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Ausable Press ($16)
I Don’t Believe in Ghosts
translated by Wayne Miller
BOA Editions ($21.95)
University of Pittsburgh Press ($14)
by Lizzie Hutton
Tung-Hui Hu’s second book of poetry, Mine, is a confident, artful collection—sophisticated and persuasive, memorable and tight. Both the lithe phrasing and the sensory detail are striking; in “The Wish Answered,” he writes,
forgive me, I was young,
passions being what they were
were somewhat equivalent, mixed up,
the highest anything,
stars without firmament, colors huddled
in a back shelf of a dark closet.
And in “And About Time”:
There are three notes in this song I can stand
and the rest just scaffolding like the white
moat that surrounds a wound.
Hu strings images together and builds, in poem after poem, to thoughtful, nimble, resonant conclusions that have an enormous amount of authority. Yet, as a whole—and often to his credit—there is something quite slippery about this authority. While each piece works wonderfully alone, and together they show an impressive virtuosity, ranging energetically in topic and form (from California earthquakes to 18th-century vignettes to Odysseus, and from the prose poem to the extended meditation to the spare and airy lyric), as a collection, all the poems have in common is a refusal to be pinned down to a consistent persona or agenda (beyond their vaguely post-colonial skepticism of such consistency). At the same time, Mine also has a syntactical poise and a purity of thought that belie its instability; the poet is seductively quite sure of his unsureness, and it is the strength of these two forces—his certainty and his skepticism, his polish and his constant movement—that keep the poems, at their best, taut and emphatic.
That, in some ways, is the tension, the frisson of the collection’s title—what of these poems could be said to be “mine” when they have no consistent person (they skip from first to second to third), when the speaker feels half persona even at his most confessional? The most successful of these poems are unsettling and alluring in their brevity, in their casualness, in their determined emphasis on image over explication—wherein the reader still senses a narrative glimmering behind the lyric, an emotional backstory that is never fully made clear:
My father once carried me
on his shoulders to the old
whiskey still past the canal
and up the mountains, which
was different from his grasp
on my leg as he swung me
in anger before reaching for
the belt. The smell of aniline
leather, tannin from rainwater. . .
Indeed, the poems here have a strangely self-effacing quality; even the most seemingly biographical have the distanced, crafted tone of allegory. Mine is both personal and not, political and not—and in this way, it feels both quite new and yet very much of its time. The poems all describe the queasy self-world distortions and confusions that are some of the more talked-about marks of our age, and show how this morphing can be experienced with a sinewy speed: “in less than a small / touch I crumple down, and the tea / I am holding is immersed in the / puddles, and my body turns / the waters fragrant.” This is beautiful writing; its enjambed line breaks move it along, and its gorgeous diction and image keep it resonating in the mind. In this way, there is something romantic to Hu’s writing as well—in the elegiac quality, that fading of the self into the lushness of the vision, wherein artfulness takes on a life of its own. Hu, in fact, is almost Keatsian in places, the poetic eye melting into its subject—or perhaps more accurately, performing that melting, for there is a deliberateness here that feels sometimes overly conscious of its flourishes.
Given these traits, it is the longer poems and prose poems, and especially the final eight-page piece “The River,” that are the most absorbing and convincing. “The River” has an emotional intensity and thematic focus that, in some of the shorter, more arch lyrics, can get swallowed up by the writing’s very polish. In the poem, Hu describes a trip down a river with a woman who goes by two names. It is a fantasy of escape, of us-against-the-world, but it is also, Werner Herzog-like, the story of its own unraveling. The fractured self, the fractured other, the moving world that is really one’s own shifting subjectivity—here these themes are sharpened and developed, and work in the service of a beautifully achieved emotional point: hope in the face of dissolution. Declarative but wandering, curious and naïve, clear-sighted yet stubbornly optimistic, this voice has a youthful and experimental energy that feels exciting and fresh. As he says, “I felt what a snake feels after it has shed its skin and turns around to see what it has done” Elsewhere, Hu perhaps claims to understand too well; here, however, the soul relives what it still does not entirely understand. I personally prefer this surreal heat to the knowing, romantic cool in some of his other work.
Nonetheless, taken all together, the combination of such an investigative, open minded approach and Hu’s jewel-like control of imagery and structure make Mine, indeed, a truly innovative and impressive collection. It is not explained easily, and after many readings, its inherent energy has not at all diminished. It is often stunning and always memorable. Hu is clearly a poet of enormous talent.
Perhaps the freedom to play so unrestrainedly with the concepts of self and experience is the privilege and curse of being a young, 21st-century American poet. The Albanian Moikom Zeqo, by comparison, in his first translation to English, comes to us thoroughly and inescapably packaged by his circumstance. I Don’t Believe in Ghosts is made up of what Wayne Miller calls “the most translatable” of the poems from Zeqo’s third book, Meduza, written in the ’70s, and which the author called the “beginning of his mature period,” when he was banished to the countryside and his poetry suppressed.
How much does one need to know of Zeqo’s history to appreciate his work? Miller’s lucid introduction gives us the facts of the Communist leader Hoxha’s capricious and repressive regime and Zeqo’s own biography within it, yet thankfully offers no recommendation as to how, given this context, these poems are to be read. We are left, then, to view the poems themselves as the creation of a single man more than of a country’s trajectory. And the poems themselves feel personal, if in a confident, universal, manly way: they have a toughness, a lively shrewdness, even at their most melancholic. They are surehanded and straightforward with their language, vigorous, brief, learned and unsentimental—as the title I Don’t Believe in Ghosts aptly suggests.
As mentioned, Zeqo called the original collection Meduza—more on that later—but Miller’s new choice for a title feels entirely appropriate. As Zeqo writes in the titular poem, the “legends,” as he calls them—the myths, classical and otherwise, that he makes increasingly deft use of as the collection goes on—are not dead: there is nothing romantic or ephemeral, he argues, about this cultural material. This past is alive, useful, dangerous and necessary, and as unequivocal as fire: “Now that I know all the legends, / I pick them up, strangely focused, / to light (as if with a magnifying glass) / the unfiltered cigarettes of my poems…” Here Zeqo stakes his claim confidently and clearly. There is no magic, no dreaminess, no “ghostliness” to these legends; he is even willing to criticize the way, for many, these legends become calcified, even dreamy: the “strange ghosts” created by boredom, and “the ghosts / weak minded people weave on their looms.” This of course is political, at a certain level—that culture, cultural life, and cultural freedom are as essential to the human spirit as fire is to physical existence. It is also, however, a kind of poetics, positing that to see the past as dead is a kind of degradation. Zeqo is an archeologist as well as a poet, and his work is classical, in many ways—it leans towards the universal rather than the biographical—but it is not archaic or nostalgic. These poems have a real immediacy, communicated nicely by Miller’s finely-tuned translation.
Zeqo’s early vigorous poems grow more spiny and lonely as they go on; still, the work remains idea-driven and questing, inventive and energetic, even as its final conclusions are less certain and more concerned with isolation, muteness, and anonymity. Nor do they ever feel rune-ish or clever, even as they grow shorter, graver, and more imagistic. One of the later poems in the collection is the aforementioned “Medusa”:
Medusa turned people to stone. Should we call this sculpture?
Our immediate reading of the poem might be a political one—that the question is ironic, and that “turning people to stone” has none of the redeeming outcome of art. Another way to read this, however, is aesthetic, more self-analytical, and a development of the ideas in “I Don’t Believe in Ghosts”: is the frozen life—dead life—enough to make for art? The frozen life, too, can possibly represent exile—and the poem’s question, then, is a challenge to the assumptions we make about suffering (especially the writer’s suffering), that it is meaningful in and of itself. Zeqo does not seem to go in for such escapist explanations. Art, he seems elsewhere to say, is meaningful because of its connection to life, not because of its mastery over it.
Similarly, another later poem, “Cactuses and Orchids,” asks how the poet actually works in the face of circumstances—what the poet does, and its effect. I reprint it entire:
Cactuses are grotesque plants,
menacing with their spines.
They’re your absence,
where the wind is wounded.
Orchids—fragments of the sun,
small fires of nostalgia that rise over the sea.
They are my cry
that makes death deaf.
Again, the images—the poet’s material—make real and alive and active these abstractions—even the abstraction of absence, or, as in the third stanza, of “nostalgia,” another kind of absence. In this poet’s hand, absence can “wound,” nostalgia “cry.” As with Donne (to whom this last line seems an oblique reference), imagery can metaphysically give life to the death knell of the abstraction—and that ultimate abstraction of death itself. Yet Zeqo’s final point seems quite different from Donne’s; he believes in the present moment more than the promise of its afterlife. After all, to make “death deaf” is not exactly to render it impotent. Metaphysics, then, does not save Zeqo from reality; it merely affords him a certain power within it, as with “The Free Word,” in which metaphor itself is described, metaphorically, as “astronauts breaking the earth’s gravity / to arrive, finally, at the moon.” I like very much his emphasis here on the lunar rather than the mystic; there are certainly surreal elements to his work, but Zeqo is finally most interested in understanding the more durable virtues of art, the active outcomes of declaration and image-making. For all his metaphorical flights, he seems more a realist than a magician. And unlike Hu, whose dreamscapes are entirely self-contained, Zeqo holds us in tension between the transcendent potential of poetry and the realities of the present and self-limited moment.
Nancy Krygowski, in comparison to Zeqo, does believe in ghosts—or so she claims in her debut book Velocity, a beautiful, unpretentious collection of deeply felt and finely made poems. Velocity was chosen by Gerald Stern as the winner of the 2006 Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize, and one senses in this book some of Stern’s own unaffected confidence, his penchant for the big subject and the unfussed-over style. But back to the ghosts: though Krygowski calls them that (and mainly makes mention of the ghost of her dead sister), I would put her definition of “ghost” closer to Zeqo’s of “legends.” For Krygowski’s ghosts are not cloying or metaphorical. Her belief is in something real—at least to the extent that this something is inspiring, unresolved, and meaningful. Throughout the book, she sees ghosts, speaks with ghosts, and finds herself unable to shake them off, but this ghost motif is not used merely to summon some time-fuzzed vestige of the past. Rather, as with Zeqo, these ghosts help with a genuine emotional exploration of the present—the ways that death and loss can be as real to us as any of the other prosaic facts of life, which her poems take on with equal attentiveness: going to the store, riding one’s bike, taking the bus, walking through a city. This is startlingly unromantic poetry, honest and clear-sighted, and quite convincingly brokenhearted and hopeful at the same lonely time.
Formally, the poems are understated. They are quite varied, but one hardly notices—long lines or short lines, couplets, tercets or long chunky stanzas, they all seem quite casual and organic in shape, though driven by a fine sense of timing and the subtle rhythms of thought. It is not the imagery that gives these poems their particular energy, either, though this imagery is often arresting in its precision and bluntness, as in “Suitcase of My Life”:
in our poorly lit kitchen
to eat jellied pig’s feet everyday.
Or so it seemed.
In my young girl’s mind
those days strung together
to make an eternity of strange death
in the center of which
was the table, the beige bowl,
the clear gelatin,
Rather, the poems of Velocity are held together by the poet’s sensibility. They feel less made than felt, and have a spontaneous sincerity and singularity—not of style, but of point-of-view—that is amazingly rare in contemporary poetry, where self-conscious displays of craft and polish are so often privileged over the search for meaning. I finish these poems feeling more affected than impressed—which is to say that, to the credit of the poet, their artfulness is not their purpose. They are artful, of course, and often impressive, but it is the emotion, the poet’s longing, that remains at the center of this work. She ends “Dear Heart,” with the lines,
brain of my brain
you came first proved I was
you come last
then come again
I love the description-slash-invocation of that last line, how after all the memorably vivid language of the previous stanza, that final moment manages to linger as both wish and fact. And, indeed, to call her heart “brain of my brain” seems appropriate, since much of this book is not just felt, but quite logical; many of the poems, especially the early ones, focus on the attempt to determine cause—why things happen, what strange forces drive them. “The Bus Comes, The Girl Gets On” wonders about grammatical subordination, for instance, “the trickiness in deciding / who or what // gets control. . .” For Krygowski, this is not merely an intellectual exercise. In her world—a real, recognizable urban world, where people have sex for complicated reasons, break down in supermarket parking lots, and feel the kind of “anger/ that made me want to hit / your three-year-old daughter / for not knowing / how to tie her small pink shoes” (“Dear Annette,”)—control is an issue of very real importance. What she seeks, as she writes in the quiet tour-de-force that gives the book its title, is “a knowledge // dark as speed, hard / as free.” She is willing to tell of herself, and others, veering out of control in order to analyze that control more honestly.
Even so, this is not a book of explanations. The best virtues of confessionalism—the easy-seeming, overheard quality of the voice; the emotion-driven and often surprising associativeness; the vivid narrative details; the willingness to leave a moment poignant and unresolved—are on display here, and blessedly without self-pity or indulgence. While the “velocity” of this book is a personal velocity, not a universal one—it is one that, again, we overhear, not one we necessarily experience (as with Hu’s poetry) for ourselves—there is an admirable and affecting honesty in Krygowski’s project. She seems determined to remain blunt and unashamed, critical and revealing of herself while never dissolving to the maudlin, and she has a penchant for the underbelly of things, which in a lesser poet would register mainly as street-proud vulgarity—the “bad-girl” panties, the sidewalk puddles, the “chicken bones and tinfoil.” But, as with those jellied pigs’ feet in the poem quoted above, this commonplace stuff merely makes up the material of her experience. The natural but surprising use she makes of these images—they are always analyzed, and they always “go somewhere” as the poem gains momentum—pushes them far past their initial and sometimes almost clichéd rough-and-tumble implications.
And so, when occasionally Krygowski’s poems lapse a bit in rigor or taste, I forgive them—I like their no-nonsense voice and their spiky, surprising observations enough that I can take the work exactly as it is. In fact, I like Velocity’s poems even more for not performing, but for being precisely, and quite memorably, what they seem to want to be—careful, honest, quirky meditations on loss and longing in all its weirdly prosaic manifestations.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008