Counterpath Press, 2010
Review by MC Hyland
A life-long insomniac, I sometimes think of humans as divided into two separate species: sleepers and sleepless. I imagine for the sleepers a clarity, a set of healthy habits, a wonderful to meet you, dear morning! For my tribe: fogginess, slippage of and on boundaries, intimacy with the self-erasing dark.
When I find others in my camp—the sleepless ones, incessantly fidgeting, or ceiling-staring, or reading-through-the-night—I am comforted. This comfort isn't purely about shared suffering; or, rather, it's not so much the fact of sleeplessness that I take comfort in: rather, it’s the way the admission of it opens a window into discussion of the jagged boundaries of self. These boundaries are guarded by sleep and sleeplessness both: on the one hand, the surreal parables of dreams, on the other, the darkened hallucinations of insomnia.
Christine Hume asks: "But what if sleep were the parasite? Not these names, which like dreams simply domesticate sleep. What if sleep were the thing with fangs?" The book, ripe/rife with the self-blurring of the insomniac, is full of poems that make their homes in the dark, that observe that "Outside is not made of the same dark as inside," and yet "My first mind is night driving on and on." In this world, it is not only the idea of I that blurs, but also the body itself, estranged through exhaustion. "If I want to break habit, I’ll wake in the uncanniest room of all—my body asleep," Hume writes, and elsewhere: "She says get yourself out of that flesh suit.... Unzip that sweaty woman suit. Step out of your own spoiled smell."
This insistence on the dumb and numb presence of the body is particularly important for the speaker of these poems, who, as we learn in the book’s first poem, "Incubatory," is an expecting (and, elsewhere in the book, a new) mother. "Incubatory" is a dialogue: mother and fetus, body-inside and body-outside.
Why do you kick at words?
To get your songs off my hands, I wade through their falls and uplifts. I dreamt a dog was trying to dig me out.
And yet: this other buried within the self is also the speaker; the answers it provides have their meaning in her language and psyche. When the second voice (which I identify as the "fetus voice”) addresses the speaker with the statement, "Your body's nocturamas are endless and okay. Except some skull pockets that burn without warning," it is hard not to see the speaker comforting herself.
There is a sense, within Shot, of a set of perversely morphing nocturnal nesting-dolls. Night contains the speaker, the speaker contains (even after birth) the child, but at any moment, categorical boundaries between the three might blur, so that night would become "a growing thing with its own mascara and lactation, its own ways of being hitched to two heavens." These confusions of inside and outside provide the book with a rich symbolic language, a sensation of constant shifting of all the borders we might normally navigate by. In "Between the Way Out and the Way Home," the speaker's body (and that of her offspring) both are and are situated within a (metaphorical) river:
Black river burning off acetaminophen
From forehead to eddy, it hurts
Stand in it mauled, and withered, knowing
Something in the water cannot be calmed
The forms of Shot's poems mirror this shiftiness of identity: while the strongest poems, like "Between the Way Out and the Way Home," allow each line to function as its own stanza, bringing a sense of the night's spaciousness onto the page, we also find dialogues (in prose and standard playscript forms), prose poems that function as single sentences, prose poems that consist of short phrases separated by colons, a poem in the form of a nonsense game of telephone, and even a singsong-y rhymed poem, like a deranged lullaby. The formal experimentation is held together by Hume's firmness of assertion: every statement, no matter how surreal, is delivered with the force of fact. This tendency leads to a number of assertions that function like absolute (if improbable) definitions: "an ear is a gutter/ for getting comfortable," "breathing is a form of waiting."
It is this tonal sureness that most profoundly marks the book: Hume speaks with the clarity and aplomb of a shaman. The mythic is never far away, even among the mundane paraphernalia of the contemporary bedroom, which may assume the character of ritual implements:
The lead body lies down with the feather body
If by memory foam, if on a dream-fast
Do not use a sleep mask because of your thoughts
Arriving at the intersection of waking dreams with sleeping nightmares, these poems strike me as particularly urgent in our current literary moment, as yet again, we dredge up the question of "the universal" and "the particular" in regard to men's vs. women's writing.* In Shot, Hume enters the "universal" mythic through the particular and specifically feminine experience of pregnancy and childbirth. These experiences, as the experience of insomnia itself, function simply as doors: only on the other side can I see how (in Hume's words) "the dark reshaped my eyes."
*See the development of the women’s literary organization, VIDA; the recent flap about advance reviews for Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, etc.
MC Hyland's chapbooks include Every Night In Magic City (H_NGM_N,
2010), Residential, As In (Blue Hour Press, 2009) and (with Kate Lorenz and Friedrich Kerksieck) the hesitancies (Small Fires Press,
2006). Her first full-length, Neveragainland, is due out this winter
from Lowbrow Press. She lives in Minneapolis, where she runs
DoubleCross Press and the Pocket Lab Reading Series, and works as an
administrator and occasional letterpress instructor at the Minnesota
Center for Book Arts.
© MC Hyland, 2010