review by José Angel Araguz
In a recent interview, poet and essayist Erica Hunt shared the following in response to a question about the best writing advice she’d ever received:
From Rachel Blau DuPlessis in “Statement on Poetics”—paraphrasing now: A poem is “bottomless,” “intricate,” and “tangible” in detail. I like thinking this is true regardless of “school” or length. Here is what it has helped me to appreciate: A poem is a work made through language that bears rereading, to discover that difficulty is never without love.Erica Hunt, interview
I’ve come to realize that these latter two concepts, rereading and difficulty, have become integral to my poetic practice. I have long considered rereading central to poetic experience. Rereading implies dwelling, lingering, becoming engrossed in the matter at hand. That we may read and reread a poem, each time coming away with more, with something different–that is poetry’s lifegiving gift. If nothing else, we reread because one can’t catch everything all at once. We look words up, try phrases aloud, wonder: Who talks like this? Life’s a cacophony we sense music out of; why shouldn’t art be similar?
The other concept, difficulty, is something that I have been slower to embrace. On one level, this reluctance seems natural. There is, for one, the early difficulty of the classroom, the way poetry is traditionally taught to be a kind of puzzle, a use of language shrouded in mystery, the poet a wizard behind a curtain, knowing more than you and deigning to obfuscate the ordinary for you to luck upon. And there are definitely poems that live up to this tradition; and this type of poetry remains teachable but not graspable, or, to use a word Hunt quotes above, tangible.
This occurrence of a poem being out of a reader’s grasp brings with it a number of connotations. On the one hand there is gaslighting; we have had whole generations believing that they are at fault for not understanding “great” poetry, which often leads people to give up on poetry altogether. This brings to mind the implication of the literal “grasp,” that there are certain people whose touch and presence around poetry would sully it. I try to dispel this kind of thinking in my own teaching practices by showing that linguistic difficulty should be embraced in good faith, that we can engage with a poem and allow it to teach us how to read it, but also that we should trust our reactions as readers as well. This good faith is a human trait, a way of endeavoring and persevering.
Finding ways of endeavoring and persevering is central to the body of work gathered in Hunt’s Jump the Clock: New & Selected Poems (Nightboat Books). Across Hunt’s lively body of work, one comes in contact with a voice able to interrogate while remaining attuned to language’s vulnerable and raw personal nature. When reading Hunt’s poems, one feels attuned to language’s plasticity at the service of connecting and not intellectual indulgence. To put it another way, her poems meet a reader half way and allow the reader space to work out meaning as well as a meaningful experience.
In her essay, “Notes for an Oppositional Poetics,” Hunt articulates further:
One troubling aspect of privileging language as the primary site to torque new meaning and possibility is that it is severed from the political question of for whom new meaning is produced. The ideal reader is an endangered species, the committed reader has an ideological agenda both open and closed, flawed and acute, that we do not address directly. On one level the lack of address is a problem of the dispersed character of the social movements in this country at present; on another level it is the general difficulty of looking squarely at the roles we play as writers in forming social consciousnessErica Hunt, “Notes for an Oppositional Poetics”
There is an instructive empathy in these words as well as in Hunt’s poems. That a poem can and perhaps should endeavor to connect but not persuade, to persevere beyond difficulty not stunt with it. In the poem “Verse” (below) one can see some of these ideas at play.
The “you” addressed here is intimate. The line breaks and phrasing trouble expectations in a way that brings a reader closer to the page. The break, for example, across the two lines “When pushed to the wall / paper our habits seem trivial” offer up a jolt of reckoning. The first line takes a common phrase “pushed to the wall” and refreshes it by enjambing into “paper.” Doing so makes the phrasing hold a noun and action in the word “paper” (that it is “wall-paper” we are pushed against; that we “paper our habits”). In light of this jolt one can feel the earnestness of the question just before these lines: “Can you see?” Hunt risks linguistic difficulty for the sake of others to “see.”
Seeing, which is to say connecting, ultimately, is at the heart of Hunt’s poetic endeavors. One sees this in the travel of the last stanza from the line “Light is composed by experience” to the line “The / light in the brain is you,” which closes the poem. This travel from statement to inward declaration holds an invitation and reaffirmation to the reader. That this act of reading and engaging with a poem is in fact within our grasps. Hunt here, and elsewhere, presents difficulty with love, and our lives are richer for it.
It’s all in profile
what the shadows cast
on the floor. Can you see?
When pushed to the wall
paper our habits seem trivial,
a record of the body’s lost accidents.
We found that we could not be strangers
anymore, nor could we pose
randomly in our affection ducking
behind a turn of mood.
Instead we carried ourselves
unrehearsed into the arms of the unexpected
Continuity, using our sense to head
where we are going.
Every story has its campaign to win.
Missing numbers, interfering digits.
We work from the beginning to the back
end tracing where the author left her
prints on the text, her surplus
divinity. And when the right word
appears out of nowhere
it leads back here.
What word were we looking for?
Fire. In this light we appear
To be doing what we want, waving
the baton with the mind. If you want
to move your feet find something
there over the bridge of your
nose to attract you. Choose your
own words to hear yourself speak.
Light is composed by experience. Without correction it stands still
and is almost invisible collecting dust. Without it, we tend to see
lumps, and not the landscape the voices of people fall out of. The
light in the brain is you.
Jump the Clock is available for purchase from Nightboat Books.