|Jul/Aug 2004 Book Reviews|
James C. Hopkins
The Word Works (2003) 108 pages
In Two Senses
James C. Hopkins' eight pale women is a book with a number of images of the kind that poets strive after. Some are observations of the little gestures that almost unaccountably remain with us all. Others are insights that come from time to time to those who are constantly on the watch for them.
In the monologue poem "mrs. thurston" grief brings on the manic sense of desolation that a woman newly widowed might feel. The image it allows is striking because it has the stunning symbolic force of the words of the psychotic:
i've unplugged the lamps
all the bulbs.
all over the floor.
This is in the profoundest sense surreal: the searing, transparent truth of a short-circuited subconscious. As a swatch of poetry, these are the five lines a poet works years to write.
The images which arise from more common moments are, perhaps, even more to be admired. While mania will not allow one to look away, the quiet passage of life too often goes unseen, like the turning of the leaves as rain comes on so quietly captured in "le cadaver exquis at the villa rocca":
the leaves bare their throats to the wind.
Or the passage of the season in "the calligraphy of fireflies":
summer had slumped off
over the lazy hill
like a struckout kid
These are the signs of a poet who has been lying in wait for long periods in his blind.
And this is not to say that eight pale women amounts to only a handful of images. There are a handful of exceptional poems. The poems "death of a skydiver" and "my muse" come to mind, in particular. Not far behind come "black octopus," "balance and the nitro house" and "mrs. thurston".
It has been mentioned more than once that a half dozen images and half dozen poems can make for an exceptional volume—may even be definitive of what an exceptional volume comes down to. For some, this reflects an unspoken agreement to lower the bar. For some few, it is a valid and a humble observation. Writing poetry well is a tremendously difficult process.
All of this said, the question arises: Why, then, does there seem to be something vitally important lacking from this book? Nor does the question end there, for there can be little doubt that only a small number of readers are likely to be aware of the lack. It is unlikely that the least reference to it will appear in any book blurbs or reviews about the book. The reader who notices the lacuna, to begin with, should he or she reflect, will intuitively know that this collective obliviousness is a near certainty.
If commentators have something to say concerning television, these days, it tends to be that the media is too violent. It is also common to point out that the medium is destroying attention spans and literacy. The lines of argument are generally well known. The effects are certainly there. Still there isn't the slightest likelihood that fewer hours will be spent in front of the television set. In fact, it is far more likely that we will find ways to increase viewing time. Advertisers will continue to support programs that give us the explosions and automatic gunfire that viewers so appreciate.
Furthermore it is difficult to quantify the effects of these facts. There is only very rarely automatic gunfire in any but the poorest of neighborhoods. The Draconian punishments we intuitively feel are necessary in respect of a wide range of crimes committed in this country are imposed by definition upon others. If they are somehow imposed upon us, we are positively removed from the debate over social questions. We too become other. Therefore such punishments can not be cited as a pervasive negative effect: society at large is not affected. Thus violence on television seems vaguely troubling but one can never quite provide a compelling argument as to just what are its unacceptable effects.
But—as the volume eight pale women suggests—the effects of television do not stop at violence and attention spans. The effects of the medium are pervasive, profound and largely invisible. Even those rare persons who watch little or no television are deeply affected.
Those who have overheard the bizarre conversations that pass between individuals who only rarely watch television may have a niggling feeling that there are stranger things in the world than they imagine. While they may not quite be able to describe how, those inscrutable beings use common words in ways that clearly beg experience. In the words of Sven Birkerts, from his delightful book An Artificial Wilderness:
The coffee break ritual—"Did you see Dynasty last night?"—is not so much an expression of interest in the show as it is an act of self-substantiation.
Those who do not watch television hardly exist. They themselves may be overheard to remark that it is as if they were from another planet. Few people on either side of the phenomenon would argue with that assessment.
A description of the sense of smell does not occur in the pages of James C. Hopkins' eight pale women until page 45. Even then the description is nondescript:
it wrapped around us like a sweater of earth,
pungent in the cool night air.
In the previous pages, there are numerous poems about carnivals and circuses yet there is not a trace of the smell of popcorn or cotton candy. There are others about restaurants but not a single description of the smell of the food. The sense of taste is not described until page 75, and, again, the description is rudimentary at best.
It is worth our while to make another observation about the cuisine at these restaurants. We are never told what the meals consist of. There is nothing so instructive as this double lacuna. When characters sits at a restaurant table, on television, they generally eat generic food. The viewer never knows what they are eating—only that they are eating. Of course, experiencing the taste of the character's food is presently beyond the medium's capabilities. That is to say, Hopkins' poems lack precisely what life experienced through the television lacks.
If we do not count the vague feeling of relative temperature (hot, cold, warm, cool, etc.), the sense of touch is not described until page 64:
heartworks—an occasional hazy fallump
tethered inside a spring machine.
Tellingly, the volume twice refers to "tickling." On both occasions, it is described as a visual sensation. They are by no means the only occasions, in this volume, that the senses of touch, taste and smell, inasmuch as they manifest themselves at all, are inferred from visual correlatives—after the fashion that television infers those senses to the limited extent that it can.
The feeling of relative temperature and the beat of one's own heart, moreover, describe the nature of the problem rather than an exception. Even when one sits in front of the television for hours on end, there remains a subconscious awareness of the temperature in the room. If the temperature changes one becomes conscious of it. The "hazy fallump" of one's heartbeat will unavoidably be noticeable from time to time. In fact, these feelings are present in the womb: a place we consider to be largely sensory-deprived. They represent the lack of sensory data, not the presence of it.
Hopkin's eight pale women is a book with only two senses. It is written for a public the vast majority of which also has only two developed senses. It has been (not unjustly) praised by reviewers with only the same two developed senses. The vast preponderance of the life experience of poet and readership is made up of building blocks composed entirely of those two senses—is made up of television programs. The experience, itself, of how a scene is effectively portrayed has been learned largely from the same source. To a "being from another planet" the fact might be unsettling if not shocking. To a being "from the planet of television" the observation is likely to be just one more example of elitist meddling in a world that works just fine thank you very much. Things change.
So then, James C. Hopkins" eight pale women is a book with some remarkable and deeply human visual images. It has as many notable poems in it as the better volumes generally do. The remaining poems of the volume are written with obvious care. For some readers there will seem to be something vaguely unsettling—something which they may not be able to quite put their finger on—about the volume. A favorite television show will come on before long, more than likely, and the unsettling feeling will go the way of most such feelings in this life.