Sunday, August 8, 2021
Awarded the prestigious Juniper Prize from the University of Massachusetts Press in Amherst, Stardust Media was released in April of 2020, right after the world had initially shut down for our ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. After living through the past year and a half of intermittent lockdowns and quarantines, vaccinations and their days of after-effects, continually exhausting news cycles, and widespread social interiority as we all retreated into our own private spaces, the deeply insightful poems in Stardust Media now make me feel like it’s a prophetic book. Thematically, Pugh’s focus throughout the collection fixates on our contemporary networks and technologies, the various forms of social and visual media that connect and separate us simultaneously. Her stance is equally one of openness and resistance to the types of sweeping changes that those technologies have brought to our culture and to the art that we create; the poems are both engaged critiques and participatory observations. Pugh does not exempt herself from our digital landscape, which would be the easy decision for a poet to make. Rather, she endorses and questions earnestly her own place within it, which doesn’t mean, of course, that her own position is always comfortable. When one of the poems in the book is titled “I Don’t Know How to Make a Website,” we know the sort of interrogative and self-reflective territory that we’re in.
That particular poem, actually, is one I’ve kept returning to, mainly for its direct association with Robert Frost’s brilliant sonnet “Design.” Pugh’s poem counterpoints “website” with “web-sight,” and a contemplation of spiders and the secret hazy cobwebs they spin opens the connection to the “dimpled spider, fat and white,” holding up a moth on a white heal-all in Frost’s poem, an image that encouraged Frost to wonder about the origins of its symbolism in one of his greatest questions: “What but design of darkness to appall? — / If design govern in a thing so small.” Pugh’s own response couldn’t be any richer: “An if around design, that / white heal-all, keeps haloing the web-sight.” It’s a perfect metaphor for Pugh’s poetry itself, a kind of literally intricate web-weaving, suspended up in a tucked away corner for those who seek it out, softening the angles of the room, gauzing our gaze as we sharpen our vision to see it more clearly, in order to match Pugh’s artful vision. She guides her readers to that point and trusts them from there.
Perhaps that’s why, a little bit later in the book, Pugh tells us straightforwardly that “Frost would have junked the telescope.” As much as she looks outward (at nature and art, at color and light, at shape and texture), she’s essentially an inward-looking writer, a poet of complex human nuances and details. “I love my life in a nautilus shell,” she writes in one poem, plainly and revealingly. That’s not to say I would ever situate her with the people of our current younger generation who’ve tunneled and burrowed so far inward via social media. Pugh’s book is titled Stardust Media for a reason, instead of some other brand of more familiar or less evocative media. The collection’s title poem, which takes its epigraph from Cocteau Twins’ vocalist Elizabeth Fraser, pushes toward the boundaries of the transcendent that we most often find through music, and certainly through the Cocteau Twins’ songs that devise their own language; “the Sirens would have / never sung in words — so their semitones / unspooled the way that bodies pool and crash / together, raptured after sex.” Other well-known musicians appear throughout the book, from the realms of pop, folk, blues, and alternative rock: Kurt Cobain, Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, Charley Patton, Steely Dan, and most transfixingly, in a sequel to the book’s title poem, Ian Curtis of Joy Division (“he reached for / a magnetic field from far within that foaming [. . .] // place a stone inside / the music”). Together, they all provide a sort of under-voice for the collection, or maybe they even loosely cohere as a disparate chorus of the underworld, an inverted heaven that the book’s title again seems to suggest.
If those aural spirits provide Stardust Media with its haunting soundtrack, then the volume’s plethora of visuals construct for us its endless chain of glowing screens of every size, our handheld devices and laptops with their luminescent wallpaper. Early in the collection, “Smartphone Inlet” presages that trend through a deft comparison of embroidery to texting, reaching back for contrast through history to eras when “women / would brood like robins on inchoate / letters pulled airily from cloth,” but whose “words were never / lit from within, the way that ours are.” Pugh dances back and forth from the clack and chime of a manual typewriter’s carriage in “Toll,” to stolid Ohio barns along the interstate highway (“Sky-blue / with white roofs. Wait, isn’t sky-blue brighter / than any sky you really see?”), to a meditation on Krzysztof Kieslowski’s cinematic masterpiece Blue, to “the promiscuity of television,” naturally, “its screen, I mean, since it flickers to anyone.” And so our present-day technologies are met in Pugh’s poems, ultimately, with a democratizing embrace, although more tangible physical artifacts also maintain their foothold: Italian Renaissance art, handcrafted lace, Luigi Ghirri’s photographs, James Turrell’s geometrical lightscape installations, the spotlit set design accompanying a stage production of David Lang’s composition “Where you go,” which inspires a moving dedication to Pugh’s husband, Richard DelVisco (alongside echoes of another major theme of the book, the recent death of Christina’s father).
Saturday, July 10, 2021
The poems and themes in the book are beautifully consistent with those in his three previous volumes, and having now read through Blue Wallpaper twice, I’m more convinced than ever of Robert Hamberger’s permanent place in the canon of English poetry. His mastery of the sonnet and other poetic forms, along with his limber command of the line in free verse as well, should secure his position in a literary lineage that makes me think of the great World War I poets Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke, and Siegfried Sassoon, and perhaps especially Edward Thomas, who crafted some of the most perfect formalist poetry in the English language. In the case of many of those poets, love between men is frequently central, as it is in Hamberger’s writing, too.
Blue Wallpaper opens with “The lesson of sand,” one of six subtitled sections that give the volume its intricate structural solidity. The seven sonnets in this first section of the book are elegies in remembrance of Hamberger’s mother, both in her younger years when she resembled a glamourous Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca, and in her later years struggling with aging and memory loss, when Hamberger would visit her regularly at a care home: “I stay for an hour, watching the lesson / of sand giving way again to sea.” It’s a precise and careful metaphor that encompasses so much: time as it slips away from us, our delicate human relationships under the power of something greater, yet also bearing witness to the traces of our lives that still remain after the waves have washed over us and receded again.
Similarly, in the book’s wistful second section, “Coming home,” Hamberger reflects back on his family relationships from his youth, etching an indelible boyhood memory of a lost brown jumper with a yellow camel on it, which his mother had knitted for him before his father “went / the way of camels and palm trees.” Hamberger is always adept at lifting these sorts of tokens of memory back up into the light and showing them to us in their vivid and moving resonances: listening to “Dancing in the Street” by Martha and the Vandellas up in his bedroom as his mother shouts for him to turn the music down, memorializing an injured war veteran and “cloth-cap tenor” who would serenade for coins in the streets of their neighborhood, and detailing an older gay man with a “citrus scent / he must have sprayed at his wrists and throat” who chatted him up during the intermission at a screening of The Sound of Music before Hamberger’s mother ushered him back to their seats. One of my favorite poems in the book, “Mr Muxworthy,” gorgeously recalls Hamberger’s schoolboy crush on a handsome teacher who “peeled off his shirt in front of us / that time before gym, baring his hairy chest, / its tangled fascination, elbowing himself / into maroon and yellow stripes, / ready to shout at us to run and run.” Then the poem pivots towards darkness as Hamberger imagines climbing inside the man himself, to “tunnel to the trees barred by his ribcage, / stroke the smoky branches there.”
The fabulous third section in the middle of the book collects seven sonnets by Arthur Rimbaud, adapted by Hamberger from literal translations by his husband Keith Rainger, ranging in subject matter from the leaner socioeconomic life of poets in “My Bohemia,” to a colorful meditation on the vowels of the alphabet, to the hilarious “Arsehole sonnet” that pays riotous tribute to that particular part of the human anatomy. I was reminded on several levels of Robert Lowell’s 1961 book Imitations, his terrific collection of loose translations and re-imaginings of poems by a wide array of famous European writers throughout history, which included several renderings of poems by Arthur Rimbaud as well. The powerful fourth section of Blue Wallpaper, “Golden dragon,” turns to poems about mythical and natural creatures of various kinds: a kestrel spotted out on the patio (“that head a claw-hammer”) making a meticulously violent meal out of a fledgling starling, a lobster wielded on a silver platter in a restaurant “like an armoured warrior” (with deft echoes of Elizabeth Bishop’s warrior in her poem “The Fish”), right down to the very last fly of winter “uselessly fussing against glass.”
“Husbands,” the book’s fifth section, features a wide and attentive array of love poems. I was riveted (and also reminded of legendary gay performance artist Leigh Bowery) by the tender scrutiny of Hamberger’s poem “Becoming a Lucian Freud nude,” a semi-self portrait of an aging male body seen in a long bathroom mirror: “Blotches, moles and blemishes / map my years / in coral, oyster, pink,” and yet because every sign of age is also evidence of survival, Hamberger rightly proclaims by the poem’s end, “Victory’s here.” The final section of the book, “Being the sea,” re-traces Hamberger’s move to Brighton, where he settled after a series of major life changes recounted in his previous collections. The contemplative “Unpacking the books” locates Hamberger’s place on the bookshelf amongst the poets he admires, while “35C” maps the interior of his living space in relation to the world outside of it. “The AIDS memorial,” one of the finest poems to arise from the aftermath of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, remembers twenty years after their deaths Hamberger’s close friends, the artist Clifford Haseldine (one of whose paintings appears on the book’s cover) and Clifford’s partner Andrew: “Tonight your names / join a list at the service. / Couples and singles cup their flames / by this floodlit memorial. / Once I’m numb from too much snow / I’ll kneel before the sea’s crashed gardenias.” The title poem of Blue Wallpaper, which closes the volume, envisions the poet himself poised again at the edge of the sky and the ocean where “I’m here and a hundred miles away; / this morning and fifty years ago / roll together.”
Sunday, June 20, 2021
One aspect of the Provincetown Film Festival that I always love best is how it makes me feel like LGBTQ+ life stories, and particularly those of gay men, really matter and still have a significant place in our ongoing social discourse. As the world has continued to progress and change in profound and crucial ways over these past several years of remarkable cultural upheavals and political action, I’ve sometimes wondered how much our collective experiences as gay men have spoken to people inside and outside of our own community. The artistic and communal events at the annual film festival in Provincetown help to promote and fortify a world and a future where those stories will continue to matter in shaping society and our own directions within it throughout the coming decades.
Sunday, June 13, 2021