Playing at the Edges of Form: Alexandria Hall’s Field Music

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The pages of Alexandria Hall’s debut collection, Field Music, are liquid. The book itself is a fluid body—one brimming, seeping, pouring, spilling, and filling a reality built on the perception and impermanence of the senses. The poems in this book grasp what can be grasped of an atmospheric reality, and they depict language and desire as tactile states. “Nothing ever stays / where it ought,” Hall declares from the very beginning, writing the precedent for the experience further captured within these covers.

Though Hall is stubborn in an insistent desire for the body’s amorphic form as being one bound to perception, she plays with edges in a way that indicates the mere presence of a form—as one that can be filled or emptied. In “Filling Station,” she writes, “what a luxury to fill […] to brim, but never spill // and yet, to fill one thing / implies an emptying.” Fluidity is a very present theme throughout the book, most pervasively in the form of water, used as not only a way out of the body but also as a way into another: “I dropped out of my body in long clean streams / like water through a colander, easily and ordinarily.” But even water presents too constant a form, and so the poem concludes, “my body / inflated, got so big it filled the room, the whole house // even, like caulk, like cement, covering everything.”

Hall writes of the body as something to be transported out of, like a hermit crab whose shell is merely a temporary vessel. She explores this realm of vessels, the body only one of many, and finds the weak spots—the points of escape, the spaces most porous. “In the Nets” identifies with netting analogously, in a way that extends far beyond human form and territory, to a place that is physically uninhabitable for humans, where the use of a net becomes a desire:

On the coast I saw nets, and lacking
a good sense of boundaries, I saw
myself, made mostly of holes, myself
a boundary for the washed-through,
the held. Could this not be about capture?

(…)

I want to be full
with the way things move through me.
I want to be a mother again, porous, stretched
in place by floats and weights.

It is the spaces between, the pores and openings, both entrances and exits, that permeate the poems. They become spaces that concretize and contain our emotions and memory, ultimately filling in the points of escape. In the poem “Something Important Put Clumsily Away,” Hall tells an abortion story in which the speaker describes her body as “a cup tipped over,” further professing that she “can’t fit the holes back in. They keep leaking through the cracks.” Absence takes form here, with “cracks” and “holes” that are as tangible as the material they are separating. The voice of the poem is feral when acknowledging the lack of control over form: “I felt the part inside me that’s made of holes, that generates no heat.”

Hall’s poems writhe and ripple, quiver and swoon, as they take on material meaning, plagued with a desire that renders touch into something as effervescent and intangible as sound. While desire’s ultimatum typically takes the form of touch, Field Music pushes hunger to a place far beyond, into a formless and boundless experience—and so, we are given a pleasure that is omnipresent, one that the speaker of these poems yearns for in a way most intangible:

I didn’t want romantic. I wanted
him to suck my lips off my face,
spit them out, change shape, turn
ugly, wanted him to toss his head
back and never roll it up,
evaporating like a tired dandelion.

(…)

I wanted the night like a spider
to lift one arm after another
and climb into me while he washed
out into the long wet sky, which was blue.

Hall’s imagery feeds the senses beyond the taste of familiarity. In “At Dusk,” one of many poems that address the natural world, she writes: “The water enjoying its mouth, shameless / swilling the juices of its own warm body” while the “waves gradually hardening, turning // under like daylight, the air farther inland, // without noticing, loosens its grip on the salt.” Here, as everywhere in this collection, fluidity appears; the body is not the water, but the salt.

The lovers in this book take the speaker further into the sensual and through the boundaries of the amorphic. In “Dredge,” Hall writes, “I took a lover anyway and let him build up / in my river like a silt deposit. I had a taste for him // without the withdrawal.” Here, the inside is not as definite as the taste, which correlates with the mouth. The mouth that we are given over and over again—with hunger, pleasure, and insatiability—filled or unfilled.

“On Taste” orders a wash of visceral reactions that offers some of the most defined parameters of such desires, yet leaves the speaker still unfilled:

                       …When your hands first
found my vagueness, you traced over
and over the indefinite edges.

(…)

A desire that looks good on me,
that hugs the detailed curves of fantasy,
instead of this mess, this heaving blur.
Could this be pleasure?

Though there is a constant leaving of the physical body, this collection maintains its connection to the corporeal in the speaker’s shared sensual experiences. “On Touch” identifies her own desire with another’s: “It’s true / there may be others who’d be full / with me where you are wanting.” Thus, the speaker concludes that the true essence of pleasure and desire, following in Anne Carson’s theories of eros, is found in longing: “It is a pleasure / to be ugly, hungry, and scattered. / It is a pleasure to keep looking.”

The nature of desire intersects, too, with that of sound. Sound, perhaps the most immediate and reactionary of the senses, is also often the easiest to doubt, contest, or capture. Hall catches sound at the source of speech, furthering the theme of the mouth as the most eventful and vital opening in the body: “Poetry is unsafe. I commit this violence to shape it with words. If I say it wrong, it might be better. I apologize for all my gross ejaculations.” Speech has the power to reform the physical and transcend it. It not only tastes and craves, but communicates and pronounces:

As when learning a new language,
I feel the separateness of my body:
the mouth trying to form

the right shape to sound
the difference between Hölle
and Höhle—one hell, one

hole—the mouth itself
a pit, a void contorted

[…]

the tongue
quivering naked in the gorge.
I want you, a pang.

But the mouth, and its speech, would be lacking without the company of another hole—the ear, that companion sense of hearing. For  it is hearing that allows for communication to grow into interpretation and translation. Throughout Field Music, words are misinterpreted and spiraling into other words. In the titular “Field Music,” ancient is heard as ank-shint and eggshells and ankle-shins; Crimus ditch, idears, and crick come in as colloquialisms, but not without the context of how they sound to the speaker. A musician herself, Hall is well-versed in sonics and brings forth many forms of sound: “Nothing left of the smut tunnel, fetid fetish, put stowage, rot tottler, pith pantry. I’m doing my breast, fuck I’m doing breadth, no I’m doing my beast, stop you were the bees.”

The poem “Syrinx” brings in a central analogy for the rest of the book, combining body, metamorphoses, and the boundaries of sense. Using Ovid’s tale of Pan and Syrinx as a starting point, Hall awakens an intersection of touch and sound as the derivation of sensual law. In Ovid’s myth, to escape Pan’s pursuit of her, Syrinx begged the water nymphs to change her form to one in which she could evade Pan. When Pan tries to grasp Syrinx, he finds himself holding instead a handful of reeds, as Ovid writes: “and while he sighed, the reeds in his hands, stirred by his own breath, gave forth a similar, low-pitched complaint!” Syrinx’s new form is then tied together to form the panpipe, a wind instrument, so that Pan can, in the Ovid, “continue to converse with her.” Hall writes more bluntly, “Take and cut / my soft frame into parts, arrange / by size, bind by catgut.”

“Syrinx” begins with the line, “We don’t play songs here; we touch / them” and weaves together sound and the physical, referring both the myth as well as the speaker’s own desires. “Listen to the sounds / of a touched thing: a body, a panpipe.” Finding direct analogy, in myth, to the transcendence of the body into sound, able to be filled by wind only, reads like the thesis of this book. Throughout Field Music, Hall’s poems express the desire to transform oneself,

To be touched,
            ultimately, by a sickle—
            cuando remedio ya no haya—[when there is no remedy]
            and feel only the wind.


Kylie Gellatly is a poet living in Northern Vermont and a Frances Perkins Scholar at Mount Holyoke College. Her book reviews and interviews have appeared in The Adroit Journal, Green Mountains Review, and Pleiades. She is the Editorial Assistant for Green Mountains Review, as well as a poetry reader for Pleiades and Anhinga Press. Kylie has been awarded the Factory Hollow Press Scholarship to the Juniper Writing Institute, two fellowships to the Vermont Studio Center, and is participant in Tupelo Press’ 30/30 Project. More from this author →