review by José Angel Araguz
One of my favorite things about poetry is how it can not only detail an experience but also be an experience. The intimacy of language to be known and shared between us, to be changed and yet hold despite the changing, speaks to the human experience in a way that is simultaneously of the mind as much as the body. In Radiant Obstacles (Wipf & Stock 2020) by Luke Hankins, one encounters a poetic sensibility aware and after such simultaneous experience.
Take the poem “The Night Garden,” a short lyric which engages with some of these ideas despite its brevity:
I am the waterer of the night garden.
I can hardly see.
I water what I remember
In four lines we have a narrative and a turn that defines that act of remembering. That alone is stunning. But what makes the poem speak to the human experience is the parallel blurring implied by the fact of the poem and the poetry within. The fact of the poem sets a two-line narrative about the night garden; the other two lines, then, reflect back this narrative as the ephemeral act it is narratively and in language. The garden that can barely be held in the speaker’s vision is parallel to what the poet has rendered for us on the page. Through brevity, clarity, and thought, Hankins is able to evoke an intimacy similar to the remembering the speaker engages in.
Radiant Obstacles is threaded with such moments of intimacy that acknowledge what lies beyond language. Whether it’s empathy felt by a son for his father with whom he shares a phobia of enclosed spaces and, despite it, accompanies his father on an elevator, or the acknowledged humanity shared between a bartender and her regulars, Hankins’ work is able to meet the concrete world with its rough edges and linger long enough so that new meanings give over.
This work after the various intimacies implied in language is approached at times indirectly via formal choices. The poems in this collection range from prose poems, short lyrics, and indented open field experiences across the page. One dynamic outlier in this vein is “That Than Which” which finds Hankins taking a quote from Anselm of Canterbury and repeating it over and over, each repetition shuffling the order of words and adding to them. The experience created in this experiment is dramatic. Where the epigraph holds as a solid construction of sense, the statement’s reconfiguring via the poem works away from that sense and into other senses. This approach on the part of Hankins evokes another type of intimacy, that of language as something both shared and constructed, able to adhere to and diffuse meaning not just in his handling but in our being along for the ride. What makes the poem remarkable is that the experiment, rather than shutting us out, welcomes the reader into its wrestling with meaning.
And yet, “wrestling” may not be the right word here. Through a kind of lyrical volley and parry, Hankins invokes the idea of language as a “radiant obstacle” in and of itself. As language fails to connect fully yet consistently draws us to it despite this failure, each poem is an endeavor on both the part of poet and reader toward exploring what can be found through being thwarted thus. “Tree Rings” (below) is a good example of what I mean. Here, the speaker meditates on both language and trees; by doing so, he explores the ways humans imbue themselves on the world, and vice versa. The difference being, however, that it all remains a one-sided conversation. Much like prayer, these ruminations ultimately lay bare the richness and sorrow to be found in the human want for a connection beyond ourselves.
Here is a history that does not concern you,
a making apart
the imposition of form, a shapely
patient expansion, except not
patient because it is mindless.
But you cannot help regarding
the sawn trunk allegorically
(devoted becoming, then the desolate
crash through other limbs).
Do we not also expand ourselves
and thus can speak of the slow
sorrow of the trees even though
we know they are not sad,
not slow, except in
our perceiving? It is enough
to perceive a thing for it to bear
the force of truth.
the hillside stands of trees driving
minutely upward through mindless
centuries. Their jagged symmetries
and the soft new leaves,
the supple branches giving way
to the wind seem just like us,
though they are not.
Question: How would you say this collection reflects your idea of what poetry is/can be?
Luke Hankins: My poems have frequently been criticized—especially in an academic setting—for being “overly” abstract. But many of the poems, both historical and contemporary, that impact me most profoundly share a deep engagement with abstract idea and reasoning. That’s not to say that those poems don’t usually engage with the concrete as well, but that they clearly revel in and deeply depend on idea in a way that, say, an Imagist poem does not.
Concretion has for decades been the accepted American poetic doctrine—and, yes, it is an important tool that novice poets typically need to learn. But it’s emphasized to such an extent that our poetry gets bled of complex thought, and consequently we risk losing our very ability to engage with abstract thought.
T. S. Eliot wrote that for John Donne an idea was as immediate as the scent of a rose. I worry that we stand to lose that capacity of mind. My poems attempt to revalorize idea and the ways that language can operate in the abstract. My poems are not devoid of concretion by any means—and some are entirely concrete. But as a whole they intentionally lean on abstract constructs.
Question: There seems to be a distinct conversation happening through the range of formal choices across individual poems—some lean toward direct narrative, others evoke rapturous undertones via indented lines, while still others engage with repetition. Was this intentional? What formal aesthetics do you see this book reflecting?
Luke Hankins: The variety of stylistic and formal approaches my poems take is certainly intentional. I could discuss the thinking underpinning the different approaches, but I prefer for readers to form their own opinions and reactions in that regard. What I will say is that I often tire of poets who write poems, year after year, that are essentially interchangeable in terms of voice, stylistics, and formal characteristics. Naming names is generally frowned upon, but he’ll keep making money, so here I go: Does the world need another Billy Collins poem?
I don’t intend to settle into a formulaic approach to writing poems. Each poem, for me, must be a venture into uncertainty—of voice, of idea, of form.
Luke Hankins‘ most recent poetry collection is Radiant Obstacles (2020). A volume of his translations from the French of Stella Vinitchi Radulescu, A Cry in the Snow & Other Poems, was released in 2019. He is the founder and editor of Orison Books, a non-profit literary press focused on the life of the spirit from a broad and inclusive range of perspectives.