blackbird online journal Spring 2008  Vol. 7  No. 1


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Being Shades Ourselves
     from “A Tribute to the Poetry of Lynda Hull”
     AWP Conference Panel, January 31, 2008

I would like to begin with some lines by Montale, a poet dearly loved by Lynda Hull. He writes, “It is possible, you know, to love a shade, being shades ourselves.” It is possible not only to love a shade, but to write in order to please a shade. For many years I have done both, and that shade I have loved and written to please is Lynda Hull. I was present during the creation of most of her poems, their first reader, and—for better or for worse—their first critic. During our lives together, Lynda consistently set a standard for poetic composition which I have tried in my own way to also meet, a standard that was always, as one of her poems puts it, “ruthless, crucial, and exacting.” To please a shade is no easy task, a fact we are reminded of again and again in Lynda’s poems, which are characterized above all by the ardor and sternness with which she herself loves the various shades who haunt her writing. As readers of her Collected Poems so acutely understand, Lynda was above all an elegiac poet. She wrote to honor the audience of the dead, to give them countenance, and wrote in gratitude for being spared their fate—at least for a time. And of course, as elegiac poets from Sappho and Archilocos down to those of the present day well know, they must write for the dead but against death.

“Address,” a section of “Suite for Emily,” Lynda’s longest and most sustained meditation on mortality, is comprised of sixty-nine lines of the most searing invective against a personified death; written during the height of the AIDS pandemic, its cadences are drawn not only from the grim headlines of the early 1990s, but from Ecclesiastes and the Psalms:

. . . Your guises multiply, bewildering
   as the firmament’s careless jewelry.
Death I have welcomed you to the rooms
   where Plague has lain when the struggle is passed
& lit the candles and blessed the ash.

Lynda’s poems insist—at times bracingly, and at other times with the most keening sorrow—that the dead possess us, possess us in an almost shamanistic sense; her poems exist to channel their voices, to give each figure in the photograph, each memento mori, its living name. These are the dead she invokes near the closing of “The Window,” that effort which concludes her Collected Poems: Oh phantoms. / Oh the many lives that have fountained through / my own . . .” The phantoms in that astonishing poem are a source of inexplicable joy; they are the Siren Sisters who beckon, and who beckon us with even greater insistence now that we have learned to love them and heard their bewitching song.

But Lynda’s poems tell us that there are many ways to love the shades, and that our recognition that we, too, are shades may also take many forms. Consider the poem I would like to discuss today, “Preparing the Estate Sale.” It is one of Lynda’s earliest publications, included in her first collection, Ghost Money. Although she had not yet mastered the bedazzling pyrotechnics and floridly undulating syntax that characterizes the later and better-known collections of Star Ledger and The Only World, I often return to this poem because it possesses a serenity, a grave and steady approach to its elegiac mission—a music different from that of the later poems, but no less resonant.

The tensions which the poem explores above all involve the challenges of empathy. As with the spare and starkly rendered characterizations of those outcasts and lost souls who populate Rilke’s New Poems volumes, dispassionate portraiture gives way to an almost involuntary empathy. The speaker is cataloguing the effects of a deranged old woman, preparing them for an estate sale, an event which always has a slightly ghoulish character, but which, in this case, is made even more so by the melancholy evidence of the woman’s years of solitary dementia. The speaker seems less to be cataloguing Marie Brousseau’s possessions as unearthing them; they are grave goods being released into “this shocked air / there’s nothing delicate about.” Here are the poem’s opening stanzas:

This woman, this Marie Brousseau,
saved everything, a recluse receiving
foodstamp groceries, the medicines of old age.
I must soak her figurines in water
that darkens as dust floats from her skirts.
Air will dry them, high summer, and magnolias choking
the house. Crystal wine stems glitter
on shelves among dolls turned
so their porcelain faces view the walls,
washed now where Marie scrawled private arguments
in China marker—opening in English, ending
in the imperfect time of French verbs.
But this damp. This kitchen. This plaster.

How do I assess the last twenty years:
the way she tested her eyesight daily with charts,
the large E faltering over the stove, the vanity
and this accretion of dresses?
Generations of her hats litter
the divan behind me, afternoon diminishing
as I mark buttonhooks and beaded purses in this shocked air
there’s nothing delicate about, these paper sacks
on shelves in every room—vials of tannic acid,
charcoal and milk of magnesium, her Universal Poison Antidote.

As in so many of Lynda’s poems, the descriptions seek to fuse the tawdry and the sensuous. There’s a lavish specificity to all of the details, the figurines soaked in “water / that darkens as dust floats from their skirts,” the dolls “turned / so their porcelain faces view the walls.” Yet Marie Brousseau herself is evoked with a pitilessness that approaches revulsion; the speaker repeatedly seeks to distance herself from “this woman, this Marie Brousseau,” from “This damp. This kitchen. This plaster.” Her goal is to “assess” the woman’s life, a term which leaves little room for compassion. However, as the poem continues, the speaker finds that she must challenge this stance; the need to assess is replaced, slowly but inexorably, by a kind of self-reckoning, and a reluctant tenderness toward the dead woman. By the end of the poem the speaker has abandoned entirely her desire to merely profile Marie. Indeed, her shade has guided the speaker to her own discomforting vision of the afterlife:

Polishing the legs of chairs, the only toxin
is time—my face in the mirror,
clocks throughout the house arranged
by a private chronology, as if she could reverse
the way our lives pass so gracelessly from our hands.

She’s younger in these photos than I am:
1925, Marie disembarks from France, New Orleans,
her face under a cloche, eyes vague smudges.
the dock must have smelled of oysters and chicory.
Or, here, she reclines in a wicker chaise,
one of those green and cream evenings
the South is famous for, deep June.
She looks frankly at the camera, as if the future
would be kind, as if her life
could never drift unmoored.

Marie, I’m talking to you now. I’m asking
who will smooth the wrinkles from my dresses?
Will it be someone so unknown
as to be past imagining? Someone discarding
my husband’s letters, these notes to myself falling
contagious as leaves in this green hushed light
that indicts everything.
May they not judge us severely.

from Collected Poems, Graywolf Press 2006; reprinted with permission

The fate the speaker imagines for herself is, perhaps, as inconsolable as that of Marie, and yet the speaker’s portrayal of the dead woman, changing as it has from coldness to empathy, somehow enables both fates to be more bearable. The reversal of the speaker’s stance is hard-won, and it is this very stubbornness on the speaker’s part, her acknowledgement of the challenges and complexities of empathy, that is the poem’s most notable accomplishment. It is a paradox one often encounters in the poetry of Hardy and James Wright, two poets whose work Lynda knew deeply—empathy may be our goal, but we first must be willing to judge our characters as severely as we must judge ourselves. This is a lesson Lynda seems to have learned in this and in other of her early poems, and a knowledge which served her especially well in the magnificently accomplished books of Star Ledger and The Only World.

In one of those poems, “Hospice,” the speaker marvels at a drug buddy companion—beloved of the speaker both despite and because of her habit—“How many times I watched you rise /again and again from the dead.” The shades who haunt the lives and afterlives of Lynda’s poems can do that: they can resurrect themselves, if only briefly, thanks in no small measure to Lynda’s incantations, sorcery, and utter fidelity to her lyric gifts, which were as great as those of any poet of our time. As Mark Doty wrote so eloquently in his afterword to The Only World, Lynda’s poems

track the terrifying passage of having seen it all, remembered everything, turned from nothing. Lynda did not live, but she did—and does—live to tell; she hammered out of herself something we cannot lose: a voice essential, dynamic, unmistakable.

And I might add that this is why her shade so haunts me, and haunts me in a way that is indistinguishable from love.  

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