Tuesday, May 27, 2008

 

Christian Hawkey’s verse is very fast & very smart & never very direct. Here is “Unwritten Poems” from Citizen Of, published by Wave Books. It is, I think, the most conventional poem in the book.

One was tied to a fence post, bawling.
Another was little more than a smudge
left behind by a forehead resting
on a pane of glass. A third
was traumatized, during childhood,
by a water pick, while another formed
a deepening fetish for the rudders
of submarines. One had a bloodshot eye,
one eyelash left, while another poem
was a cell phone, hurled into a toilet.
One poem was arrested for excessive
public prayer; another,
excessive pubic hair. One
fell in love with the word “prong.”
One was a necklace of living bees.
One moved like a grasshopper
trying to outrun a lawnmower.
Another bushwhacked in the nerve-factory.
One spent the entire poem holding,
out of boredom, a socket wrench
up to its eye socket, while another
argued vision is a kind of invisible
suction action. This particular poem was unable
to pull its eyes away from the TV.
This poem a round, golf-ball-sized hole
in the back of its head.
This poem the light
shining, when it sleeps face down, from that hole.

By conventional, I mean that it reminds me quite a bit of the contemporary post-surreal poetics that lately have come out of Europe (think Tomaž Šalamun), and to a lesser degree some of the American poetry that has taken that for its inspiration. But where most American versions of post-surrealism tend to follow the dumbing down School of Quietude principle of one poem = one idea, precisely what makes soft surrealism soft if not positively limpid, Hawkey is jumping around all over the place, and does so with a specificity of observation that makes you root for him even when he slides into the too-easy half-rhyme of public prayer / pubic hair. In this regard, Hawkey reminds me of nobody else so much as Frank O’Hara, a poetics of ADHD turning constant movement into a perpetual dance of the mind. I know from the very second sentence – a terrific moment of observation – that I want this poem to work, to win me over, to keep me enthralled to the very end. If I waver after the prayer / hair passage, I’m roped right back in with “prong” – and the truth is I never waver much in the first place because I’m so happy to see him using a semi-colon, that rapidly disappearing gem of punctuation.

And that, to my mind, is the weakest poem in this extraordinary book. Here is something more typical, entitled “Hour”:

My chest is a kind of topsoil
it always slips off in the rain
it has drawers for every insect
I tuck my head into my sternum
a rapid beak nibbling is the
most efficient form of preening
there are glands in my cheeks
I know nothing of how they work
although I am drawn to rubbing them
against the tips of car antennae
fence posts the end of a big toe
often I bite the skin of my arm
and let go the indent is a circle
of books my skin a shelf
submerged in the air it marks
the border of an island
how happy for the land to have an eye
a string of islands is a beautiful sight
the ocean uses them to spy on us
this puddle just winked at me
Donald doesn’t like me anymore
his chest is in my teeth
he reads me to sleep at night when
the wind floats the house out
from under my skin into the stars
eating so many holes
in the island the sky the weather
a sweater falling apart in my hands

Here the shifts are faster, even as the text continues schema – biting, the body, islands – through many of these changes. As with “Unwritten Poems,” the test is one of specificity & accuracy of observation, whether comic (“my head into my sternum”) or strictly observational (“this puddle just winked at me”), tho it is interesting to see how the focus now moves in both directions, to the nuances of a phrase, and outward toward larger schematic terrain (e.g. chests, of which there is more than one). The poem comes to a terrific conclusion because of the near-rhyme of weather / sweater in the last two lines (extending the t to a th is a move of considerable elegance), the image itself mocking the text of the poem.

At its simplest, a book like Citizen Of can be read as a kind of Tigger poetics (flouncy, bouncy, fun fun fun), and so long as you’re not somebody incapable of reading poetry that doesn’t adhere to the social realism of an Auggie Kleinzhaler or Ted Kooser, this book is one delight upon another. One thing that Citizen Of does that works quite well is to go long, ever so slightly, coming in at 126 numbered pages, 140 if you take front matter & signatures into consideration. One doesn’t quite recognize just how much poetry is equivalent to the idea of “small book.” Of the nine terrific volumes from the William Carlos Williams contest that I haven’t yet reviewed (Citizen Of being the tenth that I have), seven are under 100 pages, and that’s pretty typical even for an award that explicitly excludes chapbooks. (Maybe it’s not coincidental that I gave the award to a volume that was 284 pages long, tho there were others just as long that were total cringers.) Citizen Of is quite aware that it conveys a vision, even if it is, if not daft exactly, very playful indeed, especially in harrowing times. As a result, I know that I’m going to be reading everything Christian Hawkey writes.

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