Monday, May 31, 2010

Lynda Hull, Collected Poems (Graywolf Press, 2006)

At the end of last summer, I received an e-mail from a graduate student in Chicago who was working on an essay about the poetry of Lynda Hull. The student had read an interview online in which I mentioned how much I admire Lynda’s writing. Unsure of how helpful I might be, I wrote the student a lengthy reply and attempted to explain to her why Lynda’s poetry has been influential to me over time. I enjoyed having the chance to ponder this and articulate it in writing, so I thought I'd share my comments here as well.

For those unfamiliar with Lynda Hull’s life and work, she was an American poet originally from Newark, New Jersey, and she was the author of three books: Ghost Money (University of Massachusetts Press, 1986), Star Ledger (University of Iowa Press, 1991), and the posthumously published The Only World (HarperPerennial, 1995). During her late teens, she ran away from home to live on her own, and she also struggled with drug addiction for much of her life. She died in an automobile accident in 1994. Twelve years later, a volume of her Collected Poems was published by Graywolf Press.

Here’s some of what I wrote to the student in my response…

Back when I was a young gay man who'd just moved from suburban Ohio to the city of Boston for college — and who had also decidedly run away from home for good — I related to the sense that I found in Lynda Hull’s poems of having to be independent at too young an age. Her poem “Maquillage” ends with the poignantly understated line, “But that was long ago. I was only seventeen.” She was too young to be working in a bar at that age, but she didn’t have a choice, and she ended up loving it and caring about the people she met there anyway. Like so many of her poems, the tone is sorrowful and nostalgic, but breaking the syntax by putting a period into the middle of that last line saves the poem from being merely nostalgic. In a very simple and also fairly complex way, it becomes a philosophical statement about time itself, and how human relationships intertwine with and stand separate from the movement of what we call time.

There’s also the pure sense of “gayness” in her poems, for lack of a better word. Decadence, ruined luxury, drag queens, wigs and makeup and outfits, obsessions with lush decoration and artistry, exploring the world at night, the “vampire” hour — these are all classic gay symbols, archetypes, and motifs that take a prominent place in her poems. Feeling slightly tortured about all of it, upset about not entirely fitting into the normative, daylight world, yet equally able to look that world squarely in the eye. Maybe telling it to go fuck itself now and then, yet still able to find and extol the beauty in it — both the sordid and the authentic beauty. One of Lynda’s closest friends, the writer Mark Doty, has quoted Lynda as saying that she sometimes felt like she was “a gay man trapped in a woman's body.” I’m able to experience a sort of cross-gender queer kinship through reading and deeply relating to Lynda’s poems.

The poet David Wojahn, Lynda’s husband of ten years, comments in the foreword to her third and final book, The Only World, that “the ferocity of her poems comes not from sorrow and defeatism but from a hard-won and urgently expressed spirit of wonder.” Without question, that’s the aspect of her work that’s most significant to me, and the aspect that I feel makes her influence perhaps more present than any other writer’s when I think about my own poetry. The sense of wonder that her work conveys, while being just as honest about the world’s harshness, offers the reader a kind of redemption or reprieve from that harshness. When I was 20, I craved that feeling of relief and understanding, even if I had to get it from a book. It also made me want to write poems that showed the cruelty of experiences openly, while making an even greater effort to demonstrate, to myself and others, why exactly that cruelty might be worth enduring.

Perhaps that’s one reason why I knew intuitively to keep myself away from alcohol and drugs. I knew that I needed something to take the edge off, and that my desire for that relief was dangerous in itself, so I feel lucky to have found my outlet in poetry and written expression, in reading and thinking, in music and in movies and art. In a way, Lynda Hull’s work gave me that gift. Having lost and suffered so much herself, she gave me (and many other people) three books to save me, an alternative to the real dangers that the darker world can offer, which will bring only more suffering, as she had learned too well.

But back to the beauty and wonder, and more specific comments about a few of the individual poems. Desire is at the root of Lynda’s work, and in some Eastern philosophies, desire is also a primary cause of suffering. Yet why does something that makes us feel good also cause pain? Should we show the enjoyment or the pain more? Because she was such a fine poet, Lynda Hull knew well enough to show them both in equal proportion.

The first poem in Ghost Money, “Spell for the Manufacture & Use of a Magic Carpet,” is no coincidence; she introduces herself by weaving a litany of enchantment. She knows her body of work will be a dark joyride under the stars, though as we careen across shattered buildings and desolate, post-industrial cityscapes, what we see spread out beneath us may not always be comforting. But it will always be exhilarating, dazzling, and a sort of prayer: "Ask then / to discover the secret thing you seek, / gazing out always over the diners and arcades / to the cities of New Jersey rising / white, small beyond the Palisades."

I think Lynda Hull’s three books of poems are structured like music, something I aim to do with my own books. They’re somber song cycles. They’re also symphonies, with the requisite internal movements. The three poems that close each section of Star Ledger — “Adagio,” “Utsuroi,” and “Black Mare” — are brilliant in their subdued tone and precise placement. Each poem is centrally concerned with surrendering one’s self: to addiction and pleasure, to change and transition, to unavoidable loss. I don't need to shoot up heroin because “Adagio” shows me exactly what it feels like, just before the poem surrenders, in its haze of hallucination, to the next section of the book. “Utsuroi” fully embodies the ineffable Japanese metaphor of “delicate transition,” becoming a delicate transition itself. And “Black Mare” relies on skillfully arranged, irregular repetition to evoke the quietly dramatic end of a relationship (“that / terminal hotel” where “it was never warm”), an inevitable close that precipitates inevitable regret, just in time for the book itself to close. These are a composer’s strategies, a musician’s strategies. From the standpoint of cinematic montage (edits, jumpcuts, slow fade-to-black), they’re a filmmaker’s strategies, too.

I’ll close with a few thoughts about her final, posthumously published book, The Only World. When I once read the opening poem, “Chiffon,” to somebody whom I didn’t know very well, she curtly responded, “Why does it have to be so realistic?” My take on it is that when Lynda was being “realistic” (heatwave, gang rape, etc.), she was brutally so, the same way the experience itself would feel. That’s one thing good writing does; it conveys directly and specifically. In “Rivers into Seas,” she won't turn away from the starkest unpleasantness: “How rats swam to their raft, soaked cats, spirits / she said, ghosts....” Nor will she turn from the starkest, simplest moments of beauty: “Voyager afloat / so many months, banks of sunflowers he loved spitting / their seeds. Tick. Black numerals on the sill.” (That poem is dedicated to Wally Roberts, Mark Doty’s partner of twelve years, who died of AIDS-related complications in January of 1994, just months before Lynda.)

Because I love how expertly she “times” her endings, the closing poem in Lynda's final book, “The Window,” is my favorite of her poems. I think that most of what she was trying to accomplish in her work is consummately encapsulated in this poem. Again, we find the rhythmic repetition, the slowly unfolding cinematic montages, distant screeches of trains threading through the night, invading our dreams, alone with only our memories of the past and those who've peopled it, “[l]iving on nothing but injections & vodka, a little / sugar." As in “Black Mare,” the final poem of Star Ledger, she knows it’s the end, she knows that someone’s leaving. And at this particular, terminally infinite point of departure, she knows that she herself is the one who’s leaving: “Soon, soon, I shall stop upon that platform // & you will meet me there, the world rosegray beyond / the scalloped tops of buildings & we shall seek / that thing which shines & doth so much torment us.”

Compare those last couple of lines from her poetic career, “& we shall seek / that thing which shines,” to some lines from the opening poem in her first book: “Ask then / to discover the secret thing you seek.” By the end of her life, Lynda had figured out where she wanted the trajectory of her body of work to go, while remaining under the mysterious spell of longing itself. Her three books together form a perfect, hallucinatory, fantastical circle, a circle that remains open even as it seems to close. If only all poets could aspire to this demanding level of structural integrity. That intricacy is part of what makes her books so meaningful to me.

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