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Apr/May 2007 Reviews & Interviews

Dutiful

The Armillary Sphere
Ann Hudson
Ohio University Press (2006) 58 pp.
ISBN 08214147142

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy


Buy now from Amazon! In Ann Hudson’s The Armillary Sphere, the winner of the 2005 Hollis Summers Poetry Prize gratefully acknowledges the assistance of her teachers and students. The list of her mentors is, indeed, an impressive one:

I wish to thank my teachers, especially Eavan Boland, Rita Dove, Gregory Orr, Jacqueline Osherow, Tom Sellari, Mark Strand, and Charles Wright, for their support and criticism.

I am enormously grateful to Margo Figgins and to the University of Virginia Writers Workshop for showing me what’s possible. Thanks to all of my students there and elsewhere for their insight, good humor, patience, and excellent questions.

The Summers prize is, in itself, an impressive association, and still moreso during a year in which Mary Kinzie, Knopf alumni, is the final judge.

Hudson does them proud in one respect, in particular. She is a poet of fine observational skills. There is the delightfully tactile, almost synaesthetic, quality of an image such as:

...the long avenue
of oh through my throat—

Surely the exercise that can arrive at such an image is tantamount to meditation — total presence in the moment.

All of the observations in question are similarly simple and quiet. In the poem "At the Window":

Rain beads the screens, clogs
the tiny metal mesh.

In such instances as this, we all are likely to have noticed the phenomenon and even to have described it to ourselves in much the same terms. The reader, however, can not help but be impressed with a life in which such details have a meaningful place in the landscape of daily experience. It is tempting to think that this is what separates a true poet from a pedestrian.

Not all of the images that fit our description are observed in isolation from a world of dreck and clutter. In the poem "At the Window" the wind sweeps the familiar world before it:

dragging its nets through the streets,
trawling for its usual and plentiful treasures

crushed Styrofoam cups, torn newspapers,
lost gloves, a blizzard of fast food napkins.

Ms. Hudson does not fall into the trap of a garden-variety romanticism. All of the quiet events of our world—including the unattractive—are of unusual interest to her. She is almost unerring in her selection and precision.

But, strange though it may seem, the poems in which these fine observations appear are not the better poems in The Armillary Sphere. It is as if the price of the image were a frame of mind inhospitable to a fully successful complete poem.

The poem "Work"—probably the best in the volume—is filled with the sophomoric bump and grind of a classroom of students. The "Ode to Julia Child" may be an ode in small but its success is the result of balancing at the edge of satire where the meticulous rarely finds a place. "The Daughters of Chemical Engineers Understand Chaos" is an unabashed lyric a la mode. These poems try to do less and fully succeed.

As is generally the case in first books, Hudson has picked up a few bad habits that are in vogue just now. The thematic-ABA-for-ABA’s-sake is prominent in The Armillary Sphere. "First Day of Spring" is exemplary in this regard. The poem begins with the images of the wind quoted, in part, above. The poet next drives her car into an automated carwash and the reader sees it through her eyes as a little girl. Emerging from the car wash, she is back in the wind and crumbling landscape.

Should the reader not find the poem satisfying there is a simple manner of inquiry as to why. The thematic ABA here might be expressed as "wind > car wash > wind". How, it may be asked, would the poem be materially altered if the progression had been "rain > ice cream shop > rain"? It is difficult to believe that it would be at all. The inference that something "inexpressible in linear terms" is at work here has little to support it and cannot save the poem.

Equally problematical, Ms. Hudson has adopted the nearly universal mannerism, in contemporary American poets, of letting poems wistfully trail off at the end — similarly inferring that something "inexpressible in rational terms" has been said. This trope is so common nowadays, and so difficult to succeed at, that it can only be considered a decidedly bad habit. The vast majority of poets who succumb to it sound, at best, like they are giving a tarot card reading.

In short, Ann Hudson excels at description. Her images are highly sensitive and precise miniatures. It is this marked talent that recommends The Armillary Sphere. As for the more problematical aspects of the volume, it may be said that, at this point, she is understandably too dutiful toward the teachers she so admires. In respect of her talents, there is presumably a great deal to be gained by discovering where it is she (respectfully) parts from them.

 

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