files of the Immanent Foundation, he makes beautiful poems that read as if they are snipped from texts that speak in more than one language. Finkelstein’s romance with esoterica and the unfathomable can work if one floats a bit:
The construct is breaking down.
Armitage is one of innumerable nodes.
The organist pulls out all the stops as she
accelerates through frame after frame.
This is a fragment of a poem called “License,” and it holds rewarding paradoxes. An organ, like most musical instruments, is constructed to be as precise as possible. But that precision is a ruse, because no one will hear the sound an organ makes in precisely the same way. What Finkelstein appears to seek is peace with what is incompletely available.
In another poem, “Progress Report,” he stakes his claim:
If subjectively were ever an issue,
it is here at this experimental station.
This is where I remember a prominent writer (name always redacted) snarling, “God, I hate that shit,” after a reading by a language poet. My response to that, and to Finkelstein‘s work , is to keep reading. Finkelstein is admirable in trying to lift the veil that separates us from the most essential, inner aspects of our being. And his effort can be achingly apt, as in “Lecture”:
The soul is built upon the ruins of love,
an ordered sequence of calamities extending
into the archaic dark. One by one, the objects
are charged with the power of attraction,
given up, and lost. But they are never truly
abandoned. The soul makes a dwelling place
among hollow, haunted shells, wandering
among ghosts in the arcades of desire,
of promised fulfillments and longings gratified.
Never doubt its courage. Whatever it is given
is taken away, whatever its compensation
is barely adequate. It survives on scraps,
scraps of hope, and grows strong as it counts
its losses. Strange alchemy, strange mathematics
strange necromancy here among the living.
This is the probable core of Finkelstein’s quest, and reminds me of lines by Edna St. Vincent Millay, who reveled in apprehending what could and could not be seen, and pitied “he whose soul is flat.”
Reading Vine, Hummer and Finkelstein, in an era in which people often feel almost flattened, we rise.