Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Christian Hawkey, _Citizen Of_

AS A FAN of Hawkey's first volume, The Book of Funnels, I was looking forward to this one, which I have only now gotten around to (it came out last year).  I will certainly be on board for the third.

I have some questions -- why the extra-large "O" in the word "of" on the book's cover?  Not merely an accidental design feature, I'm guessing, since other "O"s centered by themselves on an otherwise empty page demarcate the sections of the volume. "O"s also saliently occur in a few of the poems, not only in its usual (and here obviously self-conscious) rhetorically poetic role ("O my / beloved star-nosed mole / can I clean the soil / from your black, sightless eyes / [...]") but also as an image:

The black hole was not aware it was a hole
until it was uncovered. Then it became

a manhole, through which I fell through,
over & over. I tried to move the hole

but there was another hole
beneath it, which I fell through,

over & over, an O.

That's from "Hour," specifically the poem so titled on p. 82 -- there are eleven others titled "Hour," and another five with "hour" in the title, e.g., "Hour of a Mouth Packed with Flowers."  Is this the "O" a clock face, the twelve poems titled "Hour" the twelve hours marked on a clock face, the five...

Ehnnn.  Never mind.

Cleverness of some description is no doubt going on, but what kept me reading is the sheer power of Hawkey's verbal invention from line to line and poem to poem.  You literally can open the book, plop your finger on the page, and be relatively confident of finding something new and arresting.  One I liked, from "Debouchment as a Form of Stereognosis":

At least the bird's brain was focused
on something, something precisely the size of its brain.
[i.e., "a small grain of blonde millet"]
He closed his own eyes.  He gave it a try,  It was a vague,
gelatinous shape, like a milk-eyed infant king, or a huge collapsed pore
but that was as far as his lens would zoom.

"Stereognosis" means discerning the form of an object by touch -- is our man here trying to achieve knowledge of his own mind by imagining handling it?  It seems a Hawkeyan enterprise, I would say -- "The Enterprise," by the way, is the title of the volume's final poem, separated from the rest by its own "O", and in which the speaker seems both on the noted starship of that name and on a journey to the remoter provinces within his skull.

"Milk-eyed infant king." I don't know why I love that, but I do.

"Debouchment..." continues, "I pulled back / my forehead from the glass." This sent me back to a poem earlier in the volume, "Unwritten Poems," with the lines, "Another was little more than a smudge / left behind by a forehead resting / on a pane of glass."  Surreal Hawkey may be, but he certainly notices a lot -- not just the smudges on windowpanes, but the reasons they come to be there.

Also loved the way "Alien Corn" riffs off a phrase from Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale" in a way that uncannily evokes another Keats poem, "La Belle Dame Sans Merci."

I occasionally hear complaints about the quality of contemporary poetry -- those people just aren't looking hard enough. 

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