Online Edition: Spring 2002

Useless Virtues by T. R. Hummer

Useless Virtues

T. R. Hummer

Louisiana State University Press ($16.95)

by Justin B. Lacour

In his previous collection, Walt Whitman in Hell, T. R. Hummer contrasted Whitman's idealistic lyrics of America with visions of a blighted nation, culminating in the titular poem, where the ghost of the great poet wanders through the infernos of present-day Manhattan. Useless Virtues, his seventh book of poems, continues in the same vein, closely examining the tools for transcendence and redemption that we trust with our faith.

In the opening poem, three friends in a hot tub discuss The Book of Job, arguing, resolving only that:

                    It is about nothing
Except the incommensurability of everything,
     the shitty drama of pain that stretches
From Behemoth down to the structure of the atom.
     Nobody agrees. Even God refuses to be God
But breaks down in a windy turbulence.

If the desire for a traditional God-figure can be reduced to: "a passion / For form that would murder its own son, / Then invent the word sacred to explain what it had done," then we are left with only our seemingly endless capacity for language. However, Hummer finds this process equally fraught with its own limitations, and chronicles this struggle with characters that alternately declare: "I will not give in / To the fragmentaryŠ / I will make my language whole," or "Darker darkness: / No judgment in those words, just pure description, /inadequate as the phrases Whom I loved or In the beginning."

This theme receives its primary focus in the long poem, "Axis," which draws on Heidegger's theories of "the meaning of Being" as its primary source. Though dealing with obviously complex issues, the poem gains its true power from the juxtaposition of the philosopher and Hummer's father, treating them with a delicate mixture of intellectual and emotional observation, never resorting to the easy answers of sentimentality or outright condemnation. In "Axis," the ordeal of World War II is the crucial event that provides both men with a sense of definition, and since the philosopher's complicity with the Third Reich is also examined, it raises the issue of how useful Heidegger's genius and powers of articulation were in the face of overwhelming evil.

Hummer crafts intelligent, elegant poems directed by a penetrating gaze into contemporary anxieties and struggles, treating them with a scientist's eye for minutiae and a philosopher's tone. A great deal of the power of Useless Virtues comes from the sheer scope of these poems. Hummer can envision a world where the lives of three men in a hot tub are connected to the flight of a Cambodian refugee, and since the transitions are made so gracefully, these leaps make sense within the context of the poems. Hummer also has great skill in crafting an intricate network of details that drive the poems' narrative: "a red-eye flight to Dallas interweaves / Baseball, temple bells, roadkill, cemeteries, bread, / sexual ambiguity, and a poster of Pol Pot nailed / To the wall of a compound, monsoon-faded, laced/by bullet holes." While reading Useless Virtues as a whole may have the feeling of a journey, since the settings shift swiftly, the most interesting part of the trip is through the characters' psyches, which Hummer renders with precision. Hummer treats the reader to merciless portraits, but in return he reveals striking, painfully honest visions.

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Spring 2002 Table of Contents