We’re in this together, at least we should be: Tammi McCune on Bob Hicok’s Words for Empty and Words for Full

Words for Empty and Words for Full, Bob Hicok, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010

This review refers to the Kindle Edition

In Words for Empty and Words for Full, Bob Hicok widens his wildly associative and quirkily humorous style to tackle large and messy issues of contemporary American life. In ruminations on our ailing economy and endless state of war, on the ravages of cancer and violence, as well as the ebb and flow of relationships, Hicok doesn’t tread new ground as much as he extends beyond the intimacy and wonder at the ordinary of his previous work. In his customary leaps of logic and long, unconstrained lines punctuated with wordplay, pop-culture, pie charts and even a crudely-drawn map, Hicok shares our concerns and leads us on a winding but insightful journey through the hows and whys of our bad-news-filled days. The poems in this most recent book, his sixth, are the art of a more mature, smartly humorous and humane poet than was revealed in earlier collections.

Hicok’s poetry layers associative flow and image on a narrative base and with a conversational voice confronts real life. A range of knowledge, from astronomy and myth to linguistics and philosophy, appeals to our intellectual side, while Hicok’s compassion for people and passion for peace embraces our shared human experience:

…doesn’t it seem

like every second, if you stop, has this whole life

inside it that is so completely yours,

it would die without you dying to never be

without it? I want to live to be three hundred

and sixty two.


A colleague at Virginia Tech teases that Hicok is becoming famous, for a poet, and besides his many awards (Guggenheim Fellowship, National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry, Pushcart Prize, etc.) and the number and speed at which he publishes, Hicok’s poems are readable and likeable because they are accessible, but also imaginative and surprising; because they confront our difficult realities, but are playful; because they are emotional — hence human — but not sentimental; because they are intelligent, but unpretentious; and because they are socially engaged, but personal.

Although he’s now ensconced in academia as an associate professor at Virginia Tech, Hicok previously spent 20 years in the automotive industry in Michigan, while writing poems. As in his other collections, Hicok’s wife, parents and dog make appearances in Words. In the opening poem, “In these times,” he uses his own family to engage our struggling economy: “My sister’s out of work and my brother’s/out of work and my other brother’s/out of work.”  Intoning the frustration and wide reach of the current recession, the poem voices for many in this situation, “could you, I don’t know, maybe send me,/ I hate to ask, a few bucks?”  The poem’s conclusion compels us, especially those of us who have “never had to make that call,” to compassion and even to aid:

… I’m only praying

you listen to the theory

that how we get to be alone

is how we work to be together, since there are stars

inside your thumb, your breath,

and how you say yes or no is how they shine

or burn out.

Hicok‘s poems draw us in with their large vision and genuine concern for our world and for America’s soul — not in a preachy way, but in a “hey, we are all (lost) in this together” way. He regrets our tragic, numerable failures, but finds a glimmer of hope in connection and in change. In “Foreign Dispatch,“ the election of America‘s first African-American president inspires him to think “of exclusion…/that there’s less of it now, more ways in, more places/to enter.”

Sometimes the cup is half empty, sometimes half full. Though we are lost, we are not without hope. Working beyond narrative and with an insistence on things — cows, clouds and aardvarks, the sky, stars, and Michigan — Hicok reflects with wordplay, weirdness and weight on our multiple battlefields, serial killers, sex, politics and the Holocaust, and with care, some prodding, and often humor, we arrive somewhere around “hope, I have hope, somehow/hope.”  (“Meditation on a false spring”)

Hicok’s tempered optimism is also evident in “Go ____” in which he invokes the rally cap, a turning inside out of your favorite baseball team’s cap to “presto” a change in luck:

Say it is possible that I hate you.

Say it is possible that I love you.

Say that we’re going to vanish and we know we’re going to vanish

but we haven’t vanished yet and we know we haven’t vanished yet.

What this leaves is time — another inning, a near-infinity

of generations, of fucking things up

and fucking toward knowing more than we know now.

Words is divided into four sections. The first, third and fourth sections encompass bank bailouts, global warming, dying languages, the weather, abortion, gorillas and more. Humor surfaces especially when Hicok delves into discomfort: “We were doing algebra then each other then cocaine/then aerobics broke out like acne/upon our thin souls and my point is/we need a better phrase than shit happens.”

At times, Hicok’s associations lead to ramblings, losing us in an insistent “I,“ but despite these few distractions and a tendency toward dark moments, he exhibits a sensitive eye for relationships, as in the beautiful love poem “A wedding night”:

…she will breathe all of these

when she leans over him, drapes his face

with the night of her hair, the curve of her

falling to all sides, from a center, from a moon,

from an asking, from a giving, from now on.

The second section of Words gathers eight poems about the Virginia Tech shootings of 2007. The shooter Seung-Hui Cho was in one of Hicok’s writing workshops. In these poems, Hicok writes of and through grief, asks the painful questions, and voices guilt and anger, “… Maybe I should have shot the kid/and then myself given the math. 2 < 33.”   One of the most powerful images in the book is a vision that reappears as Hicok tries to “go on” with daily life: “I’ll sense a parent some states away/dropping to the floor… .”

Words is more than ponderings and more than further examples of Hicok’s skill at beginning here, surprising us around to there, and then bringing us back a bit sideways of where we started. As in his previous work, the poems of Words reach for understanding of our lives and times, but beyond understanding and critique, these poems call for accountability in how we care for each other and our world. Words calls us to connection and to action without being pedantic: “The only answer I want when the night taps me on the shoulder/and asks, did you try, is yes, yes sir, hard and double hard/and harder still.”

These poems emphasize the essentialness of language to our humanity. Language distinguishes us from the animals, but more importantly separates us from the monsters. For Hicok, the Virginia Tech shooter’s “un-saying,” his inability or refusal to communicate, especially when contrasted with his recorded ravings, is central to his character and his horrific acts.  As Hicok concludes in the book’s final poem, “A Primer“: “Let us all be from somewhere./Let us tell each other everything we can.”

Words attempts to articulate the poet’s job in society, and many of the poems speak directly of the act of writing. “Watchful“ allows us to witness the writing and revising within the poem itself, and we are included in the process —  ours and the poet‘s work as parallel:

this isn’t an ars poetica — it’s what we do,

all we do, essentially, that dogs do not,

butterflies do not; see a thing and draw it

to another thing, make them clash and kiss, knit, gather.

Although Hicok confesses some doubt regarding his job in “Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down,”

I promised myself

I wasn’t going to do this, no one listens

to this kind of poem anyway

it might as well be a sermon or the side

of a cereal box …

we are reading Hicok’s kind of poetry, and hopefully we are listening and will consider closely Words for Empty and Words for Full’s call for connection.


Tammi McCune currently lives in Hyderabad, India.

A PLENTIFUL WORLD: RL Greenfield on Russell Edson’s See Jack

See Jack, Russell Edson, University of Pittsburgh Press

I discovered an American master of wry fairy tales and gnomic wit coupled with consistently elevated blasphemies only yesterday. Of course I knew his name, Russell Edson, and had checked his books out before. But it was yesterday I was finally awake to finish a book of his (See Jack) and feel and know the author’s unique gift. I whipped through this fascinating book at one sitting (and read each poem twice, and sometimes three or four times). It’s beautiful and accurate stylish and rich in its promiscuous and utterly elegant use of the English language. It is also wildly comic and oddly gracefully obscene and post-surrealistically absurd.

Things do unexpected things in Edson’s dynamic cosmos of unexpected forces which behave in a most contrary and defiant manner upsetting every canon of predictability and order. The Idea Of Order At Key West is turned on its nose by Mr. Edson who cracks open the new egg of the post-nuclear age of catastrophe to reveal new creatures who are pretty crazy unless you live in the child’s world of eternal imagination and hallucination—the universe obviously occupied by Mr. Russell Edson. This guy has a load (lode?) on his mind and he finds ample opportunity for his characters of all species, notably, inanimate objects, to come to life and especially engage in the multiple forms of sexual intercourse abounding in the universe with any available mate— including walls, couches, musical instruments—you name it. Everything seems to be in love or at least in hate with everything else including itself. Edson’s is a plentiful world.

There are plenty of chances for each and all to score a good lay, kill a nasty king or, in the prophetic words of Dr. Hannibal Lecter at the conclusion of Ridley Scott’s movie Hannibal, “try out new things.” Dr. Lecter was was offering that counsel to a little girl sitting next to him on the plane to whom he was also offering a sample of human brain as a snack, unbeknownst to her. Mr. Russell Edson is somewhat like that—utterly and dangerously uninhibited, erotic. Ah, French, with a slice of Descartes wedded to a piece of the Marquis de Sade throw in some shit balls from fairy tale land, add a cup of urine, and two fresh tablespoons of semen from a bull-cow or horse plus some drippings from the mons veneris of a princess walking the strip in Las Vegas. Chop, stir & shake. Put in blender: grind, blend & liquefy. Pour into glasses. Drink. Serves the entire company. Repeat with double & triple doses. Add Viagra, salt peter & latest aphrodisiacs according to individual tastes.

Mr. Edson is a master of the refined forms. His elegant techniques lead to the Palace of Debauchery & the Temple of The Reversal Of Cosmic Habits & Attitudes. Anything can happen & does in the Russell Edson cosmos. His world is the new Metamorphoses which continues to evolve every time we turn a page. This is one of the most surprising books of poems I have seen in years. Call them prose poems. They are miniature 21st-century anti-fairy tales with a consistently rigorous intelligence at the controls. When is the last time you picked up a book of poems that you could not put down until you had absorbed the last poem in the book? Well, here is such a book.

Lynn Emanuel’s Elegies by Deborah Bogen

“Something about art/ And its opportunities:”

the dig

then suddenly

Lynn Emanuel is the author of three books of poetry, none of which can be described simply as “a collection of poems.” They are poems making an argument, a triptych with a project. What that project is has been the subject of inquiry, essay, and interview. It is a discussion complicated not only by postmodern sensibility but also by the inventiveness of Emanuel’s work, the startling use of repeated imagery and narrator intervention, and by the speaker’s often glib tone undercut by a seriousness of purpose that stands up and shouts at the reader even as the poem’s text seems focused on witty commentary.

There’s no doubt that Emanuel is interested in what she calls the “bookness” of a book, the features and limitations of narrative and in postmodern practices that create in the reader self-consciousness and a sense of separateness from the author and the text. This essay will argue that the central project of Emanuel’s three books is an examination of what art can and cannot do. There is a critical moment in each volume where the unavoidable appearance of real elegy, elegy that is profoundly personal, filled with human sorrow and a loss is not amenable to the kind of linguistic manipulation that creates distance and coolness in much of the rest of the text.

In 1995 Emanuel’s first two books, Hotel Fiesta and The Dig were re-released in one volume by University of Illinois Press. The cover art is an Edward Weston photo of a double-headed toadstool, the sort of thing a knowledgeable mushroom hunter might look for in a cemetery, the sort of thing that is ambiguous in nature being attractive, elegant, and possibly poisonous. The photo, owned by the Carnegie Museum of Art, is strikingly appropriate for a book housing two texts obsessed with the making of art and its relationship to issues of death. The volume’s prologue, “The Politics of Narrative—Why I Am a Poet” has become famous as a stingingly clever complaint about prose writing, but in addition to what it says about prose, it also introduces the underlying subject of Emanuel’s inquiry: what can art say about life—and death. Emanuel uses fast-paced prose to complain that prose, obsessed as it is with narrative, is boring, tedious, and too much work for little reward. Likewise, although her poems make liberal use of cinemagraphic effects, her narrator goes on to tell us movies are even worse, and then she slyly slips in a word about her real interest. “So, please” she admonishes the reader, “don’t ask me for a little trail of breadcrumbs to get from the smile to the bedroom to the death at the end, although you can ask me a lot about death.” Emanuel tells us quite a lot about death and loss and art’s relationship to both; this is her subject.

Hotel Fiesta opens with the story of a drunken, unlucky, love-enslaved mother frying trout. It’s a little film clip, the narrator recording details but communicating no strong feeling. Even the one moment of identification (“When I drink I am too much like her”) feels easy, non-threatening, this is a piece of art that seems to be an introduction to a narrative, to a story the writer will tell us. Yet, just as we are ready to hear that story, the next poem changes the subject. “I have imagined all this:” it tells us and proceeds to relate an entirely different mother/father scenario, one in which the parents are in love and living in an artist’s loft in New York. Emanuel has clearly established the book’s terms. There will surprise, dislocation, and art (Rothko painting roses, an Arshile Gorky exhibit, her father painting models, a self-portrait). There will be memory, invention, and dreams. There will also be two fragile, moving elegies. This particular pattern, imaginative elegance and artistic performance followed by elegy and death will continue as Emanuel moves through the next two books. And this is her order for in Emanuel’s books the elegy is followed, not preceded by death’s final silence. More art, more imagination and splendid creative license may follow that silence but it will not mitigate or explain death. It will not soothe, sustain, or comfort. It will make no peace. Because Emanuel is Emanuel, the artistic postmodern poetry-fest will continue to fascinate and compel us, but it will not solve a single problem, least of all the one she articulates in “Self-Portrait”: “Despite my lovely diction/I am going to die/ Lying on an iron bed in stocking feet.”

So what about the elegies? The first, for her grandmother, “Elegy Written in the Vowels of Her Name”, opens with a reference to Roger Van Der Weyden’s Portrait of a Woman, an artistic reference Emanuel’s readers could not find surprising. The swift connection made between this exquisite painting and the grandmother is the kind of thing Emanuel does, linking art and life, pairing two images the reader would not have thought could be paired. However, here the grandmother, rather than demonstrating a likeness to the cultured and self-possessed woman in Van Der Weyden’s portrait, is described as “broken-hearted”, and “stunned by stroke”. For a writer with Emanuel’s ability to use fresh and unexpected language these phrases are remarkably bland. Rather than setting the grandmother off from the ordinary, making her the special type that could be represented by a wealthy cultured woman in a Burgundian gown and 15th century Flemish headdress, they ground her and her grief in the decidedly unglamorous. Here glamour, in the form of yachts on a “blue unvoyaged bay”, sails away from her as she sits with a bowl of dried beans in her lap. She has been felled as so many are, broken-hearted and stunned and death is not even necessary to accomplish it. Although still here, she’s had a stroke, she’s gone. And the voluptuousness of Emanuel’s language and imagery is likewise curtailed. She is forced into a straightforward telling of this narrative with its sorrowful ending. The original connection claimed to Van Der Weyden’s subject now seems romantic and rueful. Here there is heartbreak and defeat leading as it must to a stillness that cannot be enlivened by art.

The second elegy, “Looking for the Old Rosebud Cemetery” is more oblique, more telling, and more desperate as it opens with “there is nowhere to go except this detour…” Here is the artist whose powerful imagination and prodigious talents have not saved her from an almost certainly unrewarding search for her dead. That search leads to a “Beautiful dead end. Where are you?/ I stop to let things stand clear…”, another stillness defining the artist’s limit. Here is grief too deep to name. No words to embellish or illuminate. No glamour, authorial control, no linguistic tour de force. Here she can’t make anything happen. Instead she sees sparrows, the most common of birds, eating millet thrown out by an unknown hand. There’s nothing to do but drive “back blind to Denver.”

The Dig, Emanuel’s second book opens with another strong poem of invention, “Stone Soup”, in which the speaker is so powerful she not only invents her parents, she then makes them make her. This double-strength creative act does not even seem difficult, although it may be tedious. She has set herself a task, inventing a mother holding a cooking spoon, and conjuring a father from a coat, conversation from talk of “labor and wages.” The figures that show up here, the train, the father’s mustache, the sagging overcoat will be part of Emanuel’s repertoire not only in this book but through her most recent book, Then Suddenly, but here they initiate an orgy of ambiguous story-telling, possible truths, probable inventions, dramatic stories full of unsavory characters and spectacularly heightened moments. Emanuel even adds to the mix, giving us another speaker, a knowing voice that comments on the poems and the poet, calling into question not only facts but also the author’s intention. Throughout this artistic display, Emanuel includes poems that stem from her preoccupation with death and loss: “What Grieving Was”, “What Ely Was”, “What Dying Was Like”, “What Did You Expect?” and “What Heaven Is.” These ontological inquiries are set against poems that make claims about art: “A Poem, Like an Automobile Can Take You Anywhere”, “Inspiration”, “The Poet in Heaven”, and “For Me at Sunday Sermons, the Serpent”. Thus, the tension between what the poet can do and what she is bothered by increases, and in the serpent poem she declares her allegiance. Let small town sermons ring in the background, let her grandmother stand on the porch calling her home to chastity and a soupy dinner, the poet has answered another call to adventure and exotic transformation. Art is the invocation of glamorous costumes and journeys to decidedly non-western locales. Art is “the way out” and the talented whip of language that can get a reader to see drinks as “dim lagoons beneath their paper parasols” and the movie screen blonde as “a blizzard” is at her disposal.

Even so, elegy interrupts the action. Midway through The Dig, an elegant and subtle elegy makes a joke of her escape from non-artistic concerns. The grandmother actually dies, and suddenly “That was not the summer of aspic/ and cold veal….” Although in “Drawing Rosie’s Train Trip” the poet has just finished an act of pure artistic control her grandmother’s death brings her back to Ely, Nevada or somewhere much like it where “We were not poor but we had/ the troubles of the poor.” She is once again at the effect of causes that are beyond control, “She who had been that soft snore/ beside the Nytol, open-mouthed,/ was gone…” As a child the poet understands little, “somewhere/ there was a bay, there was a boat,/ there was a scold in my mother’s mouth.” She confesses to what is another universal at such times, “…everything came and went/ in the window of my brief attention.” Here there is no art to create focus, no writerly bag of tricks or transmutation. There is loss, a failure of understanding and a numbing sense of dislocation.

In Emanuel’s third book, Then, Suddenly, the interrupting nature of elegy is absolute, called out in postmodern fashion in the poem, titled “Halfway Through the Book I Am Writing.” Emanuel has been explaining how this book-construction thing goes, and what our role is, and hers, and how they may become convoluted but that in the end the author

will be making the important decisions. Early on she tells us that in the book “We want to feel half of America to the left of us and half to the right, ourselves like a spine dividing the book in two”, but in “Then, Suddenly” our centrality is undone by the death of the father. This is not a constructed father or fatherly archetype but the specific father of the poet. In fact, Emanuel’s father did die while she was writing this book and it’s important that she has mentioned this is interviews, that she considers this fact relevant to our understanding, since she is on record as finding inquiries about Raoul and the Ely, Nevada adventures in her books annoying and somehow inappropriate. Emanuel uses a text from her first book as an epigraph for this deeply felt poem, “This is the wonderful thing about art, it can bring back the dead…” and her choice underlines the sarcasm of that claim. Here the art is not bringing Dad back. He is interrupting the art, complaining about it, complicating it. He is usurping the poet’s control, unhappy with the poem-about-the-train, directing Emanuel to add a museum filled with dadaist-surrealist paintings. And as if in response, Emanuel finally does include Soutine’s “Le Boeuf Ecorche”, a painting of a butchered cow. In stark contrast to Thomas Gray’s elegiac “lowing herd winding slowly o’er the lea” we have the dead cow image Soutine created by keeping a carcass in his studio, painting it daily with real blood to make it look fresh and natural. This was a how-to problem of craft for Soutine and it’s also one for the poet: how do you deal with the dead? The father is a corpse she can neither bury nor or keep alive. “I’m alone and dead” the father complains. “Father, there’s nothing I can do about / all that.” the poet responds. The poem ends with the squeak of a phoebe, a small bird recalling the sparrows that were the only sign of life in the poet’s search for the Rosebud Cemetery.

And this is where Emanuel makes the big move—the big non-move. She gives in. She writes “The Burial” in which she lights a fire and settles in to the task of writing about the problems the father’s death has produced. She is conscious of what she is doing, “I bend over the sea of keys to write the poem/ about my father in his grave” but she is unable to maintain a postmodern sensibility of distance and control. “This is as far as he goes” she tells us, “I stand at the very end/ of myself holding a shovel… an instrument for organizing the world;…” but the father “droops as though he were under anesthesia” and the poet’s “left hand grows/ cool and sedate under the influence of his flesh.” Here the poet’s loss of control is stunning, her left hand no longer knows what her right hand is doing. It’s a moment of complete collapse that results in the father’s true burial, “My father drops in like baggage into a hold.” There’s nothing to do for him, “The body alone, in the dark, in the cold, without a coat.” Whatever difficulties they had cannot now be resolved. The poet goes on to tell us his fate is one she “would not wish on my greatest enemy. Which in a sense, my father was.” Here is truth, loss, strength, and resolve. When it comes to the final question, to the death that awaits the most gifted, talented, and insightful among us we must stop short, at the very ends of ourselves, our ways of “organizing the world” useless.

How is it Emanuel does not despair? She follows this heart-rending duo of poems with “The Instruction Manual”, opening with “How-to on how to read this?” In it she recommends by demonstration a pro-active spirit. She invites an argument. She’s bossy and arrogant, daring you to respond, to recover, to make something of this scene in which “For one thing, there is no you.” She tells you “you’re the dog” and “Aren’t you sorry.

There is no more. No place./ Just blank page, white space, void with a splash of voice.” She issues a challenge and it is our job to rise to it. As the book continues she morphs into a dictator out of control, willing to “open a vial of gunfire” on her characters, then dipping her brush into the “lush grotto” of their blood to create a woman in a red dress. She takes the image of the cows, potential figures for the acceptance of death as a kind of going home, and makes of them “divans with hooves”, staggering “under the weight of being the furniture/ of desolate remembrance.” She suffers a relapse in which her father returns to bother her, but they are on better terms. “My dad looked great / buried in his tweeds from the Denver Junior/ League.” Forcing herself to admire a tree she describes one as “spiffy” and “impudent”, but unable to stay with the project ends up admitting she likes it because it reminds her of herself. She’s adding fuel to the artistic fire aware she may be “pushing [her] luck with the stove…” but she is engaged in her investigations that continue to lead to her real focus. “Even a fire needs/ a challenge. These days, what interests me most, / I can see, is the disappearance of matter,” which of course leads to the death that is most personal—her own.

In the poem “She,” Emanuel finally has it out with the body. While her defense of the postmodern aesthetic is lively and ambitious and while the body is admiring, even fascinated by the postmodernist’s control and creativity, in the end, artistic argument is without sufficient force. “…let’s face it…” the body tells her, “no matter what you say the body wins.” And so it does, and has and will. What Emanuel has done is mark out the possibilities and limitations of art in relationship to that fact. She’s described a territory in which we may make the most of things, in which we can create, argue, exert ourselves and chortle our own existence. We can in postmodern fashion reconsider the rules, try new attacks, and holler at each other across a crowded room. We can be the noisy active animals we are, but for each other, she says, perhaps the most we can do is acknowledge deeply our shared predicament. In the elegy for her father, Emanuel says “Dad, I will be with you in…” This is not a generous volunteering to accompany the father in his fate, but rather an honest statement of a reality. This is how things are. We can’t wriggle out of death even if we are clever enough to make of memory or narrative or belief or experience an extravagant facsimile. Emanuel demonstrates that to infer from an ability to manipulate a text the ability to avoid a certain factuality in life, the beginning, middle and end-ness of our stories, is a mistake somewhat on a par with a child’s complaint “but that’s not fair.”

Thus we have a poet who is unafraid to claim her powers but willing to acknowledge their limitations. In the book’s final poem, also called “Then, Suddenly”, Emanuel’s poetry tour guide complains of a sort of failure. Under the sun she has created “poetry readers saunter home / almost unaware that they are unemployed.” In spite of the prologue’s declaration of intent she hasn’t really left the reader that much to do. Although her artistic control has been absolute, she’s found herself leaving “the little trail of breadcrumbs” so the unsophisticated can “follow along.” In consequence, she decides to deconstruct the project, erasing her creations, both “People-I-Know” and strangers. She cunningly undoes the scenery, winding up rivers and dismissing those elegiac cows.

What’s left? Famously, she claims to “renounce all matter,” to be gone herself, leaving only a voice giving a poetry reading—another warning that we should remember what’s going on here. Let’s keep it real, she seems to say, and it’s as if she is mirroring Stein who used “the patriarchy as a tool to bury the patriarchy.” Emanuel uses an undeniably postmodern poem to undo the postmodern world, down to the unplugging of the bees. Let’s play the project out, she says. See what happens when we keep the pedal to the metal and don’t blink. And indeed something has been accomplished. Emanuel claims, “Reader, I have made our paths cross!” and she has done that, succeeded in keeping us from fusing our identity with the writer’s, from identifying totally with the poet. We remain conscious that we are reading a book someone else is writing—we are still ourselves, separate from this audacious virtuoso.

Just as importantly, a certain sentimentality narrative is prone to, with its trite storytelling and misleading sense of resolution has also been avoided. This matters for as the poem’s epigraph tells us, “All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling” and genuine feeling is certainly not enough for Emanuel who in “The Corpses” warns against using the dead to “prop open the plot” in which we dowse the dead with bullets, killing them over and over. She wants something more from poetry, something smarter and tougher. She wants more, and so in her book she has accomplished another crossing of paths. In Emanuel’s work, the postmodern and the narrative projects also intersect. To make art of this calibre it is necessary to employ the strengths and beware the limitations of each. Art is not only about imaginative illusion, she shows us. It is underwritten by the need to confront in some way our individual and collective fates. To do this we have to avoid falling into schools of thought of all sorts – most especially any that claim to have figured everything out. In short, we have to stay awake. In a poem titled “On Waking After a Dream of Raoul,” Emanuel speaks to us from the “Order of the Holy Ghost Retreat and Old Age Home” where she has crash-landed and found herself forced to recover in the company of old men who have ended “mortgaged to a ghost.” They are vague uncertain characters who have in some sense lost their grip. They never expected, she tells us, to be “living in a place like this.” And we know what she means. None of us did.

“Something’s filling you with bodiless light”: E.K. Mortenson on Michael McGriff’s Dismantling the Hills


Dismantling the Hills, Michael McGriff, University of Pittsburgh Press

McGriff’s prize-winning volume, Dismantling the Hills, is the type of collection that makes you feel badly about yourself as a poet. It is so deceptively simple that one easily says, “Sure, I could have written something like that. I mean, sure, I live somewhere I could have described. Sure, I know people who work in that place, some of whom even lost their jobs, too. Sure, I can write like McGriff: there’s no real clever work going on here.” One could say that, but of course, one would be heartbreakingly wrong.
The problem is, Dismantling the Hills is actually a deceptively complex volume. It is a collection of poems of place, set almost entirely in a small factory town in Oregon on the Pacific coast. McGriff delivers the sights, sounds, and smells of this coastal area replete with teeming life and the oftentimes dismal weather. But there is majestic beauty in these descriptions, and it is clear that McGriff honors this place as a place—not as mere setting, but as a distinct element of his verse. Take this, from “Ash and Silt”:
On nights like this I close my eyes and feel
the Chevy’s radial tires hug the fog-line

when I drop below sea level
and the dike rises at my side. The slough swells

as the moon pulls salt into water. I hear the creek running
beside the road, the way it pours

under the logging bridge my grandfather built,
the muck emptying into a sinkhole filled with cow bones

and old tires. I feel the weight of log rafts at low tide
and think of the boy who lived on this corner,

how one night he shimmied raft to raft,
slipped between the logs and never came back.

This poem traverses so much ground in its sweep: it begins in the speaker’s present, then casts itself back twenty years earlier with the speaker and his father traveling along the same road. It returns to the section above, replete with the deepest sense imagery I have read in some time, which, itself, returns to the past with the brief history of “the boy who lived on this corner” being lost beneath the log rafts of the bay. That brief story functions to return us to the initial question the speaker’s girlfriend asks: “Think you’ll leave this place // when you’re dead?” Of course, McGriff’s whole volume is a resounding “NO” to this question. As the speaker here reveals in the middle of the piece, “it must be clear our days ahead and behind are one, / that everything we touch clings to its own ghost.” The poem closes with the speaker’s realization that he will join that neighbor boy: “I’ll stay with my own under that filthy water / that sucks the light from all the stars.”
As early on in the volume as “Ash and Silt” appears, it serves as a theme for all of McGriff’s poems in this volume. He presents us with people inextricably tied to this part of the country, unable to leave their wasted homes, unable to make a go of it in this place. In “Buying and Selling” McGriff introduces us to an unconventional family unit:
This father and daughter
sell wood by the cord
in an empty lot
by the nickel plant.
They sell rugs
that hang like cured skins.
Wolves, dream catchers,
rebel flags. They sell
bumper stickers
and used fishing poles.

We meet this pair, living on the margins of a marginal town, selling refuse barely more wretched than they. As this short-lined poem progresses, however, it comes to a powerful conclusion that strikes me as hard as a poem in similar form: William Carlos Williams’ “The Widow’s Lament In Springtime.” In that piece, though the woman’s grief is clear from the outset, we are somehow unprepared for the massive despair of the ending, even given its short lines. Here, McGriff packs the same punch, perhaps even harder. As he describes the father and daughter, living out of their Buick, we learn that the father tells his daughter stories. Therein lies the ultimate heartbreak as McGriff relates:
In the oldest story he tells,
he’s commissioned
by Kublai Khan
to sail one hundred bolts of silk to Jerusalem
and return with a vial of holy water
to the Empire of a Million Horses.
But this is the story
he doesn’t tell: a girl
on her father’s shoulders,
how he trades
a heap of copper wire
for a full bottle of penicillin,
so the girl
eventually drifts back
into the port of her body
on the edge of the charted world.

We feel for this family, both of whom, it strikes me, live “on the edge of the charted world.” Even in such misery, what wouldn’t the father give for the only person he has? But, to McGriff’s impossible credit, there is never a whiff of sentimentality for these folks. We feel for them, to be sure, and we are meant to, but McGriff always honors those who people his verse. There is a grim resignation they have that keeps them just out of the muck that is so often described in the volume. Perhaps it is because the people we meet in Dismantling the Hills never feel sorry for themselves, we never feel the need to feel sorry for them. In “Entering the Kingdom,” we find that
A woman sits in the middle
of her living room
surrounded by stockpots
filling with the ceiling’s
brown rainwater and chunks
of plaster. Her eyes
are the milk of blue granite,
as blind as a salamander’s.
Earlier, a man came with a lawyer
who came with a letter
from the city, a letter
condemning her three and a half acres
for the new pipeline.

Yet the woman never mentions this again, except vaguely, after drifting off to sleep to the methodical drips from her leaky ceiling, “in her dream, / where she climbs a rope / into the tree of sadness.” We are left to assume that whatever she is to be paid for the eminent domain appropriation of her land, it will leave her with little if anything. Again, though, not a whimper, barely a sigh. Not because it doesn’t matter, but because it matters so much; too much.
So, too, the memory presented in “Seasons Between Night and Day” wherein McGriff gives us the personal connection to the misery that infuses his collection:
My mother sleeps. Somewhere between her and the stars,
my father and hundreds of other men
punch out of Georgia Pacific’s sawmill forever,
the forklifts behind them at half-mast,
other machines chained to barges
with Japanese names
before the workers file out from the alien yard.

My mother’s asleep. My father, on the edge
of the mattress, stoops down to unlace his boots,
unlace the sound his joints, ligaments
and sockets have saved.
When he curses his body for needing to be a body.
For now, my sister and I live a different sleep:
the dandelions outside our window
have petals that cartwheel into the night
on yellow fists.

Perhaps it is these brief moments of youthful beauty at the end of this poem, and throughout Dismantling the Hills, that save McGriff’s characters—and perhaps the reader—from jumping into the bay; that saves us all, imbuing us with the same dogged determinism the father in this poem reveals as he shaves his beard in the morning—exchanging “one face for another.” For what? For nothing more than because it is another day, and this is what McGriff’s people do.
The grim determinism of the people of Coo’s Bay seems to also hide a darkness, a seething hate that threatens to erupt, but, of course, never does. Dampened by rain, or silt, or simply having been in this town for too long, little happens to change circumstances. Notice it here, in what I will confess to be my favorite poem in the volume, “Mercy, Tear It Down”:
We were contracted with the prison crew
to take the ridge. Tear it down.
Trees, Scotch broom, fence posts.
It was too hot to smoke cigarettes.
My chainsaw touched a whole world
of yellow jackets in a beetle-rotten stump
and my skin went tight. I lay facedown
in the duff after the crew boss shot me
full of something he kept in his saw bag.
An inmate carried half a hunting dog
like an armful of cedar bolts
from the last stand of brush.
What was left was swollen with ants.
The vise in my throat bore down,
daylight broke its bones across the ridge.
Tear it down. From there you could see
the whole town. Tear it down, tear it down.

From the very beginning, something sinister is at work here. Being contracted with the prison crew to “take the ridge” as though this were some sort of paramilitary operation. To simply, “tear it down.” Everything must go, stripped. Through the work, the carnage mounts: the speaker riddled with yellow jacket stings, saved only by the grace of the crew boss who, through McGriff’s masterful line end, “shot me / full of something.” Perhaps simply shooting him would have been better. Of course, we would miss the rest of the toll: half a hunting dog (the rest “swollen with ants”), and daylight that “broke its bones across the ridge.” This description is glorious in its grimness. All of this concluding with the simple, but painfully acute observation: “From there you could see / the whole town. Tear it down, tear it down.” Absent from this poem proper, though, is the added word in the title, “mercy.” Perhaps because there is none to be had.
Of course, Coo’s Bay doesn’t get torn down. Its inhabitants struggle on living in Buicks or in homes for as long as they can after Georgia Pacific shuts down and packs up. Soon, I suspect a Michael McGriff will emerge in Detroit, or Indiana, or Illinois. It won’t be McGriff, of course, those areas are far more urban, more known if you will. Coo’s Bay, as presented to the reader in Dismantling the Hills, is like no place on earth—both haunted and home simultaneously. Otherworldly, it seems. The best it can offer comes from the close of another brilliant piece, “Shift Change, 9 A.M.”:
This Must Be Heaven, a brochure
next to the pie case suggests.
My hand slides away from the waitress’s
and though the wind pushes
against the windows of the diner
and says we are nothing,
two strangers have touched in this light.

That is the best one can hope for in Dismantling the Hills, but in the end, it is truly all that any of us can expect. Sad that it takes the people of Coo’s Bay to teach us this lesson.