For nearly 30 years Tim Hunt has been toiling in the trenches at the base of Mount Parnassus, mainly as a scholar devoted to publishing Stanford-University-Press editions of Robinson Jeffers’s poetry. Hunt’s critical study, “Kerouac’s Crooked Road,” initially published in 1981, has just been reissued by Southern Illinois University Press in March 2010.
With a Ph.D., a wife, two kids and a history of holding down teaching jobs from coast to coast, Hunt is no spring chicken. The crooked roads he’s crossed now find him professing at Illinois State University in Normal. He appears to be as normal a guy as anybody you’ll find between Bangor and Sebastopol, but he’s actually a sexagenarian harboring the heart of a boy not much older than 16.
Nostalgia may be an old man’s excuse for no longer kicking up his heels on Saturday nights. For Hunt it is the sequence of timeless moments that hold him in hopeful thrall, like a moth over a flame. With bittersweet delight and yearning, in his debut volume, “Fault Lines,” poem after poem revisits his prodigious past. But unlike that madeleine-mad Frenchman who spent almost a third of his 51 years confined to a cork-lined room, Hunt’s search for lost time has taken him to his father’s stomping grounds, Lake County, tucked away like a mini–Shangri-la inland north of the Bay Area. Of course his poems also return to where he grew up in Sonoma County—to the vicinity of Calistoga and Healdsburg—before their vineyards became ultra-gentrified by the 1980s, along with those of Napa County, already renowned as a viticultural mecca. Nowadays, while Governor Schwarzenegger is lamenting how the Great Recession has devastated the Golden State, Hunt reminds us that “The swaybacked barn, / like the eucalyptus, / seems always / to have been here.” Never mind that eucalyptus trees are not indigenous to California but were first planted on the Coast during the 1850s by people from Australia, where they grew in abundance.
The point is, “the eucalyptus / seems” to have been eternally a part of the landscape’s mystique. Hunt’s poems, so systematically plainspoken that they seem to completely eschew literary operatics, are in fact dreamy as midsummer nights. Hunt suggests this in one of his best pieces, an italicized prologue (whose structure coincidentally resembles that of David Ignatow’s in his stellar seven-liner, “The Sky Is Blue”):
for Leslie Wykoff
“How clear,” my friend asks,
“is it okay to be?”
Do you remember
waiting for the yellow bus
standing a bit apart
from the others
the muddied water
of the puddle
a skin of morning ice.
That’s how clear.
It’s not as though Hunt aspires to sound like the Chicago blues legend, Muddy Waters. But neither is he, at least in “Prescript,” committed to pellucid photographic realism, the kind associated with certain West Coast visual artists who started painting gas stations and freeways a few decades ago. Still, it’s interesting to see that nearly half the poems’ titles in his first section, which mainly happens to focus on his beloved home state California, abound with epigraphs in parentheses, such as “California Coast (Sonoma County),” “High Desert Valley (Summer, The White Mountains, California)” and “Leavings (Cattle Ranch, High Desert, Eastern California”). Far from muddying up his canvases, Hunt takes pains to indicate their setting, to tie them to, say, some local epicenter of the San Andreas Fault—the final word of which comprises part of the resonant, self-deprecatory pun in his book’s title. If Hunt sometimes resembles a latter-day, early-1960s saint of deep imagism like Robert Bly, he takes his cue from James Wright, who undercut—or overlaid—a Rilkean epiphany with the matter-of-fact, homespun title, “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.”
I wouldn’t go out on a limb and call Hunt’s poems derivative; that branch would break! As I see it, this book has allegiances, unavoidable and certainly not problematic when they enhance the work, rather than overwhelming it. Book-cover blurbers as distinct as Michael Davidson and Mark Jarman have pointed to Jeffers, Willam (Brother Antoninus) Everson and Gary Snyder, all of whom lurk somewhere behind “Fault Lines.” I’d like to add John Steinbeck to that list. The author of “The Grapes of Wrath” could be the Harold-Bloom Freudian papa of Hunt’s “Fleeing a Dust Storm: 1936 (Cimarron County, Oklahoma).” Then, too, Elizabeth Bishop’s ghost appears to float over the first lines of “Fishing”:
I cannot speak directly of
the wonderful mouth without words. . .
Despite Hunt’s intent to describe words in this self-reflexive poem that uses “fishing” as a metaphor, I was willy-nilly drawn to Bishop’s description of her “tremendous” fish’s lower lip “—if you could call it a lip—“ and mouth burdened with “five big hooks.” Similarly, the final lines of “Masks (Berkeley, California),”
There are reasons to hurry, reasons
to believe it matters where we are going
appear to pledge allegiance to Mark Strand’s last lines in “Keeping Things Whole”:
We all have reasons
to keep things whole.
In Gently Read Literature I’ve already mentioned how the so-called Plain Style has dominated a great deal of mainstream contemporary American poetry; Tony Hoagland may be the most prominent current proponent of what William Stafford once referred to as “Talking along in our not quite prose way.” I won’t belabor my point again, except to say that Hunt’s toned-down grassroots verses, sparsely sprinkled with figures of speech, at times offer up zingers. In a poem that celebrates a festival honoring Jeffers and Everson, for instance, Hunt totes out more than an iota of sarcasm when he describes the fabled city of Carmel, California—where Clint Eastwood once served as mayor—as “a gauntlet of boutiques.” Hunt’s elegy for a wounded World War Two vet, “Above Fort Collins (Summer, 1972),” begins, “So thin, he was like a whisper walking” and goes on to depict gunfire in Normandy on D-Day: “the sound after the bullets tore him / was like looking through binoculars from the wrong end.” (Move over, Private Ryan, this ain’t no Steven Spielberg flick!) One of my personal faves, “Home Again,” goes way beyond nostalgia in its poignant and, for me, Andrew Wyeth–like opening stanza:
How saggy those springs must have been
if even then I slept rolled to the wall and twisted
as if uphill in the too-thin blanket
in that room with the worn wallpaper,
the bare bulb, the twirls of the cheap metal bed—
a visiting child’s restless sleep.
Or else, among several self-reflexive poems, Hunt takes a bracing coffee break from his long-lined, hardly longwinded, local landscapes and portraits:
It is not the letters
the matted white
of the page
as they try
and reedy vowels
Rather, it is
motion, the hand
riding the waves
as they spill
up the beach,
then lace out
into the sand
bits of shell
that mark the tide.
For me this poem’s first stanza is a hard act to follow, and the second, in its conventional beach imagery, disappoints, though I cotton to “lace out.” Obviously, I vote for Hunt when his imagery is offbeat and his diction offers up tidbits like “blatty.”
I’ll have to confess that I found the book’s second section, except for the masterly “Home Again,” the weakest of the four. I counted no fewer than a dozen uses of the word “old” littering the 12 poems in section two. Hunt’s preoccupation with “old gums” (page 38), “old bumpers” (39), an “old woman” (40), an “old man’s mouth” (42), “old wood” (43), “old names” (44), “old people” (45), “old words” (46) and so forth is something that I, no neophyte myself, understand. An obsession with oldness is central to Hunt, having grown up in the 1950s, needing to quote lyrics from that splendid 1917 golden oldie, “Darktown Strutters Ball,” which, thanks to Les Paul and Mary Ford, was still popular in the middle of the twentieth century; to this day it still echoes in my mind all too often.
At least the word “old” is inconspicuous in the book’s other three sections, even if Hunt has an inordinate fondness for the logistical and chronological terms, “here” and “now.” He likes the adjective “tiny.” He sometimes ends interrogative sentences assertively with periods instead of question marks. He frequently prefers the genitive over the possessive case, which makes for wordiness and many “of”s. Plus, he loves to use variations of the verb “weave” like a leitmotif, as in “weaving / this page into ours” (61), “the world we’d woven” (62), “the simple weave of things” (66), “my feet / weaving left over right” (67) and “two black men all but naked / weave in and out” (80)—as well as ending his book with the lines, “weaving / an unraveling cloth / of touch” (99). It’s a relief to come upon the line, “A story is a kind of knitting” (73) in a lovely poem about Hunt’s daughter Jessica’s play stove when she was a child—right across the page from a doozy about another war veteran, Verdon “Spur” Spurlock, whose very name is like a bell.
Sure, this book has its excesses and oversights, but most of them are as endearing as they’re annoying. I found nothing between the orange paperback covers of “Fault Lines” to be truly off-putting. Hunt’s poems are minus the pretensions that poetry readers and audience members at readings time and again have come to expect, for example, the putting on of airs when a poet plasters his verse with polysyllables, arcane allusions to Wittgenstein and descriptions of exotic nooks in Guangzhou, which the poet visited on a MacArthur genius grant. In fact, Hunt hardly advertises how ingenious he is. His aim has not been to wow us with what he’s learned at Cornell studying for his doctorate under Such-and-such or So-and-so. He’s read enough Jeffers to know that America has settled in the mould of its vulgarity, including the vanity of poets bent on impressing us with their greatness. Maybe Hunt wouldn’t go so far as to say, like Jeffers, that he’d sooner “kill a man than a hawk”—and thank goodness for that! Thank whatever gods may be for Hunt’s love for homo sapiens. His TLC has given us portraits of twentieth-century men and women, pioneer types we’ve already relegated to the Stone Age, now that we can ogle reality shows and “American Idol” on TV.
Although you’re undoubtedly not the grieving Italian daughter named La Figlia che Piange, Hunt may teach you, as one multilingual modern poet never did, to “Weave, weave the sunlight in your hair.”
James (“Giacetto”) Reiss, who wrote a long poem that begins, “Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita / Mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,” was born in 1265 in Florence, Italy. www.jamesreiss.com/