Ephemeron by T.R. Hummer Review

Louisiana State University Press
ISBN: 9780807139875
Pages: 88
Reviewed by: Amy Glynn Greacen

THE FALLACY FALLACY –

Well… as Robert Hass famously put it:

All the new thinking is about loss.
In this it resembles all the old thinking.

In T.R. Hummer’s tenth collection of poems, Ephemeron, “loss” doesn’t quite get the job done. All the new thinking is about obliteration. This is a book about death, about human ephemerality. (Is “ephemerality” a word? It should be, but I seem to remember getting knocked around by an eleventh-grade English teacher for using it. Whatever. It was a top-notch school and another teacher still told me flat out that “surfeit” wasn’t a word and docked me points on a paper. So I am planting the flag for ephemerality if there isn’t already one, because there’s no other good way to adjectivize this word, and you have to if you’re going to talk about this book.)

But I digress. Hummer’s poems are concerned with the stark inevitabilities of life: two cells into it we are already pulp waiting to happen. It’s riddled with images of shrapnel, decomposition, disease, surgery, abandonment. This book is about the indifferent cruelty – and occasionally, felicity – of the gods and of biology. There are poems about war, about killing and dying, about things that are burnt black, shot off, and all kinds of screwed up.

But then again, not exactly. To say that would cast them as bleak, depressing – and they aren’t. Stark, yes. Tough? Yes. But there’s humor in this voice, a sense of irony and slyness and – well, love for the entropic crap-storm that is our brief flicker on this brief flicker of a planet. This is a mind that sees horror and humor, beauty and cruelty, without needing to polarize them. They coexist, each playing in its own time signature and following its own rules. Hummer’s a jazz buff, as anyone knows who has read his previous book, The Infinity Sessions, so it makes sense that he is drawn to syncopation, to blue notes, to abrupt changes in tempo, to modulation.

The word “ephemera” has such connotations of airiness and windblown-ness that it feels a little weird to say this, but to me, the presiding spirit of this collection is plate tectonics. These are poems of friction: subtle but constant friction with occasional major earthquakes. Lines rub against lines, prose rubs against verse, ideas rub against ideas. Titles tug on the content that follows them. The primary throughline of this collection is an interplay between big, authoritative, conceptual stuff and small, fleeting, personal, intimate stuff. The titles are all big and bad and block-capitalized, words like “SYSTEM,” “ARGUMENT FROM DESIGN,” “SCHEMATIC,” “THEORY” – you get the drift. A few lines from THEORY:

…The form is expansive but non-totalizing.
……….It will not admit essences or transcendence.
It has no state, but is inclusive of gases, rage, plutocracy.
……….It is supercooled and volatile. In the shadow of a broken
Column, lovers lean into one another. They have already
……….Entered the second circle. By twilight, no one
Will remember the other life, its fragile music, its perfume.

See what I mean? Even the lines, alternately capitalized and indented, suggest a subduction zone, a faultline, a shifting ground. Gigantic ideas, then a telescoping to a single, anonymous “pair of lovers” who are somehow no one and everyone. And disappear.

Formally, Hummer is a bit of a trickster. Subtle and acutely aware. He’s the kind of poet who can make a staunch self-professed formal-poetry hater swallow two pages of terza rima without even realizing they’re doing it, the way you stick the dog’s medicine in a piece of meat. (There’s even a villanelle that doesn’t make you wince one little bit: the thing turns and if you aren’t at least smiling admiringly there is something wrong with you.) Yet these are also poems that flirt with prose. In some cases it’s more than flirting; they buy prose a couple of drinks and take it back to their place. There are interstitial series of prose epigrams. Many of the rest of the poems are the kind that make you scratch your head and try to remember how you define the difference. If you’re the kind of poetry reader who wants to be all hot and heavy with metaphor at all times – T.R. Hummer is not your man. His imagery is direct, and his vocabulary often a deliciously bone-dry combination of vernacular, conversational phrases and words out of biology and physics textbooks (another friction). The effect of this almost arid directness is that when he dos wax figurative it provokes a little surge of – what? Pleasure? Recognition? I don’t know, it’s (oh, say it) ephemeral.

Something also has to be said about the recurrence of invented rhetorical fallacies through the first section of the book. FALLACY OF COMPOSITION has time arrowing backward, erasing “the wreckage of history” on both universal and personal scale. FALLACY OF ACCIDENT insists on a “deep etymology” that connects disconnected things. BALD MAN FALLACY describes a sniper resting his gun sight on members of an oblivious family of women and children working and playing, the mother inaudibly singing in a language he doesn’t understand anyway. (“If you shoot them one by one, you will never kill them all.”) Reading them sequentially, I found myself thinking of pathetic fallacy, intentional fallacy, other rhetorical constructs that echo against these titles. It struck me that perhaps the fallacy was fallacy; that there’s something going on here that has to do with a wearing down of rhetoric – the fallacy fallacy, if you will.

In ARGUMENT FROM DESIGN he writes:

The failing kidney is a portal—the leaky
……….heart valve, the clot, the lesion in the brain:
All doors unlocking themselves. Likewise
……….outside the body: the razorblade,
The bottle of barbiturates, the utility pole
……….beside the curve in the icy highway,
The rifle over the mantelpiece (it must
……….go off).

This matter-of-fact cataloguing of accident waiting to happen is typical of what Hummer does in this collection: destruction awaits, either inside you or outside. The sword of Damocles hangs over each of us and somehow it all makes sense. It makes sense in its consonances (say it aloud and hear the “L” sound in failing, portal, valve, unlocking, likewise, razorblade – at which point it shifts to the B, plosive P’s I-give-up voiceless cousin; body, blade, bottle, barbiturates, beside). It makes sense in its enjambments (right down to the twist on Chekhov’s gun – not “it must go off” for the sake of drama so much as “it must go off” because that is the nature of the universe). It’s just… inevitable.

And all of this follows a first poem, the poem from which the book takes its title, in which the speaker finds himself “fifty and pregnant,” and refuses “to be ashamed of his joy.” Joy in this poem is not unalloyed (nothing is, in this book: beauty rises from bleakness and vice versa, over and over), but it’s there and it’s determined to live. The poem is addressed to the unborn child, whom he calls “zygote,” a term at once distancing and intimate, with a combination of world-weary been-there-done-that and wonder and – well, a sort of challenge: I dare you to become a person. In this moment the ephemeron is the thing too rudimentary to even be called “embryo,” (he rejects “child”). But the speaker of the poem knows perfectly well what’s coming: ephemera made solid, made real, made permanent. “…my sleeping wife is growing / a consciousness” even as he experiences a hyperawareness of his own mortality:

…the old gods’ abstract hearts contract.
……….I smell them gather above me like ravens, wheeling
Over the promise my body makes. Black-
……….hearted godhood has left them hungry.
But it is they who assemble, in the amniotic sac,
……….bits of star-grit, skeins of DNA, the holy chemistry
Of existence. What can I do but leave them to it, even
……….knowing what I know? My spiritual autobiography
Is a shambles-in-progress, my unfinished Confessions
……….a creaking stylized fiction from a distant century—
It reads like a pirated version of a bad translation
……….of a novel the young Balzac wrote, then threw away.
No god forgives such things. The gods have taste.
……….Smelling an uncouth sulfur in the aura of the coming day,
The Supreme Will wrinkles the Great Face.
……….The Gaze averts, and here’s our chance. A space
Opens—ambiguous territory, zygote. Translucent. Our place.

Is this the IT MUST GO OFF FALLACY? Nothing in Hummer’s poems is single-minded or unalloyed. Some give you a peek at the cards they’re holding while others maintain a basaltic poker face. But nothing in them is simple. A catalogue of human disaster is preluded by a beautiful ode to an unborn child, and it’s typical Hummer in its refusal to bow to sentimentality (bravo, hon) but it also refuses to bow to the destruction, decay and dismemberment that pervade the rest of the book. The speaker insists upon his moment of happiness, on momentarily defying the gods he sees as circling vultures, the details that “gather ominously;” the speaker’s own catalogue of failures pales, for the moment, beside the enormity of creating a life. Ambiguous territory, indeed. And without it?

But as beautiful an opener as “EPHEMERON” is, the blue ribbon in the “Damn I Wish I’d Thought of That” category, at least for this reader, is a pair of poems in the first section. The first is titled “EVERYTHING IN THE PAST IS A PARTICLE;” the second, “EVERYTHING IN THE FUTURE IS A WAVE.” The two pieces, for me at least, show off what is strongest in much of Hummer’s work: the combination of colloquial and technical or erudite language, the attentiveness to double-meanings and correlating sounds, the footsure enjambments, and the combination of something boldly and hugely universal with something tiny and personal and –yup – ephemeral. Even the two titles, juxtaposed, are poetry, light turned into time, which seems to collect in the space between them. Past participle. Wave of the future. Of course! Here we are, shedding light, which of course is both things at once, on the fixed solidity of the past and the unfixable, uncharitable future. The first poem is static, a particle of memory, a child pitching a passionate tantrum at a third birthday party (“crushed” is how he describes her). Hummer paints it as a sort of hotel room to be revisited at will, suspended, inanimate almost – and tiny. Personal. Intimate. Fleeting. The second poem makes you paddle out to a place that’s far beyond your depth, the undifferentiated terror of a future where anything can happen, and there’s a spooky repetition of the phrase “crushed child” which by now has a second, horrid resonance. In each, the illuminating ray points at inevitability. Something did happen, and something will happen. It’s elegant as hell.

What I find beautiful about Hummer’s best poems is the way his voice becomes drier, harder, more matter-of-fact as the emotional stakes of the poem rise. These poems are tough, and I mean tough as nails. They brook no argument (save the occasional fallacy) and they aren’t taking prisoners. They’re authoritative and questioning, mysterious and earthy, personal and impersonal at the same time. He has a talent for ambiguity (and the middle section, titled “EITHER / OR” tips its hand to this) and for friction. If any of these poems were two sticks they’d be a campfire by the last line.

T. R. Hummer is the author of nine books of poetry, including The Infinity Sessions and Bluegrass Wasteland: Selected Poems. He has been editor of Kenyon Review, New England Review, Georgia Review and Pop Minute. A native of Mississippi and longtime devotee and practitioner of jazz, he lives in Phoenix, where he teaches creative writing at Arizona State University.

Elevators by Rena Rosenwasser Review

Rena Rosenwasser
Elevators

Kelsey Street Press
ISBN: 978-0932716750
Pages: 72
Reviewed by: Sabrina Dalla Valle

 

TRANSCENDENCE THROUGH COLOR AND PERSPECTIVE

“What rules govern the traveler with only rudimentary knowledge of [the landscape]?” asks Rena Rosenwasser. Her latest book, Elevators, is a poetic expedition through cultural strata marked by traces of initiation into the “Netherworld.” These poems guide us across Umbria and the Egyptian desert to observe frescoes restored in churches and buried in dark tombs; they leave us “ululating” with an exotic lover, and finally send us on our way up a glass platform above an abstract image of Manhattan. This playful mixed-genre portfolio of deeply sensitive thoughts and impressions is organized as an eclectic collection of paintings we might find hung loosely in the poet’s study. Rosenwasser has so thoroughly examined and dialogued with the details of these images that they become a self-styled lens of art appreciation theory through which she observes her psyche’s own hieroglyphic signatures (found in the dream panorama), the slipperiness of gendered persona, and the nature of sexual desire. Echoing in the foreground of this collection is the rhythmic beat of a “sifter” sifting tangible material from experience, historical memory, and myth through a “sieve” to concretize a unified understanding of a torn self. In the background is an Eleusinian aura emanating from a primordial void where we discover the themes of dislocation and absence. And somewhere in between, there is a message.

Harkening to Heraclitus’ philosophy of non dualism–the path up and down are one and the same– the poet tells us how Egyptian frescoes reveal the multi–dimensionality of travel: “The Pharaoh Hatshepsut/ she fishes and fowls with gods./In the fresco/wears crowns of Upper and/Lower Egypt/Her envoys on a trading mission to Punt/carry gifts, baboons, panthers, incense/ Float/Up the Nile/back and down.” This reference to Eleusinian mysteries of initiation through katabasis and anabasis is our map to steer by. It is an old story repeated again and again under different forms through our strata. The daughter is abducted into the underworld by her father for part of the year and lifted to the light by the mother for the rest of the year.

As if fastidiously primed with the staunch wisdom of Ernst Gombrich’s Story of Art, Rosenwasser explores how to measure the unmeasurable in this vital tension between darkness and light: “…medieval men built towers so they could get a better view of the darkness coming toward them.” For if we indeed meet such a boundary between absence and presence, something new arises, and that is color.  So to transcend this fundamental duality, the poet leans on a schooled acumen of color theory and rules of perspective. The categories of a visual grammar–vanishing point, horizon, convergence, receding lines, hue, saturation, density, tone, texture, and intensity–imbue her poetic and psychic constructions with a vocabulary that reveals something new within the rules of her text.

We are shown that color is more than adornment. Like numbers and syntax, there is an order. What’s more, color follows the laws of physics and participates in our daily experience of increasing disassociation: “Expansion of the universe […] concerned a shift towards the red: the wavelength of light was increasing as space enlarged and thus objects were moving farther and farther apart.” The poet uses this example to show an inherent contiguity between color, perspective, perception and corporality that she wields in her striving for a hermaphrodite identity in a world where everything is a threatened woven tissue of “threads.”

In her poem, “Real Mummies Wait Out the Hours,” Rosenwasser explores the provenance of the color mommia brown: “COLOR: Mommia was used by European painters to make shadows on canvas….Mummy brown made from the ancients themselves…out of gummy liquor that exuded from embalmed flesh.” And here our poet raises the stakes; our bodies are the source of our shadow, even in artistic representation. But we are not fixed in this shadow. We can make distinctions in our self-awareness, and one point of focus is sexuality: “slide across screens of sexual suitability.” By providing “distinct details” and “intricacy,” we can tell a specific story separate from all other stories, and ground it in its own legitimacy. The multiple screens insinuate this identity as “Indefinitely Positioned: the mutable self.” Such an idiosyncratic repositioning carries one forth into full Technicolor of personal expression as motion picture.

There are, however, slices in the film; Rosenwasser’s narrative is also disruptive. The plot shifts like a snake because, “Time is a snake/ Scarab red.” Take for example her treatment of the goddess Nut, depicting a new sequence within another disrupted structure in the representation of the mythical female principle traditionally associated with fertile earth. Here the primal mother creates the starry world, and the male principle offers his body to create earth. In this mythology, the woman’s body conflates Day and Night, “each evening Nut swallows the sun/ her stretched arms and elongated legs/light travels through her body/in cut caverns/blue black sky/flesh-toned stars […]” Inscribed in this amniotic cocoon of her galactic body are all the volumes of the Netherworlds. The stars are text, and their light is like milk suckled by the many lesser gods who come to nourish themselves from the celestial mother. Light is transformed into language.

The poet’s disruption is purposeful; neither art nor the representation of the body can stand up to time. We restore the painting to resist time; can we also restore the text and image of the body? The poet questions the possibility of eidetic recall to extend life eternally. The fact that memory of the original design eludes us is problematic. “Perhaps it is already lost, and what she thinks she sees is long since gone. […] She has this need to know. What is there and what is not there?”

Rosenwasser looks through cracks and spaces that make structure breaks within the text, fresco, landscape, even within the body. The relationship between texture and text is challenged by unraveling threads of perception:

A switch of

                         positions,                                how
unstable

is
a metaphor of                  Raw skin

was
the woman                   in the screening

Being
a man                         An open ended

Chain                                      Displaced.

meaning
inside me […].”

Once we start restoring our own identity, stretching the unraveled threads anew across the great divide that frames our loom, the poet asks if we have any other choice but to stitch what was torn, create “Frankenstein’s Daughters”? These tears run deep; they structure the dream panorama, characterized explicitly by disruption of sequence, and hence the thread of causality. “The dreamer dreaming interrupts the fluid body’ sense […] I never find myself eating anything/real when dreaming.” For this poet, new patterns and shapes are not found in the dream. They are found in activities of distinction, somewhat like that of an archeologist: “The displaced location will have its sifter and its sieve.” Rosenwasser sorts through, separates and recombines material from the dark crack to transcend her own inner duality. The quality of her perception acts as a third presence. “Although there are two of us I am halted by the thoughts of threes. I make three marks […]. Is there a key somewhere that has eluded me?”

Her poetic awareness fulfills the missing element in whatever duality she travels through, like a spirit of judgment that solves for ‘x’ in the algebraic operation. The etymology of this Arabic word, al jabr, referring to a reunion of broken bones, announces the role of the external calculator–to balance and restore the broken body. Such is Rosenwasser’s ambitious and poetic mission: to find the restorer’s vantage point. “Triptychs contain these painted threads. A spiritual realm instead of a landscape.”

This unique, active poetics of perception can be described in the words of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze as “the powers of difference that draw together and assemble.” The fact that the poet steps into the stream of duality in full awareness leads her to become a conduit for that precise tension which through her act of witnessing, transports us to a newly inspired fresco of energetic fulfillment. The witness is the eye of color and perspective, the third piece in the primal tension, the restorer.

How can we trust this poet’s special authority to dissolve common dualistic boundaries with the eyes of an art critic?

“Uncontrollable emanations occur where sacrifices are made. If the alter opens and only two of the three parts are visible. The desire for the invisible other appears to leak when least expected.”

We must trust in her desires and in her poetic sensitivity to apprehend the spontaneous moment.

This desire for the invisible cultivates the poet’s sensitivity for meaning. And this is where we, as readers, find resolution to the problem of temporality, to the inevitable unraveling of matter that must be restored. Desire at all levels is a conflating energy, the poet writes of an affair she is having with an ‘exotic woman’: “There is gravity to the lightness in my body.”  She is fluid in the moment of sexuality: “Under her texture I wander like a spindle. Her tongue ululating inside my surface. I’m thrown before sound’s arrival into soundlessness.” And this is the space of the eternal.

Like the abstraction of Piet Mondrian’s grid-based paintings that spare no margins, linear perspective in this narrative is no less compelling. The final poem “Elevators” assures us that we can also find philosophical verity in the architectural design of current twenty-first century urban existence. Taking a lift up the elevator affects our perspective; we become witness to a vast concrete and steel fresco established by sets of horizontal and vertical lines coming alive through movement and dissolve. Our platform rises with “industrial urgency.” Perspective pushes the convergence lines ever flatter until the vanishing point itself disappears. We are the modern neophytes journeying between skyscraper and subway; we conflate the separation of space: “Floors/fabric of the infinite.” The poet is taking us, at the same time, beyond the horizon of our own organization of knowledge. “What was it, she thought, if the field of the painting moved outward into a horizonless space?”

Rosenwasser’s innovative documentation of her own Eleusinian journey addresses an ontological crisis in post-modern poetry, and by poetic design recovers the lost structures of layered representation from the vestiges of an incomplete knowledge.  Her text challenges the grammatical function of syntax and leads us to more disassociating energies of its broken form to show us the cracks where we might unearth our psychic artifacts. The theoretical, interdisciplinary design of this work is provocative, taking the hybrid text yet one step further.

Rena Rosenwasser
grew up in New York City where she cultivated her passion for literature and the visual arts. After graduating from Sarah Lawrence College in 1971, she moved to California to pursue graduate studies at Mills College, Oakland, where she earned her MA in literature in 1976. In 1974 she settled in Berkeley, where she co-founded Kelsey Street Press and subsequently served as its longtime director. Initially the press’s mission was simply to publish women writers, who were marginalized by small and mainstream publishers. As poets took up the challenge of feminism and the language poets, the press placed more emphasis on innovative writing practices. Between 1987 and 2006, Rosenwasser initiated and produced a series of collaborations between poets and visual artists that established Kelsey Street as the longest lived independent publisher of literature for women.

Rosenwasser’s poetry publications include Elevators (Kelsey Street Press, 2011) Dittany (Taking flight) (Mayacamas Press, 1993);  Unplace.Place (Leave Books, 1992); and three collaborations with artist Kate Delos: Isle (Kelsey Street Press, 1992); Aviary (Limestone Press, 1988); and Simulacra (Kelsey Street Press, 1986). Her first volume of poetry, Desert Flats, was published by Kelsey Street Press in 1979.

Currently a board member of Small Press Distribution, Rosenwasser has also served on the Literary Panel for the California Arts Council