blackbird online journal Spring 2008  Vol. 7  No. 1


audio version

The Poetry of Danger
     from “A Tribute to the Poetry of Lynda Hull”
     AWP Conference Panel, January 31, 2008

I’d like to start off by saying that I never knew Lynda Hull personally—that is, I never met her nor had the pleasure of seeing her read her poems. My only relation to Lynda was textual—that is, spiritual. I’m one of her readers. I’m one of her spiritual inheritors.

I feel, in this capacity, as if I am a second-born child. They say that first-born children believe they have inherited the whole world, and then, when the second child is born, that whole world is suddenly cut in half. The first child suffers, while the second child believes that the half-world she has been given is, in fact, the whole world. (I don’t know who said that, but I hope someone will tell me today.)

I acknowledge how strange it must be for friends and intimates, like my co-panelists, to hear a stranger speak of such a loved person. But I am just a second child. I don’t know what it was like to know Lynda Hull. I came up from the other side of the world, thinking that my precious “half”—just her poems—was the whole shebang. It’s of course always good to know, in the end, that nothing that we believe is the whole shebang is ever the whole shebang.

So I begin my remarks, respectfully, from my partially obstructed view and with astonishment at how quickly time passes, and how long the dead stay dead, and yet in spite of those two facts, how intently we can hold one woman’s extraordinary work so close to the heart, so close to the bone. But it shouldn’t be a surprise. As Hippocrates and many others have said: Art is long, life is short.

That “life is short” part—it’s the essence of danger. I want to talk a little about Lynda’s work and the poetry of danger.

But I’d like to put it off a little further in favor of telling you that I first read Lynda’s work in my early twenties, just after a period when I was bumming around New York City with very few coins in my shredded pockets and a certain nervous, quivering desire to be a poet, which was a vaguer idea than my much more specific, clear concept of what I was certain I did not want to be: at all costs to never, ever, be “normal” or a “sellout” or a “boring person.” Oh my god—“normal” people were, like, fucking dead already—is how that goes.

As defensive stances go, it worked for a while—it was very common—but I was lucky, and it got old while I was still young, and no, I did not come across Lynda’s work while I was out trolling the streets with my insane friends in the East Village. I found her work when I went to graduate school to study poetry. I certainly did not think I would find such a fireball of a poet in such a stodgy place. Both the fireball reading and the stodginess ended up being good for me. Sometimes dangerous girls find each other in the safest places.

I remember a conversation I had bunch of years ago, maybe around the turn of the century, with a dear friend of mine, who happens, now, to be ninety-seven. So at the time of this conversation she was pushing ninety. This is the great artist—and also a Graywolf poet—Dorothea Tanning. She is herself one of the most fearless, irreverent and, yes, I’d say dangerous, women I’ve ever met. She asked me, “Have you ever heard of a poet named Lynda Hull?” And I said of course, I’d read her work and loved it. She said, “Did you ever hear her read?” I said no. “She was”—this is Dorothea speaking—“she was this itty bitty thing, but her poems are so wild! They are amazing. I couldn’t believe they were coming out of this cute little girl.” How she admired Lynda and her work.

Sometimes dangerous girls meet each other and it’s almost as if they are time-travelers.

But I’m avoiding, really, this idea of danger. For the real danger is the real truth, and the real truth is this: Dorothea is now ninety-seven years old, and still alive—and Lynda is not. I am myself no longer some young chick who thought danger meant oblivion and evasion and testing myself and worrying people that I love. I am alive, and I think I see now what the real danger is.

It’s everywhere in Lynda Hull’s poetry: the cruel characters, the rules of the street, the dark pull of substances that alter what feels like it needs so desperately to be altered.

From her beautiful poem “Fiat Lux”:

                                  How to imagine   
those places where chaos
holds sway, the old night where you hear scared laughter pierce
the anesthesia dream, song

of shoulders pushed rough to alley walls, torn caress, dark dress,
song that goes
I'll do it for 10, for 5, I'll do it, burnt spoon twisted in the pocket.

from Collected Poems, Graywolf Press 2006; reprinted with permission

These lines look like danger, and no doubt what is being described is brutal, but it only alludes to the real danger. The drugs, the agony, the cruelty: those are all symptoms of the danger, but they are a part of what danger threatens, that is, life.

Lynda Hull makes beautiful even the worst moments of life, not because she re-imagines a dark patch into a glimmering sunny glade, nor does she transform the ugly into the beautiful. She allows the worst to coexist with the precious and miraculous, as if it is a normal, everyday thing, which, of course, it is. It just takes a really fearless artist to show us that. In so many poems, she was so breathtakingly fearless.

From the last two stanzas of “Red Velvet Jacket:”

God I was innocent then, clean as a beast in the streets.
At the fringes of Warsaw's Ghetto
stands a prison where they sorted Jews from politicals,
politicals from homosexuals,
where masses dispersed to nameless erasure. There's a tree there,
lopped & blackened, yet it shines,
enshrined in prayer scrolls, nailed icons. Oh, lucky life,
I didn't understand until tonight,

called back from the ruins in that jacket, dark stain blooming
through the sleeve, the child squalling
in my useless arms. I don't know what happened to the jacket
& all those people are lost to a diaspora,
the borough incinerated around them, nowhere in this night
I drive through. Silk velvet and its rich hiss
the shade of flame offering its drapery, its charm
against this world burning ruthless, crucial & exacting.

from Collected Poems, Graywolf Press 2006; reprinted with permission

Here, the danger looks like it’s the crisis unfolding, and it is, there is real tragedy there, but the bigger danger is, of course—just so we don’t lose perspective on what our sorrows and terrors are, and she puts it right out there in front of us so we can’t miss it—is the Holocaust. The world horror made even more horrible for humanity’s psyche because it should have been impossible.

The concept of impossibility is what danger’s all about. We can’t understand danger until we know what is possible. Childish fear is all about the unknown. Grown-up fear is about what we know all too well. Between the possible and the impossible, the defiance and the acceptance, Lynda’s work shows us that it is all in how we posit ourselves on the continuum. If we are willing to see each detail, we get a fuller picture. If we only want to see a part of it, well, that’s all we get to see—we’re in denial, or we prefer to be afraid of monsters under the bed.

We know that one of the aspects of youth is an attraction to danger—perhaps this is because the very young do not understand the true nature of danger; they simply haven’t been around long enough to experience the cumulative ravages. Perhaps it’s because they just don’t want to have to see everything so clearly.

I was twenty-four when Lynda Hull died. I had read her work and thought it brilliant, and her death a tragedy. But she hadn’t seemed “young” to me then. Let’s try to remember, to someone in her twenties, thirty-nine is just about middle aged, and death still seemed so far away. It still seemed impossible. Now I am approaching the same age that Lynda was when she died, and I understand, now, how very little time she had. I’ve almost experienced the same amount of time and suddenly, that this would be all of life allotted to me seems, well, possible, and I am bowled over with sadness for this fact all over again, and I think, she really had it right: There certainly is danger here. It’s not just all a wild, painful adventure. There is harm. There is death. That is why we must grasp whatever momentary beauty we can, now, and scribble it down with as much elegance and honesty as we can muster.

She did that. Her legacy is not only an extraordinary body of work that exposes and queries, savages and relishes notions of danger and agency, hurt and healing, those stunning, inexpressible moments that somehow found their exact voice in hers. Her legacy is also that she shows us how to—if we get the chance by staying alive long enough—to grow up, how to face the dangers of this world, and not to move past them, not to ignore them, not to play it safe and be afraid, but to look always for the inevitable spark of life in all that darkness. To notice and note and say that such a spark gives darkness its pitch, and the contrast itself must exist and in that mere coexistence be beautiful. To address this danger includes being able to accept that death is in our cards and in our hands as well as in the air around us and in everyone we love.

To look for the miraculous moment of clarity in all that confusion, and give it the same treatment, give it context, let it live. Even though we die, to still let it live. It’s possible. Lynda knew that to write down what is, what the mind feels and knows, what the heart hurts for, that this action is the only way to face danger bravely. There need be no battle, no struggle, no opposition when we defuse it all, face it all, with the writing of poetry. That is how we do it. She knew how. Fighting fire with fire is attractive, and certainly Lynda knew that, too. But in her work, the dangerous girl lives forever, the danger always glinting with its beauty and fever and illumination. Fiat Lux, as she might say. Let there be light.  

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