Beautiful Possibility: Lesley Jenike on Kristi Maxwell’s Hush Sessions


Hush Sessions, Kristi Maxwell, Saturnalia Books, 2009

The “Sessions” of Kristi Maxwell’s Hush Sessions suggests repetition and progression, play and improvisation. When a musician, for example, engages in a “session,” he/she is at work on something temporal. Process becomes the reward, and in Maxwell’s masterly second full-length book of poems, the splendid minutiae of domesticity and intimacy are the score.

Hush Sessions is a collection that springs from a lyric tradition particularly interested in the materiality of language and its very real impact on our social lives, interior lives, relationships, ways of seeing, and means for collecting and cataloguing information, but Maxwell finds new ways to unravel, unpack, and riff on a repeated idea and/or image. The equations here move laterally instead of vertically. Hush Sessions’ pages are “fields of action,” allowing for the repeated image/lexicon to unravel in unexpected ways. I won’t fail to mention Williams’ other important dictum in respect to Maxwell’s verbal prowess: “poems are machine made of words.” In Maxwell’s case, the poem is the body and the body is a machine; why not take it apart to see how it works?

The book is comprised of several longer poems or poem sequences. The first, “Log of Dead Birds,” exemplifies the book’s general penchant for verbal dissection. The language of disembodiment suggests the speaker’s own fragmentation: a body reduced to parts:

I apologize if Xmas offends you.
I would have written out Christmas
but it is Xmas in my log because
very little space between margins—
these are not childbearing margins. (3)

First Maxwell plays with “margins,” intimating the physicality of language, the word made flesh. That the speaker should be reduced to a “nest” of sorts undermines her authority and ability to be brief, move quickly, and keep recording. It would be too easy to say the poems cloak themselves in a range of ambient but cagey dictions (picked up as a receiver picks up transmissions) in order to mask a deeper wound; instead, these are poems that manipulate language in order to achieve autonomy.

There’s something positively alchemical, too, about Hush Sessions’ conflation of “nature” and the physical realities of the body with the more ephemeral stimuli of technology, conversation, travel. What once meant separation and division now means an expansion of experience so that the mundane and mechanical aspects of the speaker’s life become opportunities for the intellect to play: “The claim isn’t I see more, but I notice / more of my seeing—i is my needle inside bird— / I draw meaning” (5). The poems’ self-reflexive tendencies struggle for a language that yields, bends, and flies; there is desire here for movement and expansion. Even grammar and syntax becomes sensual, of the body: “An asterisk between us: / the symbol used to mark a structure believed to have existed, but un- / recorded, or recorded incorrectly” (9).

The third long poem, “Like the Earth, 2/3rds Water,” is an intriguing meditation on impending loss and projected loss. It’s a loss, nevertheless, that’s felt and conjured again and again in puns, jokes, the (mis)heard and (mis)interpreted: “my ovaries attempted paper rock / scissors but could only manage rock” (23).

Maxwell’s humor is dark and sly. Hush Session’s capacity (intentional or unintentional) for deflection and misdirection hints at a deeper sadness throughout, but it also offers, on a more positive note, freedom and reinvention. In many ways, this is a fundamentally joyful book. As a feminist poet, Maxwell not only sees language’s constraints, she also sees its potential liberties—one of the collection’s many qualities I admire.

As the book progresses, the poems increase in line-length and in structural complexity. Soon they are juggling jargon related to quizzes and questionnaires, even algebra and logic, to delineate love, marital and familial relationships. “Dominant,” for example, manipulates the language of science (and genetics specifically) so that the more poignant observations on marriage and divorce are masterfully integrated into the poem’s fast-paced, dark humor:

“He’s a husband made up of wife molecules—
molecular ceremony:
(n.): a group of [humans] [legally] bonded together, representing the [most
restricted] fundamental unit of a compound that can take part in an
[amorous] reaction” (53).

There is a tremendous mind at work in these poems, a mind constantly engaged in its own game of question and answer, static and clarity. The book ends in a powerfully lucid lyric moment with “Seasoned,” a shorter poem affecting in its treatment of love/art because it eschews the end product for process—an artist’s process. In structure, the poem banks on the subtle shifts in meaning a repeated line and repeated simile can bring:

How can you kiss me like paint when I ask
that you kiss me like paint

without my saying over wood
over canvas/skin/the bin where murals are laid
like a bale in a barn, a veil during
the trying on rather than pride of

the dress” (62).

As the above excerpt illustrates, Hush Sessions is a collection filled with beautiful possibility.

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