blackbirdonline journalFall 2016  Vol. 15 No. 2
an online journal of literature and the arts
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T.R. Hummer: Visionary Imperfect
What image out of the soul of the laser will come to trouble my sight?
—T.R. Hummer, Available Surfaces: Essays on Poesis

In his introduction to The Unfeigned Word: Fifteen Years of New England Review, T.R. Hummer talks about a joke he claims to have heard “in the South” in which an unnamed speaker, responding to a question whose particulars remain vague, quips, “No, I’m not against evil—I wouldn’t want to get that close to it” (emphasis mine). The inflection of the preposition here pushes a listener into the perilous realm of Hummer’s classic deadpan. The act of calling attention to a serious philosophical question while simultaneously dodging it through the trapdoor of humorous wordplay is a move that has always made me admire and attend to Hummer’s work. Hummer’s poetry puts into practice the commitment he fostered during his years as an editor at New England Review of publishing work that takes on social and political issues, work that refutes the notion that readers and writers (and magazine editors) occupy some idealized space free from such concerns, work that faces, clear-eyed, the challenge of exploring “who we are, what we are, and why.” Hummer’s willingness to rub right up against these difficult questions about race and class and the moral implications of our shared humanity (southern or otherwise) situates him at a crossroads where histories and bloodlines intersect and where language and lived experience get under the skin—as humor, as music, as the finely calibrated doses of joy and suffering we mistake for passing time.

So who are we today? Who were we yesterday? Who have we been recently? In June 2015, Marc Maron interviewed the president of the United States, Barack Obama, for episode 613 of his twice-weekly podcast, WTF, which is recorded in the garage of Maron’s studio/home in Highland Park, Los Angeles. Maron, an American stand-up comedian, writer, actor, musician, and director, whose politically oriented productions for Air America Media include Morning Sedition and Breakroom Live with Maron & Seder, began hosting his home-brewed, interview-centric show in 2009. The months leading up to the president’s interview had witnessed a relentless series of high-profile, police-involved killings of African Americans across the country. First, Eric Garner died in New York City in July 2014. John Crawford III near Dayton, Ohio; Ezell Ford in Los Angeles, California; and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, all died in August 2014. Twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was fatally shot in Cleveland in November. Three deaths in April of 2015—Eric Harris in Tulsa, Oklahoma; Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina; and Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Maryland—led to days of rioting and protest. Then, on June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof killed nine people gathered for Bible study at Charleston’s historic Emanuel AME Church, just two days before Obama and Maron sat down to talk.

Maron’s interview meanders through some friendly, candid discussion of Obama’s youth in Hawaii, his college days in Pasadena, and his experience of being “raised without a dad, an African American, not grounded in a place with a lot of African American culture.” When Maron broaches the subject of the recent shootings, Obama offers the usual responses, including his well-rehearsed admonition that, in such situations, “It’s not enough just to feel bad.” Near the end of their talk, which touches upon the president’s early career, his Kansas roots, and his enduring commitment to the struggle for social justice, Maron asks Obama pointedly about the president’s own sense of connection to the African American community and where, in his view, race relations in the U.S. currently stand:

OBAMA: First of all, I always tell young people in particular, do not say that nothing’s changed when it comes to race in America unless you lived through being a black man in the 1950s, or ’60s, or ’70s. It is incontrovertible that race relations have improved significantly during my lifetime and yours, and that opportunities have opened up, and that attitudes have changed. That is a fact.

What is also true is that the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and discrimination in almost every institution of our lives—that casts a long shadow. And that’s still part of our DNA. That’s passed on. We’re not cured of it.

MARON: Racism.

OBAMA: [Emphatically.] Racism. We are not cured of it, clearly. It’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say nigger in public. That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not . . .

Maybe Maron’s audible incredulity should be forgiven; he is, after all, from Jersey. And not even South Jersey. We’re talking way up in Passaic. Or would this risk (as did Hummer’s remarks in his New England Review intro) the kind of humor that nowadays brings the Polite but Peeved Identity Police and the Righteously Indignant Reformed Right-wingers running. Maybe the pages of literary journals (and certain repurposed California garages) are among the last public spaces where the good work of bad jokes can be accomplished.

Though I hesitate to pigeonhole Hummer too perfunctorily into categories like “regional” or “southern,” the poet himself has admitted to spending the better part of five decades attempting “to read the mind of the South.” Hummer’s scrupulous indexing of that ghost-ridden volume—one part cultural critique, one part fate-bent clairvoyance—is well worth skimming here:

The South, old and new, is justly famous for the power of its narratives. The lyric impulse is also an impulse to power: the power to dissolve realities, to void boundaries, to break through human limits . . . [R]acism itself is lyric, insofar as it is a kind of bewitchment that resides, at least in part, in language. The narrative/lyric amalgam of the Old South was an incantation of the rawest power-usurpation, working . . . against reality in favor of a romance of mist and violence. That amalgam survived, mutated, into my childhood, and it survives still as one very characteristic chapter of the unfolding memoir of this nation. To this day it echoes in the mind of the South and in the mind of every southerner, black or white, and in the mind of every American.

Hummer goes on to make the convincing case that blues music represents a potent and synchronously deployed resistance to the cultural and spiritual damage that the “sheer mystification” of racism in the U.S. has perpetuated. By Hummer’s lights, the blues weave a deliberate ideological and aesthetic “counterspell” that reinscribes racism’s toxic narratives with its own undeniable utterances. The poet describes this alternative and very American tradition as “a powerful lyric about powerlessness, wedded to a narrative strain that is instinctively occluded because its substance has to be subterranean . . . [T]he blues is transgressive to the bone. It is a clogging inertia thrown into the augers of force . . . and at the same time a liberating energy.”

Ever-responsive to the expressive potential generated between the poles of these conjoined legacies—a history contaminated by slavery and racism and the redemptive noise spilling through the blues' doorway to the future—, Hummer’s poems galvanize soulful, high-voltage exchanges. Between faith and betrayal. Between bewilderment and hope. Between tenderness and outrage. These exchanges have permanently altered the ground of Hummer’s self-perceptions, and that ground, for this poet, shares many features with the Mississippi landscape of his childhood. In volume after volume, the poet curates “the traces left in [him] at the remove of half a century” of that world in which he once lived, “a world that now—no matter how similar it may appear to a carefully framing, squinting observer seeking out the appearance of identity and just as carefully screening out difference—is completely and irrevocably vanished.” As Hummer has mused: “What to make of this disappearance—and not its causes but its effects—is my true subject.” This determination to push back against such erasures, to make something of them, animates the entire corpus of his work.

It is a critical commonplace at this stage of the game to acknowledge T.R. Hummer, the poet, as a master storyteller and essayist. But even in his earliest work, Hummer was exploring the expressive limitations of the lyric mode, intent on recalibrating it to resonate more energetically within expansive, prose-inspired containers. Hummer’s scale is epic, his approach novelistic. Like a novel, a volume of his poetry renders a fully imagined world through supple characterizations, meticulous attention to action and scene, and a fearless moral vision, which might represent some sort of karmic compensation for Hummer’s notoriously bad eyesight. Not that Hummer feels karma owes him anything. He reasons that, had it not been for the rare eye-movement disorder known as Duane syndrome, from which he suffered, his poetry would not be what it is. “My vision would be different. I might trust the world to be what it is more than I do. I would not have access to that profound alteration in the apparent nature of things to which removing one’s glasses gives rise.” The curse of chronic eye-trouble thus becomes a recurring trope in Hummer’s poetry as individual texts create the effect of using multiple lenses to focus on everyday people and their significance in history positively, via words themselves, as well as through the sideways effects of the not-quite-negative space marking his transition from poem to poem.

This dynamic transforms Hummer’s masterfully orchestrated sequences into zones of remarkable depth and clarity. In these entailed poetic passages, Hummer’s vision zooms in and out, drawing us into the personal world of character while allowing us to see the full scope of their cultural drama. The group of letter carrier poems in Hummer’s sophomore volume, The Angelic Orders, composed of ten modified sonnets, accomplishes both, capturing the figure of the poet’s father at work and offering candid glimpses of the rural community he served. The central movement of Useless Virtues is both a contemplation of the proto-ontological assertions of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger and a poignant family remembrance. Entitled “Axis,” this ambitious twenty-poem sequence (which bears dual epigraphs—one attributed to Heidegger, the other a simple in memoriam to Hummer’s father, who died in 1994) is a tour de force whose intensity fuses Hummer’s ongoing interrogation of the nature of identity with the naked grief and anger of a son whose father’s time has come:

Time to die. Something in his brain
Dictates it. Some grubby little führer
In the genes gives the order
And the synapses fire. Bedpan,
Morphine, scalpel, hearse in the rain.

But Hummer does not always rely on such structural arrangements and titling to create thematic resonances. He also has an uncanny knack for taking advantage of the localized, prima facie coherence of “merely” adjacent poems to similar effect. Hummer adroitly manipulates the permeability of these inert textual boundaries, creating dynamic arrangements of image and argument. “Night Music” (from The Angelic Orders) depicts a young boy’s wonder-filled encounter with an old Wurlitzer jukebox that cranks out forties tunes to a menagerie of gadabouts inside a country store. This poem immediately precedes another public scene—one of sudden (and very adult) violence in “The Man Who Beat the Game at Johnny’s Truck Stop.” The naïve curiosity that overtakes the listening child in the first poem—calling up in him an irresistible desire to “climb / Up on a cane-bottomed chair / To look deep into the machine,” to witness its inner workings, then crawl behind it and observe the “orange glow of the tubes / Shimmer[ing] like lights under water”—casts into high relief the tacit rage of the self-destructive everyman we meet at Johnny’s. When this guy’s last ball disappears into the cowgirl-bedecked coin-eater and the bells stop ringing and he brings “his hands down hard / On the glass top of the machine,” it is clear Hummer has drawn us into a tableau of defeat more essential than either narrative in isolation might reveal.

As the (literally) flat figuration of the woman painted on the pinball game floats past us, the disturbing, allegorical crudity of the assertion that “something in her belly came / Up zeroes” gives way to a meditative register that fleshes out Hummer’s unlucky player, hell-bent on breaking through

into the shining
Space we all gaze at, longing
To touch it, never knowing
What we want, or how easy it would be
If you only didn’t mind getting a little
Blood on your hands.

The sudden, unavoidable hook of the second person here, its audible skitter among all the long e’s, from the plural “we” to the singular “you,” suspended idiomatically between the speaker’s wish and his regret, hazards a type of cultural commentary that the central figures are either unable (the child) or unwilling (the man) to articulate.

So whatever became of that kid at the jukebox? The way the poet tells it, the boy’s fantasy ran afoul of history years before when John King’s store burned, along with the jukebox and King himself. The boy, the musical contraption, and the voices it made audible amid the “lights exploding / Red and green,” emblematize a people and a landscape disappearing bit by bit, through minor cataclysms of forgetfulness and fire.

A hallmark of Hummer’s craftsmanship, even in his earliest volumes, is the detail he can extract from the smallest particles of narrative, refining the pattern of signification he perceives there with the ear of a musician and the austerity of a physicist. In “Snowlines” (also from The Angelic Orders), which carries a dedication to the poet’s elder daughter, Hummer parses the phrase “now and again” in such a way that the discrete denotations of the words, blurred by dialect, render out via the careful enjambment and rhythmic contour of his lines:

I follow these lanes
With you on my back,
The snow falling now
And again from a high limb, silently—

The line, breaking as it does after “now,” creates a premature sense of grammatical closure that both clarifies and blurs the reportage. It (mis)leads us into imagining the widely dispersed motion of ongoing snowfall. But this dynamism is merely an artifact of the speaker’s mundane clairvoyance, a forecasting that will be vindicated, eventually, by the continued, groundward trajectory of a clump of accumulated snow. Hummer’s lines are like two brushstrokes, dabbing on this foreseeable outcome from immanence, from silence.

The poems of The Angelic Orders chronicle Hummer’s physical return, after a period of self-imposed exile, to the world within the world that is the Mississippi of his boyhood, and they are uttered by wanderers coming to terms with similar displacements. The vigorous rhythms and lush visuals of these texts resist nostalgia, even as they engage in backward glances that call to mind Orpheus, Lot’s wife, and Thomas Wolfe’s Eugene Gant combined. The revenant figure in “Homecoming” finds himself in a place long since abandoned to the daily meanderings of cattle, and of great migratory herons that

From nested groves on light-
Crossed wings: it is time
They move, time they break
Dark thickets in the sun’s
Height . . .

The surprising verbalization of “wind” here—read with a short i, as opposed to what we do to a watch or clock—evokes the rising, rhythmic motion of the birds, reinforced by the phrasal repetition and careful hyphenation. Hummer’s musical effects underscore (in remarkable obverse to more workaday idioms contrived around notions of landing) how, paradoxically, these creatures both embody time and are embodied by it, preserving somehow, in their habituated comings and goings by air, an essential connectedness to their locale.

In “Night Burning,” a sleeping boy awakes to “the changing / Light of pasture fire” through his bedroom window and panics a bit upon looking out, worried that his father will lose control of the prescribed burn he is performing—a necessary procedure for a southern farmer preparing for planting.

It takes
Care to make a fire that touches
Only what you want touched.
It takes a life of burning
And knowing what to burn.

Despite the superficial innocence of the scene, the son’s panic evokes more sinister fires, given the Mississippi setting, given the era. The young speakers we meet in these early poems seem to crave the knowledge alluded to here, some deeper insight or instinct by which to finally grasp what observation alone can obscure, efface, or simply fail to convey to the half-sleeping mind of the child.

Hummer traces the shifting, inconsistent forces (erotic and otherwise) assailing this child, drawing him deeper into the mire of meaning and knowledge that is manhood. In The Passion of the Right-Angled Man, this character still finds himself very frequently at the mercy of things over which he seems to have little control—his hormones, history, the inconvenient autonomy of other people. While the book’s title winks and nudges a bit in its allusion to the Right Angle posture of the Kama Sutra (perfected over centuries to facilitate that rare combination of producing intensified sexual pleasure while allowing for nearly endless possibilities of movement), it also suggests the restless energy and thematic experimentation on display in these texts, which bemusedly sample the bandwidth of the male human heart in search of a clear signal amid the intellectual and emotional static that passion engenders.

Read in a certain light, Right-Angled Man offers the reader a bouquet of lonesome aubades as it enacts a ravishing mash-up of the unfamiliar territory of thwarted romance that is gradually dawning on the poet and all of his pie-eyed avatars. Headed home in the wee hours, an insomniac bar-hopper notes, “[I]t is morning this time, early, the sun not over / Eastern mountains . . . ” A young boy in “First Love: When It Falls,” while waking early to the familiar sounds of his parents’ voices in the house, and to the unfamiliar feeling of touching his own body, seems wary of the red light spying from “the east, through the crack / In the curtain . . . ” This same boy seems to reappear in a later poem, hunting solo for the first time, trekking the “false dawn in no-color / Air of five am . . . ” But whoever happens to be speaking makes a reverent gesture toward the dependable radiation that makes sight possible: “It always has to begin / With sky, with whatever light / There is . . . ”

This recurrent figure—his flaws illuminated by whatever available light the narrator has at hand—is Hummer’s necessary angel. We glimpse his unreconstructed bitterness as “Ex-husband, would-be father” in “The Oracle of the Lonely Man In Stillwater, Oklahoma” and bear witness as he racks up regrets beneath a streetlight in “A Fool Is a Man Who Understands Nothing but Remembers Everything,” through his own willful refusal to make a simple gesture.

I let you stand
Touching me, an arm’s length away,
Knowing the shadow we threw
Was a shape I had never seen,

One I could change.

As the antihero in “Traps,” he appears at a Halloween party in blackface—the disguise of a “blind / Street musician”—as he leans “on a doorframe watching / A monkey fondle the tits / Of a jolly transvestite.” In the title poem, he dangles from a broadcast tower, drunk, on a dare, his buddies laughing below him, awash in a car radio’s drone “About honky-tonks and passion, about some poor fool in love / With somebody gone.” And even as our airborne antihero bemoans his predicament, realizing he’s “too high” for the “busted heart” of the country ballad’s hero “To get to him,” it’s reassuring in some fundamental way to realize he’s not too wasted to appreciate, in impressively cadenced monosyllables, the “arc-light shock the sky he is in is full of.”

It is amid these early texts that Hummer begins to lay the foundations of his own serious philosophical interrogation of lyricism itself, especially in the Romantic context. That lyricism, found in the mouths of all of Hummer’s varied speakers, gives voice to the self-histories of the poor, the strange, the lonely. The poems of Lower-Class Heresy explore the implications of such a project. They examine how we internalize the histories handed down to us from family and friends and the assorted, haphazardly continuous versions of the self we continually strive to domesticate and to unify within the larger body politic. The title of this seminal collection comes from the epigraph of its middle section, “Dogma.” Attributed to British historian and social commentator Christopher Hill, the epigraph reads: “ . . . certain themes recur in lower-class heresy.”

As a scholar, Hill, best known for his studies of radical social and religious ideas (read: heresies) of mid-seventeenth-century England, recognized the dangers of the distorting lens of class/social enmity and was interested in determining the extent to which the radical ideas of the 1640s–50s were “new” or simply strains of older notions that became more audible in the context of the English Revolution. Hill chronicled the increasingly robust critiques of what had been long-durable principles of societal organization and stratification (the peerage system and hereditary titles; religious governance of marriage and divorce) among the diversely constituted merchant/working class of the period. This demographic included Anabaptists, Levellers, Lollards, Diggers, Marian martyrs, and Familists. Their new outspokenness, coupled with the gradual waning of the influence of official censorship and the church during this period, made it possible to begin mapping the “continuities of underground ideas,” and so Hill undertook the careful philosophical dissection of what had been, historically, a provocatively null space. Hill’s goal, in sum, was to trace how the “lower orders” stand revealed in action and in gesture, “speaking for themselves in a natural tone of voice.”

The same curiosity/concern informs virtually all of T.R. Hummer’s poetry and critical writing from this point forward. Who better to take up this banner than a representative of the very “lower orders” to whom Hill dedicated his historic studies? Now, to label Hummer a chronicler of “class struggle” would be a gross misrepresentation. But Hummer does seem to take on the role of gadfly, attempting to stimulate the argument that class, not race, should occupy the central position in our cultural and political discourse, especially as it pertains to new conceptualizations of social justice and individual rights. And although Hummerville is hardly a new philosophical whistle-stop, the poet’s commitment to lay down tracks upon which future trains of thought might arrive, better equipped to bear the burdens of such moral hazards, makes his poetry that much more compelling. A new generation of activists could go to school in his pages, whose analytical gravitas and tenaciously polyvocal stylization solidifies around these contested themes.

In Lower-Class Heresy Hummer pushes beyond the lyric mode, energizing a new harmonics of representation. This innovative mode seems to arise from his evolving technique of crafting composite narratives from the most casual musings of his subjects, from their hesitations, their nervous realizations, and their roadside philosophizing. The magnetic force of these textual alloys draws the reader toward deeper and deeper appreciations of the ethos that animates Hummer’s nuanced fables.

The superficial occasion for a poem like“Inner Ear” is the patient/speaker’s visit to the doctor seeking relief for a bout of dizzy spells and nausea. But when he’s told to picture his own malfunctioning anatomy as “A small sealed chamber with a fine dust inside,” sudden memories of a youthful tryst (in a church closet filled with musty old choir robes) take over the textual space. (Wouldn’t Rorschach have made mincemeat of this guy?) Later, when the patient’s wife dutifully re-presents what the doctor tried to explain regarding the temperamental infrastructure of the speaker’s aural perceptions, how it consists of “two labyrinths, one inside the other,” he’s been flat on his back long enough to become truly philosophical:

He thinks it incredibly strange
That the spinning he feels in the world is not in the world

But in the dust inside his head.
It is true that the world is turning,
And its motionlessness is only apparent.
It is not true he feels it turning,

But maybe a doubling of illusions
Amounts to something like the truth.

These doubled illusions—experience and memory, the past and the future—converge not just in this patient’s physical lack of balance but also in his suspicions that somehow the neutral laws of physics and history have colluded in his very particular brand of misery. But Hummer is doggedly attentive to the fact that all narrative is contingent, fraught, caught up in the stories that give flesh to history. So in “Legal Limit,” when a “childlike mumble”emanates from the ambient darkness and a woman’s voice demands, “Tell me a story,” her adulterous interlocutor, well aware of the distance between the hands of the man touching her and those of the boy he used to be, offers us a fisherman’s tale. But not some clichéd boast about the one that got away—instead he gives us a cautionary mea culpa about refusing to adhere to the humane rules of catch and release. He recalls how, as a boy, he refused one day to throw back “a bream // Too small to keep.” He describes stringing some twine through its “sawtooth / Bloodred . . . gills” then tying it to a willow limb and leaving it to dangle in “the soup of lake.” He then confesses how he “clean forgot” about that fish until, months later, he came back to his familiar spot and tripped over the slipknotted loop of his own actions:

Lying above you now,
The story almost over,
I see it again, I know

What surfaces obscure,
What strikes from below
In starved, bone-jarring motion:

The snake and the small fish it swallowed
Both caught on that twine and torn clean
By quick-kissing mouths to

An intricate fusion of skeleton
No skill of hands can undo:
These two made one.

Hummer sketches for us here the serial accident of human cruelty and the hungers that drive us headlong toward it. The twine itself—like the bones of the fish and the snake, and the sins of this man and his lover, enlarged perhaps by their entanglements—can’t escape the complex mechanism of lust and regret the living couple embodies. It is the very scandal of their humanity that entraps them. The poem and the story within the poem are not deployed to snare the reader’s commiseration or antipathy. They serve as reminders that we “choose how to begin,” that “If there is going to be suffering,” (and believe me—if the annals of history are any indication, there will be) then, “There must be an authority for pain. / Touch me is all I can tell you. / There is no true or adequate story.”

What, then, to make of the long, sectioned poem “Pigmeat and Whiskey”? On the surface, it depicts a series of detailed scenes from the poet’s archetypal southern family’s last great reunion (a ritual Fourth of July picnic). Hazarding some of the most disconcerting and transparently autobiographical portraiture of his ouevre, the poet chooses to reveal his own people “bivouacked” like a “small army” on the “drought-burnt front lawn” of their patriarch, signaling an almost perverse conceit. Hummer indicts the tableau even as he composes it, calling attention to its legacy of “false memory” and violence transmitted, “Melodramatic as dreams,” from grandfather to father to son. He is self-consciously suspicious of the “redneck mystique” contaminating the zeitgeist and acknowledges he’s likely to sound like “just another Southern storyteller telling // Another story about the war, that Dark and Bloody Ground, / Family, memory, history, old men, time.” But the alternative to this anguished reportage is a kind of erasure that the poet could not—in good conscience, or with any emotional honesty—choose to embrace. The emotional and intellectual ramifications of this refusal remain palpable, even in Hummer’s later poems, like “Erasure,” from Eon:

A cormorant had lifted from the inky estuary and lapsed
behind the bridge moments ago perhaps, etching
A shape in the water unrelated to its body, incommensurate
with its hunger, but expressing a luminous turbulence
We could not trace back by any logic to the bird we never saw:
the way an old man opens up a hole in the ground and pulls it
In behind him, and we remember him as father, no matter who he was.

The quality of the light made to break from these carefully manipulated, oblique disquisitions and the subtle interplay of lyric frequencies that constitute them are carefully controlled variables in the vast, evolving thought experiment that is Hummer’s poetry. What results is more than recollection and more than the incantatory legerdemain of a master raconteur rendering character. Hummer’s speakers offer up sobering, clear-eyed critiques of the ideas and theories they’ve come to live by. Even if, as one of his rounders declares, these amount only to so many “Heresies, Overheard”—the poet reveres their flawed arguments, raised in high tension as they are with the dangerous, purposeful aesthetic of the live wire and just as vulnerable to the sobering adjudications of lightning:

The stories
Are lifted, vanished, even the one I like to call my life.
They’ll be back, but for now I’m plotless,
and even the body fades
To dark as I walk on, happy, self-forgotten, whistling a random tune
Nameless and unrepeatable, but whose rhythm is the wrenched and real
Shape of the sidewalk and the way I stumble on
my own amazing grace.

The conflicted connotations of “lift” here, conveying both elevation and larceny, anticipates the literal and figurative “stumbl[ing]” that Hummer, ever the bluesman at heart, recognizes as the only true path to salvation.

Hummer followed that lonely and often circuitous path overseas during the 1980s, and the poems that emerged from his experiences there take on the intensity of confession even as they assume, for a moment, the pose of the postmodern. Torn between the power of language and its inevitable faltering, the poet grapples with the size and scope of his ambition to topple, singlehandedly, the historical juggernauts of the lyric mode. That tension boils over in The 18,000-Ton Olympic Dream, a volume that derives its title from the name of a Greek tanker that, while sailing under a U.S. flag, was involved in a disastrous oil spill off the coast of Netherlands during Hummer’s time abroad.

The paranoia and anomie of the speaker in this collection’s title poem resonate with Hummer’s own sense of alienation—the reasonable angst of a temporary expat tugged toward rage by random bad news of the Irangate scandal and the anti-Americanism floating on the breeze. But fabrications and omissions in the local coverage of the oil spill, and the essential vacuity of “the newscaster’s spiel” about the disaster, enraged Hummer. The abject failure of journalism to capture the story, which, as Hummer describes, seemed to force the ship to founder twice, once in the waters of the Mediterranean and then again in “the widow-making unchilding unfathering / Sheet of television colorlessness,” evokes something resembling self-loathing in the poet as he reflects:

That was essential, I thought: to be unknown
And unrevealed in this part of the world
Where I’d come, vaguely ashamed
Of my country, of the language
I can’t help speaking—
my voice
An indelible brand no amount of goodwill
Or cautious politics can hide . . .

A fundamental shift in perspective ratchets audibly in these poems, though some might counter they merely dramatize an old argument about the self and how language marks it. But what if this constitutes an argument we still desperately need to have? About what is “essential” to move beyond shame and cautious politics toward authenticity and reconciliation. I’d argue that when the intellectual history of the twentieth century settles out of the cloud, Hummer’s name will be inscribed in a vortex of ones and zeroes encoding other monikers like Janos Bolyai and Nikolai Lobachevsky. Theirs was an old argument, too, one taken up by boatloads of smart Greeks before the ink had set in Euclid’s Elements. Many smelled trouble with that old boy’s fifth postulate and conjectured much in multiple directions about how to fix it. Then Jan and Nik figured it wouldn’t hurt to go ahead and set aside that one flawed notion just to see how it might change the writing on the wall. Who knew that telescopes would one day corroborate the crazy idea that space itself could bend?

For Hummer, the romantic conception of the self and its will to transcendence, exuding all the toxic lovelinesses of the egotistical lyric, calls for a corrective theorization and praxis. “Bluegrass Wasteland,” the gargantuan twenty-sectioned poem (it runs forty pages) that closes out Olympic Dream could serve as a primer for this recalibration. Against the Top Ten list Moses brought down from the arid heights of Sinai, Hummer poses two naturally-occurring steady states of the quantum self (a man, a woman) observed in flagrante delicto in a nameless office building in Mt. Vernon, Ohio. Married (but not to each other), their delicto may appear more or less consequential to observers of a certain ethical rigor, but as it surveys the vast echo chamber of the man’s self-consciousness and guilt, the poem records an indelible, exhaustive schematic of the emergent space-time effect it has on his voice. This is “the voice” that proceeds to translate sensation to sense for us; which, married to action, conceives sin; which can’t resist the genetically constituted force of curiosity that gives rise to our desire to grasp how “the strange, knotted taste of a nipple of flesh / Lives, and has life in another life.”

About three quarters of the way through the “Wasteland,” Hummer’s metanarrative turns outward, interrogating, “Where are we now? Have we even begun? The voice / Wonders at itself, moves in wonder at the way / It shapes the word it understands as love, moves to tell us . . . ” (emphasis mine). These “moves” belie the postmodern lurch toward some new and equally romantic mantra of no subject, no self, suggesting rather an altered lyricism and a “method” by which the poet might still handle the objects of that flawed sensibility and speak of them “without alienation” and “without scorn.”

But, having perhaps been visited by the Spirit of Dissertation-Seekers Future, Hummer enumerates eleven crucial illusions to which the practitioner of the new lyric will be subject, all in an effort to appease potential disciples and skeptics alike. From the cinematic illusion, created by language that “rises / Against the reader’s imagination like images on film / Or . . . on a screen” and so “assumes that authority // Of instantaneous occurrence . . . ” to the clinical illusion, which disregards “any troubling questions / About time and verb tense and morality” in its preoccupation with “objects designed for maximum efficiency,” “Wasteland” posits the faulty logics by which this man (and his lover) have navigated themselves into the booby trap of their passionate entanglement. But it also suggests that these same careworn notions fuel the vehicle that’s carrying us all toward salvation. If the heretic illusion, which blinds us with its mystical certainties of “absolute authority” and “pure justification,” is to be avoided at all costs, at least we have the inseparable, triplet illusions of wonder, synchronicity,and déjà vu to justify the cover charge we’ve had to pay to listen to the band.

This voice, this drastically reimagined singer/speaker, is a durable feature in all of Hummer’s later collections. In “Neighborhood Watch: Habeas Corpus,” from Walt Whitman in Hell, it rages and stage directs, evoking a stark landscape somewhere beneath “the first of the hundred and twenty / artless moons of the 1980s,” calling our attention to the noise of a passing Shell Oil truck that drags behind it a length of “stainless steel chain // Fifty miles an hour along the pavement” and to the “aurora of sparks” it “throws up,” distracting us, as good magicians will, from the real trick of conjuring the hell-bent human figure at the wheel:

Inside the dark cab I arrange,
the windshield is scrawled
With a white subtext of amphetamines:
histories, romances, landscapes.

The driver touches his forearm,
his indigo tattoo
Of a skull and crossbones wearing
an Uncle Sam top hat.

The legend: Semper Fidelis. He knows
what that Latin sounds like
Shouted by three hundred
desperate boys in a Marine Corps

Boot camp compound. Cicero, Ceasar,
how much knowledge
Is wasted here? And the homesick
black recruit from New Jersey,

How he screams when the Corporal takes
his foreskin with a bayonet
While six others hold him—you can hear
somebody whisper Stop crying, nigger,

Or we’ll cut another inch.
Always faithful. Another billboard
Flashes Jesus is coming soon. Jesus
loves you. Jesus blesses any

Vermont night where nobody sleeps
Until this truck and its corrosive
Tonnage of high-octane Shell passes
into the jurisdiction of concealment.

The layered omniscience here doles out its revelations bit by bit, the better to snare us by our own preconceptions. The projections of the amped-up ex-marine, signposted as an entirely textual fabrication, appears fairly benign at first but acquires monstrous dimensionality when the narrator unearths the memories of his military training.

Still, haven’t we been warned that a great deal of “knowledge” is likely to be “wasted” here? As the poet’s imagination subtends all that we do not and cannot know, to gloss the definitive with the . . . plausible? . . . the typeface itself suggests a patchwork of rhetorical zones where a frayed/fraying literality inscribes the trucker/focalizer’s own tenuous sense of the factual—the Marine Corps motto, its “legend” inked on his body; the whispered slurs and threats of the power-corrupted CO of memory; the billboard’s ironically ubiquitous proselytizing, presented as an evangelizing slogan hurled from sect(or)s unknown—further atomizing reality to the audible (or legible) remnants (perceived or remembered) within the “arranged” space inside the “dark cab” of the driver’s cranium.

In the relative silence that descends once the truck rumbles out of earshot, the narrator continues to inventory his own complex antipathies. The voice in his head recalls a brush with oppressive authority and being held in “The urinous light of a . . . cell in Burlington.” Held until, in a sleep-deprived rant reminiscent of the teamster’s stream of consciousness we’ve just waded through, he screams Habeas corpus repeatedly at his jailers, desperate to affirm “the power / fact has over lyric, how what is // Suffered is suffered . . . ” Perhaps the exhausted transitivity of “to suffer” bewilders us here because it is not a truism and it is not a mistake, but rather an inscription of the mortifying ethical conundrums that arise between enduring pain and giving permission for that pain to be inflicted in the first place—between hurting someone else accidentally or inevitably or simply because it is allowed. These soul-bruises Hummer suggests are the dark wells that spring from the broken heart of free will.

That pain and irony play out again and again in The Infinity Sessions as the poet catalogs other hard-earned scars from the dusty road that he and his idiosyncratically assembled pantheon of blues and jazz-begotten demiurges have traveled together toward oblivion. The book is arranged in five suites, the first four of which are inspired by (and dedicated to) the life stories and creative legacies of Sun Ra, Big Maybelle Smith, Jimmie Lunceford, and Adrian Rollini—their own songs lending titles to the poems in their respective sections. Individual pieces here also evoke, title by title, the numbers that elevated these performers into the realm of the legendary—“’Taint What You Do,” “Feelin’ No Pain,” “Ocean of Tears,” “Rocket #9.” But once again, Hummer’s impetus feels more akin to historiography than hero worship as he warms up at the celestial microphone in the volume’s opening poem (which also gives the collection its title), promising, somehow, through the hybrid, virtuosic lip-synch of his persona-esque anthems, to keep this music front and center, to remind us how, “common names forgotten,” they all “Lived and died for it,” and how, “note by note, take by take, their lyrical // Stumbling fattens the vault of heaven.

Hummer’s homages fuse lyric insights and liner commentary into alt-biographical dioramas that reconsider luck and fate as the definitive occupational hazards for these folk in the business of shows going on. The cardiac arrest (possibly the result of deliberate food poisoning) that killed Lunceford at forty-five, figured tentatively in one poem as “Storm, or flame, or a chemical bolt of indifference,” brings down the curtain with a “crack in the chest like a rim shot, / Syncopation of stop-time, a diminished chord in the brain.” Later it’s hard to tease apart the guttural harmonies established between the poet/speaker and the ghost of Big Maybelle, which call down mercy on the fraught landscape that gave birth to them both. Mercy “On the pitch-pine, mercy on the shed, mercy on the tractor tire / And the swelling corpse of the cow. Mercy on the archetype: / Everybody talking, nobody doing a blesséd thing.” These paeans to thwarted potential and realized genius are like a bootlegged mixtape that this motley assortment of luminaries might have composed if . . .

Falling back to the tried and true virtuosity of his signature power sequence (while doubling down on the collection’s unifying conceit), Hummer post-produces The Infinity Sessions into “The Chaos Remasterings,” which section appears to reconsider and recycle the fulminations and the fables of the various iconic figures that the volume’s individual suites have memorialized. It’s not clear who is speculating about “The Prisoners” on roadside cleanup detail in their orange jumpsuits, or which of them notices “the perfect skeleton of a rabbit twined with dried ironweed. / That stillness . . . enviable, that femur, that limestone-colored cranium, / That being impenetrable, never having known the pistol-whip of a name.” Still, for all the consolations that such anonymity might afford, the poet seems plagued by the animistic suspicion that inert matter itself somehow partakes of a more essential gnosis. The rest is mere procedure. Myths of signification. Adam, alone in the garden.

Attuned by nature, upbringing, and artistic inclination to the lives and times of these men and women of the blues, Hummer, like them, is cagey about the fundamental disjuncture between the myths somebody’s always pricing too high and bargain-basement reality. Truth to tell: he has a wicked ear for jive. And a tongue predisposed to naming it as such. But Hummer is not at all caught up in detailing for us any sort of “big picture.” In his poems Hummer returns time and again to the nagging suspicion that the most significant and sometimes the most insidious articulations of language happen on a small scale, word by word, or perhaps even inside words or along their edges, where declension and conjugation encode the specificities of reference.

This attention to economies of scale and the way it shapes Hummer’s later poems might also have something to do with his close reading of the Romanian essayist and philosopher E.M. Cioran. “Dead Writer, ‘Extinct’ Form, The Power of the Small” (one of many thought-provoking titles from Hummer’s critical volume, Available Surfaces), clearly indicates how impressed by Cioran’s late, aphoristic style Hummer is. In his discussion of Cioran’s work (among others) Hummer notes rather archly how Europe “has a long tradition of aphorists” but that America, as far as he knows, “has produced practically none” (emphasis mine).

Though he is quick to point out how the American tendency to idealize individual authority is singularly incompatible with the aphorist’s tendency to speak “categorically; aggressively . . . and nakedly, without an array of proofs and arguments,” Hummer seems convinced that there are “subjects, and historical situations, even American ones, that require the acid of the most incisive aphorism: moments when all uses of authority have become so mangled or so filthy with disuse that they need to be cauterized, stripped bare, or even obliterated.” And so he has proceeded to dedicate his latest three volumes, Ephemeron, Skandalon, and Eon, to bridging this regrettable (and altogether correctable) literary lacuna.

In “The Power of the Small,” Hummer offers a persuasive appreciation of the stylistic and formal range of the aphoristic mode, probing its thematic resilience and scalability, citing the dense micro-lyrics of Cioran and what the poet terms the “epic aphorisms” of Franz Kafka (think novella as uber-aphorism) as examples at either extreme. The provocative poetics of the genre, which require that the speaker be granted the right “to assert in a mode that carries no citation, stands in no range of experiment, and is in that sense entirely free-floating,” seem to fascinate Hummer, who suggests that Cioran, “living with the embarrassment of his own fascist youth,” no doubt recognized (and was drawn to) the potentiality of this form, drawn to how “in its brevity and its focus, [it] seems to call into being an entire cosmos, one that is sharp and clear and clean, yet completely evanescent: as soon as it appears completely, it vanishes . . . ” Ephemeral, one might say.

Invoking outright the work of William Carlos Williams (which he assimilated directly, through his own eyeballs) and Robert Johnson (osmosed by way of the licks of one Walter Outlaw, a blues-playing neighbor from Hummer’s childhood) as foundational to his own poetics, Hummer lays out the results for his audience fairly diagrammatically:

(1) A poem is a field of action . . . wherein one labors for all one loves, for the self and the antiself, using all the machinery there is, the combine and the locomotive equally, the upright church piano and the blues guitar. But/and: Insofar as the selfhood I was given as a boy in Mississippi—a child in America—was a deliberate, calculated falsehood, (2) All my love’s in vain.

Engaged as he has been over the decades with his own scrupulous attempts to dispossess himself of some of the demons of his Mississippi upbringing, Hummer thus finds another kindred spirit in Cioran, as well as a compelling model for the massive, lyrically augmented superstructure he is about to erect.

Ephemeron, published in 2011 by Louisiana State University Press, examines those nearly inscrutable inflection points where the singular evolves into a plurality, where an individual poem weaves itself into the fabric of poetry, and where the idiosyncratic story of a singular bruised and aging human body searches for plausible denouements at the congested intersections of culture and history.

Fourteen of the fifty-three poems in this volumeconsist of paired, seven- to ten-beat lines of aleatory, highly aphoristic text. But for the absence of the conventional indention to indicate a wrapped line, these “couplets” could just as well represent a type of molecularized prose. This blurring of the singular/plural (two verses? one snippet?) echoes the gesture of the volume’s title, derived from the rarely-used singular form of the familiar plural “ephemera.” Double helpings of white space and a stylized fleuron separate these lines of text that, visually, call to mind the twinned strands of DNA, whose form and function turn out to be a unifying trope for the entire collection.

The opening poem (though not composed in the aforementioned “couplets”) is, in fact, an uncanny praise song for the raw material of the human genes, evoking the fragile, acidic “skeins” of the molecules that orchestrate the mysterious, “anti-entropic” gestational process occurring in the womb of the speaker’s wife. The papa-to-be, lying there in the “broken dawn-light of the fiftieth September / Of a man old enough to refuse to be ashamed / of his own joy” fronts triumphal, but it’s impossible not to hear the echo of “broken down” in his nervous internal monologue regarding the gods he invokes to oversee the “holy chemistry of existence” weaving his second daughter into being.

The texts arranged as Ephemeron’s opening section (which shares the volume’s title) are too precise to call sketches. Screen captures, maybe, of the few numinous bits of MRI-tracery dangling stubbornly from the gnawed end of late capitalism’s leash. The consciousness thus rendered—diffuse, inchoate, polyvocal—assembles an oddly pre–apocalyptic milieu from rough shards and suggestions of what might come to be. The catalog of symptoms with which “Abandon” diagnoses the palpable silence of a house, its “people gone out, cats sleeping, leaf blowers put away, / the half life of the crawl space ticking down toward zero,” foretells a devolution of the presented scene from the visible orderliness of suspended animation to sub-microscopic chaos: “Soon, but not yet, the incremental creaking of hinges, the end of molecular bonding, release of form: shapelessness in the doorframe, soon.” No human agency redeems the “simple domesticity” on display; the onrush of time is the only evidence that might explain the “elemental disturbance in the aether, the tureen vibrating on the sideboard . . . ” Surely the terrible twos won’t be that bad.

Sometimes animal presences focalize the unfolding of momentary crises: “In pinewoods at midnight the trapped weasel, gnawing its own leg, stops to consider its bitter self-taste”; “A rat in the dark attic at midnight, bolt-cutter teeth incising insulation. Black wire, red wire. A spark.” More often the point of view is fragmentary, elemental—“At the end of the world an empty beach, empty sea, empty wind, flat, lifeless, leaving nothing behind but its poisonous etching of salt.”Or subjectless—“Appears the opium poppy. / Appears uranium. / Appears a knife between the ribs. Appears a kidney / shrink-wrapped and iced down . . . ” Still, an undeniably human set of preoccupations surfaces again and again, floating free of the temporal undertow, worries that might arise from the mind of a slightly mad scientist attempting to resolve the images forming before him at that “singular point on the continuum from which time reads like “an inscribed transparency: just ahead, the hospital bed, the miraculous IV.”

As the hypochondriac logician of “Argument from Design” inventories the various bodily apertures that might open onto his own mortality, “The failing kidney is a portal—the leaky / heart valve, the clot, the lesion in the brain,” he seems to derive genuine (if perverse) comfort from the notion that “the radio / On the shelf by the bath” might represent “a crystal hatchway, hermetically unsealing, / Leading, after a prelude of unspectacular / fireworks, to a region beyond / The invention of the hinge and the hasp.” The paralyzing angst is hard to miss here, but so is the bleak humor deployed by the poet and his many avatars—insomniac astronomer, trap-caught weasel, wheelchair-bound Samaritan, blind bibliophile, autopsy-prone geneticist—who teleport from text to text as suggestion, resemblance, or clonelike repetition.

In these texts, Hummer contrives the gradual accrual of plot and persona via a mode of connectivity that “tunnels” discreetly—a quantum effect—between the present, past, and future. This entangles the poet/narrator’s individually imagined versions of each of these temporal zones with the synchronous, manifold versions always emanating from humans collectively. Thus, in “Interrogations,” one couplet describes an old woman in a wheelchair who reads, to “her blind friend,” a poem that has been inscribed by rain on a window as the friend “mumble[s] protest: too fast.” Two poems later, a version of this sightless woman appears as a “blind girl in the library” who “passes her hands over the dusty spines” of the books “like a pianist, like a pickpocket.” We encounter her meta-avatar much later, in “Implosions,” whose fourth couplet, an absolute non sequitur, reports, “In the poem, a girl in a library sleeps, her face on a book; I read her skin in its paper . . . ” Is this an iteration of the blind friend reading or some other person altogether parsing the delicate braille of another’s flesh? Much, much later, in “Infinite by Virtue of Its Everlastingness,” all of these interrelated presences are suggested in the scene of a young woman trying to study for her Keats exam, sitting by a fountain that contains goldfish, which distract her from her task, along with “the smear of forsythia / Beyond the copper fence” and “a car alarm / blocks away.”

There is no value in this distractedness. The body’s creature comforts are under siege. But so are its discomforts. Its fractious, hard-won compromises with gravity and history become tepid, theoretical, until, like some Kubrick-esque time traveler, all that remains is a voice like the one in “Singularity”—benumbed voyeur, anti-Yeats—hawking obliteration, the “One moment in the steely galaxy a falcon gyred, then stalled in his striding on a ripple in the locus: then a spray of neutrinos: then void.”

It seems ironic that, as a highly skilled citizen of the digital city (well, post­–Web 2.0), the poet manqué who accompanies us through the fractured timescape that is Ephemeron should choose to present himself as “A creaky, stylized fiction from a distant century.” As if Y2K were a vague and distant dream. But somehow our aphorist, unflinching, manages to resist nostalgia. He prefers to occupy space-time like a crack scientist, measuring the precise dimensions of the aporia required to catalyze an image into arguments. In “Biography of Eros” we see lovers handcuffed on a bed, though the poem refuses to enumerate how many pairs of handcuffs are involved or how they are deployed. (One pair per person? One pair shackling two?) They accept that their shared dream “of the interpenetration of souls” is insanity, “but,” the poem advises, they accept this truth quite “differently.” One perceives: “madness, endlessly. The other thought: madness, finally.” Complaint or relief? An “Abandoned Draft” offers the reader hints, maybe fingerprints, but no solid DNA:

The body goes on. Ignorance is required to go on, ignorance of something, if not of a god then of oneself, or one’s anti-self, of language, or of ignorance itself—something like that is necessary, foot by foot, sentence by sentence, catachresis by iamb, something unspeakable is necessary to go on

Body of flesh. Body of words. The enunciating subject trapped in the crosshairs of this convergence. Such are the preoccupations that dog Hummer into his latest published volume. Skandalon, whose title is a word used mostly in theological discussions nowadays to refer to any idea or activity that might distract a person from her/his own godliness or from the true way to approach it. It’s related to the English cognate “scandal,” but, in an interview for The Huffington Post with Jonathan Hobratsch, Hummer points out: “In archaic Greek . . . the word meant something much more specific: the trigger of a trap. So the flat piece of metal in a mouse trap upon which one places the bait would have been called a skandalon.”

Trap. The archetypal force of this single syllable radiates back through Hummer’s poetry like a wormhole. It hovers in the air above the rabbit with no name. It sculpts a cautionary tale from the death-fused bones of bream and blacksnake. It taps into the inexhaustible B-movie plot device of things that go bump in the night as the right-angled avatar sleeps off his Halloween hookup, having stumbled drunk and unharmed through the obstacle course of his own yard, which has been sown with metal jaws by a gun-happy neighbor whom we glimpse boiling the deadly tools “to get the dead smell off,” the better to have them go unnoticed by any random, hapless, chicken-killing raccoon until it’s up to its shoulder in a scandal of excruciation.

With this subtext in mind, it’s difficult to un-arch the eyebrows as one hopscotches Skandalon’s unifying “sequence”—eighteen (18) numbered prose poems, dispersed nonconsecutively throughout the book’s eighty-one (81) texts. They all share a root title though: “Victims of the Wedding,” shorthanded below as “VotW.” Some paragraphed, some not, these pieces are busily italicized to signal shifting speakers (or the shifting registers of a singular, obsessive narrator?) who accompany us through their darkly surreal vignettes. The gesture of a “clarifying” subtitle accompanies each poem, offering, cumulatively, a running critique of any notion of forward progress—spiritual or mechanical. From the cryptically Borgesian A Confusion of Choices among the Forking Ways (“VotW 3”) to a Dead End (“VotW 5”) to The Minotaur’s Tracks (“VotW 10”), these quasi-epigraphs cue recurrent images of labyrinths and claustrophobic chambers and unattainable destinations, pulling the reader into a stylized version of the dream of the endless hallway with all its kinetic angst and infuriatingly identical, unapproachable doors. Is fiancé French for scared yet?

We sense something is awry immediately in the first prose “chapter,” when a solitary man, who has fallen asleep while hurtling through the sky (on a crowded plane, bound for some unnamed city in which a lucky couple’s nuptials are about to take place), wakes to an empty cabin and nothing outside the window but clouds, then “space and its unfamiliar constellations.” Suddenly aware that he holds “an old spiral-bound notebook in his lap, with the nub of a pencil attached to it by a length of greasy string,” our frequent flyer glances down and reads something “written there, in his own hand these words: Do you hear the sound the water in the streambed makes as it runs over smooth stones? There is the entrance.” And so he proceeds to record the scattered turbulences of his own flowing consciousness.

In the second installment of this serialized saga of monogamy-seeking, “Victims of the Wedding 2: The Doorjamb of the Labyrinth,” we encounter for the first time the ideal, ungendered angel and daemon of the protocouple whose looming nuptials have Big-Banged into existence the universe of victimization in which they also appear to be trapped. They will serve as guides and color commentators for most of the rest of the fractured novella:

We have both made promises, the daemon said. Whose promises shall be kept?

My promises, said the angel, are difficult things, but attainable.

Mine, said the daemon, are easy things, but impossible.

That’s the traditional way, the angel said, and they shook hands on it.

As these astral presences observe homo sapiens at his work and issue proclamations regarding the passions, the pieties, and the courage (or lack thereof) that they behold in the species’ ongoing relationships, it’s like watching flash episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 . . . with more serious riffing. In “Victims of the Wedding 8: Sense of Direction” the angel and daemon “compare notes on the process” of human lovemaking:

Do you think, the angel said, that what they’re doing there is really worth all the effort they put into it? It seems to be a lot of work.

I take them at their word, the daemon said, and in every word they speak, even when they are not speaking, they affirm the worth of it.

But look, the angel said, he pierces her. How can that be a pleasant thing?

It’s a mystery, the daemon said, but she pierces him too. The mystery resides in that also.

The cohesion and focus of the “Victims” narratives, reinforced by the voyeuristic banter of these cosmic robots, stands in stark contrast to the topical breadth of the references and commentaries delivered by the poet via the interstitial lyrics that separate them. These more purely lyrical gestures interrupt and pace that other story as it unfolds. The syncopated exposition that results offers a lucid counterpoint on everything from human anatomy and physiology, to subatomic physics, to the esoterica of African Jews (the Beta Israelis), and their apocryphal Book of Enoch. The range of this intelligence simply staggers the imagination.

But equally impressive and delightful is the range of tonality and wit on display. Hummer regales the reader with his own unique brand of infotainment: from the laughably inane specificity of contemporary job descriptions, which transform “farmhands” into “Lactic Technicians,” to the bitter irony of the hundred-year-old Huntley & Palmers biscuit discovered in a way station used by Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton near the Fortuna Glacier, which outlasted many of the members of Shackleton’s party and was auctioned off at Christie’s for “a thousand-some sterling.” Hummer manages to serve up milk and cookies.

But there’s something consternating about the almost combative roll call of dead queer (and probably-queer) poets that another strand of Skandalon’s beaded lyrics enacts. If there’s a tender undercurrent to the poet’s shout-outs to Whitman, Pessoa, Sappho, and Gerard Manley Hopkins, it’s subtle enough to pass for insolence, or outrage. Passing? “Out” rage? Passing out rage. At best the treatment of these literary figures in the broader context of the collection is conflicted. Perhaps the “nothingness” that the swimming woman in “Sappho” will “reclaim” is a doorway she must retraverse in penalty for hearing

the music of consciousness, purer
than water or sky

Or the body that carries the lyric for-
ward forever in silence that only the
Body can bear (bear over sings metaphor)

Body as waveform. Body as particle. After the speaker in “Whitman’s Pantry” lists its mundane inventory of “Hard cheese. A licorice twist. / A box of sugar cubes to meliorate bitter tea” and concedes Whitman “was the catalog of his perfect body,” the tonal shift of “Behold his dried orange peel, studded with a sorry clove. / This pantry is compost now. It is small; it contains millipedes” is striking. The broad satire aimed at Whitman’s oft-quoted “I am large, I contain multitudes” feels at odds with the poem’s earlier recollections, especially when it calls to mind the airplane passenger/poet’s “greasy string” (the one connecting his pencil nub securely to his notebook). Why does it reappear here, tying shut Whitman’s “Dried beans in a muslin sack”? We could chalk it up to gallows humor, or the last paroxysms of influence anxiety. Rumor has it the latter has led to fatalities as in “When Faulkner Killed Rilke”:

The black cedar is edited from a nightmare,
and the deconstructed oak
An outtake from a terrible dialogue
between the earth and a lightning bolt.
Whoever you are, come out of your room.
The mundane radiance of winter afternoon
Is replaying something you called my life,
O numinous, O golden, etc. In the trailer
Parked forty years ago behind the brick plant,
one of the ancients of the earth knocks back
Another bourbon. Rilke never wrote the word
Mississippi. As far as Mississippi knows,
Rilke never wrote. Muddy water, impossible shore,
which came first, the chicken or the road?

The pithy humor of this poem (reproduced in its entirety) and its compact footprint are reminiscent of Hummer’s letter carrier poems from way back when. The reactive molecularity it gives shape to—a stereochemistry that relies on confession and comparative biography, on a reverence for the texts of history and the in-your-face rescripting of a righteous music—may also hint at the shape of things to come. For Hummer the future and the past are always close companions. That curious child behind the jukebox? The frustrated man wasting his money on pinball? In the hands of another poet, such assemblages of image and idea are likely to be momentary phenomena, conjured to illuminate some immediacy from which consequence drains the further removed in time the work becomes. This is not an illusion that Hummer has had to struggle to overcome.

In March 2015, in anticipation of National Poetry Month, Hummer was interviewed by The Huffington Post. When asked about the creative trajectory of his last three books (a trilogy in all but name, per his publishers), Hummer responded, “the sequence moves from the particle that vanishes (let us say a pinball) to the entrapping, ensnaring, distracting universe through which it moves in its vanishing (the pinball machine) to where it goes beyond, and the final crossing of a boundary out.” Ephemeron. Skandalon. Eon. Obviously these tropes have been collecting lint in Hummer’s pocket for quite a while. But “boundary out”? Out of what? This incarnation? Patterns of thought laid down as spiritual infrastructure before the spirit could choose a different highway? What if there is no way out?

Hummer would probably dismiss this last question as absurd on its face, but that’s okay. I’d love to argue the particle physics of immortality with him someday. Or maybe I am emphasizing the preposition at the expense of the noun—that boundary. Maybe what lies beyond is irrelevant. Maybe all that matters is how we make our final approach. Whether we choose anticipation or dread as the asymptote of our existence draws closer and closer to the y-axis. Whether we are capable of choosing at all under such circumstances.

Death at the hands of another definitely renders the logical implications of such fatalism moot. Maybe this is why the opening section of Eon begins with a catalog of commentaries regarding various aspects of that idea: “Murder.” In “Water Trial” the speaker is euthanizing a pet retriever accepting his master’s “one final order.” “Legendary Head” (a title that would be a great slogan for a bawdy house) seems to fantasize the decapitations of Pound, Stevens, and Rilke using a run of unmistakable allusions (“in a station of the metro”; “the dominant X”; and “a torso,” respectively) to summon and dismiss them as “a lost effect, a crime, a severance package.” Other titles in this opening section—“Premeditated,” “Forensics,” “Person of Interest,” “Cold Case: Easter, 2014,” “Evidence Room”—deploy the jargon and terminology that have become a unifying discourse from the news outlets to the process dramas to the webmasters who serve it all up, on demand.

These texts fully embrace the urgent poetics of the aphorism that Hummer has been rehearsing and refining for some years now. They are laser-focused, terse. (Most of the poems in the collection are no more than eight to ten lines long, depending on how we are meant to interpret the uniform presence of the standard indention for indicating line wraps.) The eight- (or four-) line “A Diagram of Emotions that Have No Name in the Mother Tongue” captures the quality of the tender invective the poet levels at everything from drone strikes and the militarization of American culture to the meth-induced anomie in the heartland to the cycle of victimization and enmity that has the masses of collateral civilians around the globe

longing for unshattering.
Or of the crows circling a beleaguered hawk:
They are burning to avenge a future violence.
Unspeakable, the spark of synapses in a mind
Not yours.

Eon’s second section, “Urn,” is a collection of poetic headstones/homages to a small army of writers and thinkers, mythical figures and musicians, and family of the smooth and furry varieties. Each is eponymously titled, with birth and death dates carefully recorded when known. The most surprising of these is a piece bearing the title, “T.R. Hummer, 1950 (alt. birth date 2011)?” The title is premonitory because it foretells the happy ending that the volume’s closing section (which gives the book its title) is about to celebrate. An amalgamation of gratitude and affection and simple joy animates the hyperbolic “I was born at the age of 60, and I come into this new world / with a bouquet of scars and old questions . . . ” Here is a voice unchained from lonely death, a voice throwing off the old rhythms of “bad music on the radio.” It is a voice with heart enough to hope.

The objects of that hope are small, plain and simple, virtuously ordinary. The unifying gesture of the incipit titles in this section telegraphs the notion that inspiration is always immediate, right at hand, ready to begin with the first few words the world offers up. It is “To wake again in a bed, in a room with a window, / with curtains trailing over a sill,” looking forward to simply being conscious, to partaking of “the knowing that can be shared.” It is to recognize the uncomplicated pleasure of “Flatwear meticulously packed in a kitchen drawer, / a closet full of fresh-ironed shirts, / A spotless glass coffee pot, a blown-glass jar.” We’ve come full circle from the scenario of domestic apocalypse that opened Ephemeron, where a whole house trembled, right down to the tureen on the buffet, and so can appreciate “The most ordinary life, a glass of water, a potato / bearing ideograms of earth onto the holy sideboard.”

In 2012, in an interview for Prairie Schooner, Hummer was asked to comment on the persistent racial segregation of Mississippi schools. Not having lived in the state since 1977, and so hesitant to comment on the state’s contemporary racial stratification, Hummer nonetheless acknowledged that, especially in terms of education, “segregation of any kind is profoundly wasteful: materially, psychologically, spiritually.” He went on to make the grim assertion that racism itself may be “impossible . . . to eradicate.” His explanation for such pessimism is simple and direct:

Distrust of, hatred for, the other goes very deep with humans. You can legislate segregation away . . . but you cannot legislate human emotion. White people—especially some white Southerners (some note, by NO means all)—become deeply defensive about matters of race, because they have established a false consciousness on that foundation, and basically what you are saying to them when you ask them to change is, now you have to die and be reborn as somebody different and better—a challenge many say they have risen to at church but are terrified to rise to in terms of the politics of identity that is “race.”

Space curves. Two parallel lines might cross.

Reviewing this blogged conversation with the themes and attitude of the new work Hummer is doing fresh in my mind, especially his claim to have been born again at sixty and all that might make possible, I was struck by the poet’s pessimism, though I realize the type of death and rebirth Eon chronicles has nothing to do with racial politics or the frank critique of it that Hummer offers in this talk. I was also struck by how this pessimism stands in such stark contrast to the pose of measured optimism President Obama strikes in public. The Star Trek nerd in me envisions the poet’s pessimism and the president’s optimism, oppositely charged particles accelerated by the vast cyclotron of the new media, colliding, annihilating one another, and releasing enough raw energy to destroy the false consciousness to which Hummer refers. In the wake of that liberation, perhaps we could find the courage to assert that being honest is more important than being “polite.” After all, the hypocritical posturing President Obama decries in his podcast with Marc Maron ultimately traps us in a culture of insincere self-censorship. Maybe it would actually be good and proper for all of us to say the word nigger in public, together, a lot more often. (The scandal!) Otherwise, how will we ever hear the arguments and the poems and the stories that will help us comprehend what’s wrong with thinking it?

Those, Trespassing

From overland, from the far
And out of sight house
Where my mother and father
Sleep in the pond-hazed peace
Of this Sunday dawn,
I am coming, the kiss

Of dew-silvered April-long
Grass at my knees,
And in my hand the stolen
Rod. It whips, whistles:
Long in my hand, it is light
And subtle as a snake’s tongue, it is

High-polished, fine-balanced, it
Is costly, a gift of love
A woman gave a man—and if he caught
Me with it now, he’d give me
Hell, but what he doesn’t know
In his sleep can’t hurt me. I wave

That intricate lightness in a false throw,
And the silver lure of my passion
For the hard leap of a hooked fish goes
Nowhere, quivers on
The sensitive tip.
I follow the fish-shaped shine

Of the lure down the east slope
Of pasture, thigh-wet
With dew, walking light toward the drop
Of dam, the slip where the boat
Lies locked
By a steel-bright

Chain to the trunk
Of a water-oak. I have the key
In a pocket, picked
Silent, on the sly;
From my father’s ring. I reach
In for it, take it, hold it ready

In my palm’s sweat, leg-heat
Live in the metal, burning master,
Steel-etched brand-name letters, deep
In the dark of my clenched hand. Not far
Now to the fallen gate,
The easy step over rain-rotted barbed wire,

The oak, the locked boat,
The water. I am coming blind
In water-silvered brilliance of dawnlight,
Then sudden black of eclipse behind
The etch-scaped trunk of the oak.
I lay my hand

On old roughness of bark,
Feel for the cold of chain: I find it
Fallen low, slack,
Lockless, boatless, empty-ended.
For a moment the pure shock
Of its vacant weight

Is fear: then I pull it back,
Hold it up, let it hang
Too light, broken in my hand like
Line snapped by a fish-lunge.
Something is gone, and I think
Wrong, wrong,

Think the boat sunk,
Think chain break. I drop it and lean
Around the scored trunk,
Stare down at the pond’s dawn-sheen,
All surface, hazed water too bright
To see into. And then

I look up, out:
He is there, a dark man-shape
Riding the boat’s silhouette
Over the milk of mist, pole-slope
A spear-thin line
Thrust out of his chest, angled up,

Skyward. I hold my hand
To shade my eyes, try to see
His face, think How can
It be, how could he
But no, it is not my father,
He has not beaten me

Here, it is someone else, some stranger,
Trespasser, lock-picker, come to poach
Our fish: my fish. The anger
Is a quick heat in my belly. I stretch
From behind the oak, ready
To call him down, but feel breath catch

In my throat as the woman suddenly
Comes out of willows on the far
Side of the pond. She raises an arm, silently
Signals, and I know her:
Cotton-chopper, maid,
Floor-scrubber: I think Nigger

What’re you doing as the man turns his head
And lifts his hand to her. He lays
His pole on the gunwale, dips his oar-blade:
No, not his,
My father’s, mine:
And the boat turns, soundlessly goes

Toward her, runs aground
In soft mud of the shallows.
Black in that strong sun,
He stands, steps in water I know
Is inches deep, but it by God looks
From where I am like he floats

Across to her, like he walks
On that fine impenetrable sheen
Of sun-sparked mist on water, and he takes
Her in his arms, is her husband:
I see I know him, too:
Tenant, my father’s hand,

Face visible now in the shadow
Where he holds her. He holds her the way
I know men do:
His hands move: they
Step back into the trees, are,
In that deeper shade, one body,

And I think God, where
Have I seen this before?—then know,
Think No, not them, but my mother and father
Are the same, love is the same, and I turn, go
Stumbling away down the bank, face
Burned with what I have come to,

Not shame or knowledge but loss
Of more than I knew I thought was mine:
And when I fall I do not break
The rod, but I lose without knowing it is gone
The key, its backward name on the flesh
Of my hand fading as I scramble up, go on

To the house where my parents lie in the black hush
Of unknowing, holding each other still, in sleep, precious,
Robbed, blind.

Some individuals will never experience a transformation like the one the young man in this classic Hummer fable undergoes. Some never grasp the burning key that opens the door to self-knowledge, much less cross the threshold to authentic recognition and remorse and understanding of how crucial it is to forgive and remember. For some the poem itself (or others like it) might be that threshold—because of the story it tells, the rudeness it risks, the song it helps set free.  

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