Carrie Hunter, The Incompossible, Black Radish Books, 2011, $15
Since placing a book in an arbitrary context first, and then enumerating its qualities afterwards, as if it stood around sticking its thumb out, would be a sloppy way to write about reading – because no trace would remain that the reader had ever made an effort to go a little distance alongside the writer, before setting down any reactions – Carrie Hunter’s collection The Incompossible makes for a demanding night: one that enjoyably turns into a month, with no signs of letting up.
Conversation piques one’s interest among these poems, in that moment when Information has footed the bill for once, and Hilarity finally takes the floor.
The previous is not indicated, but the quiche is. (“The Floating”)
“He wouldn’t actually drive the saucer.” (“Gaze”)
Cocoa butter might help with this, or glass dildos. (“The Coinciding”)
What coffee giveth and what it taketh away. (“The Sentence Before the Asterisk”)
Free cheeseburger with carwash, you can’t win a fight with someone dressed in yellow. (“Locus”)
This poet’s work gets by on the slightest hint that today could turn zany any second.
Awkwardness puts on its mystique with a difference before her glance.
Almost accidentally taking the anxiety pill and then deciding that I might actually need it. (“Fetching”)
Reading the note on the table, sitting down, then standing right back up. (“A Conchology”)
I have a cough drop, would you like one? (“Temporary Ravine”)
All the asides happen downstage center, so to speak.
In a handful of lines the poet oversimplifies paradox into a plaything.
The possible is impossible. (“Plenum”)
Antiquities shop the racks of the new. (“The Imaginary”)
Totalitarianism lacks totality. (“Prime Mover”)
Interjection itself interjects. (“Graft”)
Privacy intrudes. (“Graft”)
These lines of stone have the authentic ring of twentieth-century French philosophy in American English translation; and for all the allure of their subject matter one feels that although such pseudo-statement, with its fatal shrug, probably testifies to spoken usage in francophone countries – or at least in France, or at least among French academics – it makes off with its intellection at too high a cost in cleverness. Yet the pressures of concision never come off in this book as that slovenly knack for the coy effect which masquerades as artistry in too much recent work.
The troop of fads known as Fashion cedes place to Style, a scale of pleasures in adorning one’s body, that amounts to a code:
Wondering what conditioner other people use. (“Allegory”)
Unkempt and too tired to do anything about it. (“Asterisk”)
China doll hair. (“[pendulum]”)
An aqua shirred skirt is another curtain I want to be. (“Both Ends of the Chain”)
And by an absolute epithet, which ascends to magnificent dailiness, the elegant line “Her insouciant hair” (“Extrapolation”) outdoes all merely contrived glamour.
In this poetry American things confront someone who represents half the body politic, yet whose opinion exerts the embattled power of a minority interest group member:
Barack Obama is single and lets me sit on his lap. I believe in change. (“Spectator”)
There is something to be said for the unpopular. (“Language (language)”)
More popcorn is demanded. (“Dolmen”)
The cynicism that pop life so often gleans from the Romantic outlook touches this poetry not at all. Nor does the poet ransack life’s difficult combinations to salvage apothegms like someone running for office on the Poetry ticket. The concerns appear comprehensive. Such dry lightness makes for dependable company amidst the sometimes prickly and moist atmosphere of contemporary letters. Her wit also belongs, one feels, to the eighteenth century, the Enlightenment – but as Sévigné and Austen skeptically saw it. Other names suggest themselves: one worth mentioning is H.D., whose London “rails gone (for guns)” ensoul this text written in a California where everyone knows what would be here, and what it’s going for.
One finds the tradition freshly engaged:
Everyone born on Bloomsday loves roses. (“The Phenomenology of Imagination”)
When I was in bliss, I was in despair. Now everything is distinct. If only this monotonous sadness would turn around and look me in the eye. (“Epithalamium”)
What the just do to the unjust. What the unjust do to the just and how these terms get switched around. (“The Exigencies”)
There are no seagulls here. (“Contestable”)
I nod but there are no golden apples. (“Numen”)
Negative capability is wearing a unicorn pendant. (“Invisibility”)
How, with ruby shoes, we always knew what we needed to know, it is just that now we know that we know it. (“Ontogenesis”)
One would think that all of those stories were only our own tale – and so they are.
The book is inscribed to the poet’s mother, and certain lines stamp that figure with the character of their transaction:
The fear of ending as your mother ended. (“The Phenomenology of Imagination”)
The unmother mothers us all. (“A Charm”)
Hearing my mother calling my name in the middle of the night. (“[anniversary]”)
My mother points out her exact favorite color. (“Maintenance”)
When my mother thinks I am not listening. (“The Clear and the Obscure”)
It no longer seems apt to dump Helen of Troy in Egypt at the doorstep of something called the Male Mind, post-Madeleine-Albright; and over the last ten years a hundred thousand American mothers have been deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq; and academe stammers that two women on a corporate board of directors may not be enough in a time and place in which many women still earn seventy-seven cents for every dollar a man earns doing the same work: so this book doesn’t just give the lie to readers whose pet theory is that all women who write are modernists (small “m”) by default; or readers who comb the stacks for just the volume that will emend some cherished definition of humankind. Instead, The Incompossible enjoins its readership to read and speak and write as if the common tongue were actually worth something – that is, the book addresses the faculty of articulation in every sphere of life.
Strong emotion animates several propositions which amount to the most fastidious assertion in the book of a lucid sensibility whose dark reflection wears the frayed and mended ball gown of a credo:
What takes place is not heathenistic. (“Corporeal”)
Meaning is a superstition. (“[pendulum]”)
If you want the door open, I’ll open it. (“Kerygma”)
There is way too much chocolate. (“Intrinsic”)
The weather doesn’t tell you what time it is. (“Irreducible”)
You can trust the clock. Unless there’s been a blackout. (“[anniversary]”)
The visible is what is seen or could be seen. (“Witnesses”)
There are no questions. (“Future Science”)
There is no such thing as opposites, only variations of the one. (“Pell-Mell”)
Truth is plural. (“Technically Sublime”)
That order is what matters and that it is mostly fucked up. (“Lexicon”)
I am not the enigma here and neither are you. (“The Dispossessed”)
If you stare hard things morph into other things, but if you stare harder they do not. (“Plural”)
Inside of us something has disappeared. (“Impact”)
Seams of the human hold together that which is not. (“Numen”)
Such lines are notable for betraying the author’s courage.
In some of her lines the terms strain toward a statement that doesn’t arrive as bidden, one feels: “Mysticism overlaid onto blind stinking reality” (“[nativity]”), for instance, prompts the consideration that a bewildered anchorite may be the opposite of a mystic, and that the poet’s pen was tipsy, when she wrote. Likewise with “Consciousness is what causes us all the trouble” (“Contour”): instead, isn’t it true that the only trouble with every state, as far as we know, is enlargement?
Here is all of “Stratum”:
Regardless of the past. Here is here is here and nothing can be done about it. When we arrive and are dewy. Doubt’s relation to certainty and the dance they take. There is a central question we cannot ask, but we can hear it. Trees are always reaching out. Sex sounds are sirens. What we believe and how shoddy our own truth is. The world recedes and we are left hanging onto childhood blankets. Wanting to express sadness but unsure if it is expressible. Wondering if any surprises are coming or if this plateau will continue. What I have not given you I will give you another time.
One wants to take the poet at her word.
On the book’s cover, designed by Susana Gardner, the lettering recalls a Barbara Kruger slogan; and the illustration – “Paper Doll” by Matina Stamatakis – shows an unbuttoned black coat, lined with lilac paisley over a scarlet dress, cinched at the waist by a crimson braided leather belt, bare wrist lightly fallen across the hip, with broken nail on ring finger and evident mannequin fractures, altogether inspiring both suspicion and curiosity. The author herself sports high Air Wears laced with black ribbon, or she did a couple seasons ago; drinks peppermint Schnapps on transbay trains; and, when lost, is not shy about asking the lady waiting on the corner where to find a bus stop. Carrie Hunter resides in San Francisco.
ERIK NOONAN was born in Los Angeles in 1974, and lives in San Francisco. His poems have appeared in diverse journals and magazines.