Ephemeron by T.R. Hummer Review

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


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.


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.