“Uncle Charles and Dante clapped. They were older than his father and mother but uncle Charles was older than Dante.” (Joyce)
When I was a senior at Boston College, knowing that writing (specifically poetry) was as much my life as any of my other loves, and after having devoured Kerouac in high school while living in Lowell (where I was born) and after a detailed study of canonical English, Irish, and American Literature (and also plenty of School of Quietude contemporary poets,) I went to hear Robert Pinsky give a reading and a talk after he had been nominated to be the Poet Laureate. This was also the year, or roughly the same time (If my memory serves me correctly) that Seamus Heaney won the Nobel Prize in Literature and gave a reading in Saint Ignatius Church on campus, escorted in by three or four bagpipers. There had to be close to a thousand people there to listen to him read, which he did for quite some time. I was moved by how quiet and forgettable it all seemed. I thought time actually slowed down. Though this is an interesting effect that language can have on human experience, I was bored by it. I like when my mind races and wants to devour. On a side note, I was married in that church in 2004.
Pinsky talked a bit about his process and reasons for translating Dante, most of which were about his attempt to try and fit Dante’s Italian into slant rhyme—his way, I assume, of making Dante’s language more like his own than learning from the intricate rhyme patterns and grammatical constructions of this Romance Language to rejuvenate and experiment with his own linguistic experience. (Fortunately, a few years later, I was able to sit under the tent on the Naropa lawn (when they still had a tent during the Summer Program and Naropa was still an Institute, not a University) and listen to Robin Blazer’s lecture “Where’s Hell…?” on Dante on 6.29.99 and experience this opera of human imagination as antidote.) Pinsky also made a snide remark to a student’s question about his taste for Dylan Thomas, to which Pinsky replied something to the effect (I’m paraphrasing here, of course) that Thomas has great lines, but none of his writing was able to come together in any cohesive way to make a unified poem. This was the moment that I decided I needed to leave East Coast Academia and see what was out there in another world (any other world) of Contemporary Writing. I knew there had to be more writing after the Modernists that I liked and the Beats and the New York School of the 50s and 60s (literature that could only be taught at Boston College under the guise of “The Whitman Tradition”—which was a course that probably would not have even been approved a decade before I took it.) Eventually I found my way to the writers who were working at Naropa at the time and made my way out there. (I keep meaning to catalog who was there at the time and what classes were being taught by whom, because I think it was such an interesting collection of minds—.) I don’t mean to disparage this “classical” education though—I enjoyed it, actually, and felt quite humbled to be there, but was ready to move on.
This is a rather long and personal way of getting around to the pleasure of my Ugly Duckling subscription (the best and most pleasurable deal going right now) and my amusement in reading and listening to Lullaby: Speculations on the First Active Sense with text by Christine Hume and an accompanying CD of ethereal music by James Marks. The book is beautiful, as many of the UDP books are—hand made and “printed with love on Fabrino paper” as it states about the cover in the colophon which includes a CD placed inside the front flap. It is hand-stitched with transparent fly leafs and has a text design that is crisp and flows down the tall page-size of the book. But on to the text, of which this is mainly about and which is a delight to read with the music behind it—
It is precisely because there is great line after great line, any and all of which are quotable, that Christine Hume’s writing (which I read for the first time tonight) immediately interests me. She doesn’t try to come to any “cohesion.” Cohesion in poetry too often creates entropy, which stops motion (and also stifles emotion,) rather than offers up eternal possibility within structure. When the book ends, there is a feeling that the language is still changing, shifting, searching for connections. I’d much prefer this as a reader of poetry than to be left with a thing or an idea that can be explained or described afterwards as a “cohesive” unit. So, thank you Robert Pinsky, I guess…
I’m reminded of the opening of Joyce’s A Portrait…, where Stephen hides under the table and hears the lullabies of the “moocow” and the “tralalas” and the loaded “Pull out his eyes, / Apologise, / Apologise, / Pull out his eyes.” The connection of language to experience and the experience of language as chance within structure (both time and the page) is so immediate and intoxicating to me when I come across it as a reader. Hume’s opening lines, which are each their own stanzas and mostly continue this way for the full eleven pages, begin “Affection of your waking hours breaks into rhythmic blinks // Breathing is the shock of your initiation here // Is and is and is, pulse is prehistory // Even before you listen your body hears itself”(1-4, p.1).
The poem begins with the noun “affection”, which as a verb denotes active change, but as an idea describes a feeling or a sentiment which can really only be experienced as something that is in constant becoming. The next two words are part of a prepositional phrase which asks the reader to be an active participant in the making of the poem, and which also generalizes the experience for all humans because of the malleability of the second person in English. The “your” also acts as an adjective to time personified, which is also “waking up” with and because of language. Affection then “breaks,” showing that possibility is also created through discord, since discord also needs at least two entities to create a relationship. (Discord also threw the Golden Apple in Greek mythology.) The last prepositional phrase returns to rhythm—rhythm experienced visually as “blinks” (language is also visual) as well as completes the near iambic beats that end the line.
The music makes the line stop, or the breath stop, and without punctuation Hume moves the second line to the body, which experiences language as much as the mind does, with the word “[b]reathing” and then makes a metaphor out of it, preceded by a definite article, making the metaphor even less tangible than the noun “shock.” The rhythm of line two is abruptly more jazz-like, with four quick beats before the “shock” hits and is followed by an inviting and eerie “of your initiation” and then an italicized and an uncertain “here”. The italicized adverb leaves the reader with the question of whether the effect of the “here” is to make the reader aware of the experience of reading in the space of the poem, or to pun on the word “hear”, or to force an enjambment with the beginning of the third line which consists of a linking verb and a conjunction, “Is and is and is,” showing that there is a connection between everything. This short phrase could just as easily have been written “To be is to be is to be,” since the function of the linking verb and the conjunction is essentially the same thing.
To exist is to be in relation.
And then comes the comma in the middle of the third line.
The middle of the third line returns to the body with “pulse”, and like the beginning of the second line, connects the physical experience of language to rhythm, a seemingly transient quality that is continually becoming, which Hume then metaphorically connects to “prehistory”, or a time that all humans both share and experience, but can not remember because it is not recorded with language—language being both a way to universalize and individualize experience. The beginning of fourth line “[e]ven” forces another enjambment and then continues “before you listen your body hears itself”, stressing the pun on “here”, or even “hair”—a sign of the body both maturing and perishing. The word “Even”, besides forcing an enjambment, simultaneously implies both possibility and balance. And like the opening of Joyce’s A Portrait…, Hume uses language to invite the reader to experience the language as well as to experience with language. Or, in Hume’s fifth line and stanza, indented and in parentheticals for an extra pause in breath, she writes “(Rhythm is an intelligence activated by being)”.
At this point in the poem, again like Joyce’s opening but with more staccato, Hume has repeated “rhythm” twice, “you(r)” four times, strings lines together with the consonance of “b”s and “p”s, the assonance of “s”s, and the guttural bass of the second person. She also puns on “here”, all creating connections, not through the logic or comprehension offered in sentences that construct definite meaning, but with a lyric grace that understands emotion and the immediacy of experience through language.
Besides the technical deftness that Hume exhibits in the poem, I am also interested in the fact that this poem is not a fixed entity—it does not exist in a vacuum separate from life. Maybe because she weaves in the sense of lullaby with meta-cognitive thought and beautiful language, I was given permission to notice what my mind was noticing and be aware of it—sometimes this was my reaction to the language and other times I was struck with memory. Never were these experiences happening separate from the poem; they were part of my experience of the poem and what also made me want to write during and after reading the poem—hence, my overindulgence with the personal to preface my impressions of Hume’s craft.
“Dante had two brushes in her press. The brush with the maroon velvet back was for Michael Davitt and the brush with the green velvet back was for Parnell. Dante gave him a cachou every time he brought her a piece of tissue paper.” (Joyce)
 Heaney’s Beowulf, on the other hand, seems completely successful at producing a lyric and readable translation.
 And probably worthy of a separate post…