May 28, 2015

Dark Green by Emily Hunt (The Song Cave, 2015)

I knew Emily Hunt's photography before I read a single word she wrote. Fond of landscape design, her photographs show how shrubs, hedges, and plants behave strangely in various pockets of urban space. In one, a tidal wave of red flowers threatens to engulf a parked car. Elsewhere, an evergreen hedge slurs through the bars of a wrought iron fence. In another, a horde of vines have murdered a bush planted benignly against a wall. While simple, they speak to me so profoundly that they take my breath away. I'm grateful they are in the world and they've helped remind me of that adventurous weirdness one discovers when afoot rather than in a car.  Where some photographers are captivated by synthetic spaces overtaken by nature - like an abandoned home reclaimed by hungry weeds - Hunt's photographs show us a drama made possible by not only her willingness to walk around a lot, but because of her sensitivity to lines, light, and texture and how they interact dynamically in otherwise mundane locations. Her photography reveals that we are like her landscapes: often overlooked and neglected. And Hunt's photographs, perhaps more importantly, reveal what things look like to a person who has forgiven themselves for existing.

And yet her poems in Dark Green, her first book published by The Song Cave, seem one step behind the photography in at least one respect: their existential resolve. Unlike her photography, her poems are more frustrated and one wonders if this is the speaker's general disposition or the result of poetry's demand upon words. Donald Hall wrote that "when we wish to embody in language a complex of feelings or sensations or ideas...we say what we do not intend." In this respect, Hunt's photography and poetry intersect: a shrub becomes so much more than its intended purpose; however, in the poems, we meet a speaker so present in the world that like the shrub, she is planted in a landscape not of her choosing. As a result, her poetry becomes the thing not intended, but to our amazement here it is any way. This feeling of mystery and loneliness permeates Dark Green and is reflected not only in Hunt's subject-matter, but in her poetic line as well: tangled clauses quickly untangle until breaking apart against the absence of punctuation, then regrouping to begin anew with the possible intention to acknowledge the difficulty, while asserting the desire, to achieve revelation:

It's hard to breathe at the mechanic 
where the cars are midair

and the men lying on the floor
out my window, examples of mountains

my car lived behind the house where the owner was dying
I didn't want to come to myself that way again

on the ceiling I drew something
to delete an end

it could describe black
and pass through text, like reading 

on vacation, veering from a series
lying on the floor

a symptom of the universe 
as common as the beach


climbing to the vending machine
is also not intimate

the bed is higher 
to protect it

and nothing like the highway
the ferns are growing in space

the phone like a prop
is closest to the dragon fly

and bland lively gnats on the cracked ledge
whee the air below the sky is

a sense and Virginia or
Paris Blue Street of Strength and small bug

fake wood and cracked dragon
chocolate and soap a feeling

I couldn't make a statement about
this beginning breaking like a broken cloud

something cold and what I am
and other cars, no food around

the bad hotel, no common air
in rain, expensive quiet 

poured from the sun
I rest my soda by the stone  

("Holiday Inn")

Like the title of her book, "Holiday Inn" is exquisitely suggestive. I can't help wondering if there's a question embedded in it: which does one take a holiday from: the interior or the exterior. It's a question Dark Green seems to wrestle with often, especially considering that Hunt is so drawn to depicting the seen world and how that world both addresses us while giving us the odd sensation we are not being addressed at all. But perhaps that's wrong. To depict the world with language is both the retreat from a contemplative state, but also to master it. In this respect, Hunt's photography and poetry converge. In fact, imagery declares itself more assertively in the poem's second half, as if to say depiction is not an escape from abstraction, but the poet's reconciliation with it.

This tension between the physical and non-physical is expressed in the poem's obscure dramas. For many of us, the figure of the mechanic serves to remind us of our own manual incompetence. In particular, the car mechanic is a content-expert on an object that intimately belongs to us (at least those of us who own a car) and we defer to that expertise. By doing so, our self-esteem is wounded and therefore our significance in the world shaken. Why do we invest so heavily, the poem seems to ask, on things we don't understand and rely on others to fix? In other words, if life is broken, who's our mechanic? The problem with modernity is that it doesn't seem to provide one. For Hunt,  poetic imagery is where this conundrum often finds a home. The poem dovetails, as many poems do in Dark Green, to new thoughts, but these thoughts remain connected by their obsessions. Just as the speaker personifies inanimate objects - the mechanics and their shop are "examples of mountains"; she says her "car lived behind the house" - the speaker in "Holiday Inn" tumbles into newer lines where she conflates drawing and writing as if to reveal, just as the poem's binary formation does, a split in the speaker's self. 

The first half of the poem concludes with a series of lines that feel like airy untethered musings. This makes sense. The poem begins with an indictment of the dirty air at the mechanic's and ends on a beach vacation, conjuring the sound of waves and faint voices. Furthermore, the recurring depictions of lying on the floor is an act most often associated with daydreaming and perhaps sunbathing. That this "lying on the floor" occurs in two disparate locations, one soiled and the other not, it reminds the reader that lying down is also associated with illness. Finally, the section ends on a note of generalized humility: "a symptom of the universe / as common as a beach".

When poems are arranged bilaterally, the second half is often one of two things: a re-articulation of the first half or a resolution of it. In the case of "Holiday Inn", it seems to be both: a re-articulation of the poet's drowsy disposition and a resolution of that disposition: one can be imaginative and also be alert to (and playful with) the physical world. And yet for Hunt, one consequence of such a life seems to be melancholy. 

The first stanza of the second half of the poem reads "climbing to the vending machine / is also not intimate" suggesting that all the lines that preceded this stanza were indications of a lack of intimacy and we suddenly recall when she wrote that being is just a "symptom of the universe". Furthermore, the second half of "Holiday Inn" seems to take place, at least in part, within the hotel. After this initial observation about the "vending machine", other observations follow and in contrast with the poem's first section, the lines in the second are more truncated and show a greater fidelity to description and it's here we see Hunt's negative energies imbue the things she catalogs: things are props, bland, fake, and broken or cracked. The location the speaker inhabits is devoid of food, "no common air" exist, and she makes clear the "quiet" she is experiencing is not even organic, but the result of an economic transaction, as in getting a hotel room, that fabricated box where one feels the rush of being hidden from the world and the sadness of anonymity.

The poem's second section, while a reflection of a troubled psyche, also redeems itself in the poet's power to depict when triggered out of desperation and necessity, and from those depictions one can tease out the uncomfortable truths of personhood and put those truths into poems. In the most revealing moment in "Holiday Inn", Hunt's speaker admits - and we're reminded of the figure of the mechanic - a lack of agency in the most fundamental aspect of being: "I couldn't make a statement about / this beginning breaking like a broken cloud / something cold and what I am". This is not only the most beautiful moment in the poem, but perhaps the entire book: language fails despite the fact that the mysteries of life and death are constantly felt. It's no wonder she can only claim that this phenomenon is vague and "something cold" and yet within the same moment assert it is "what I am" and here we hit the nerve that caused the pain to write it.

It's exciting that Dark Green is Hunt's first book because it means we'll probably be reading her for years to come. While known for her accuracy and clarity in regards to image, her speaker's willingness to stay-put in moments of crisis and solitude provide a satisfying counterpoint to her sharp eye. Her poems strangely balance feelings of urgency and drudgery, interior loneliness within exterior abundance, and the results are amazing. Dark Green is one of the strongest debuts I've read this year.                 

-John Ebersole


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