by Christine Hume
A Third-Wave Nocturne
A review by Joyelle McSweeney
Given third-wave feminism's rejection of second-wave gender absolutes, the recuperation of mother- and fatherhood as content has got to be one of the most unexpected developments in poetry in recent years. The admission of the biological into poetry has in turn engendered a potent, deranged, seemingly communicable multiflorescence of voices and forms, forms seemingly without teleology or destiny. Poets like Bhanu Kapil, Cathy Wagner, Gabriel Gudding, Arielle Greenberg, and Aase Berg, poets from the recent Not For Mothers Only anthology to the upcoming Gurlesque, have generated grotesque, hybridizing, or self-replicating new genres along with the new content; in some ways, the pregnant or paternal body (whether male or female, queer or straight, human or hybridized) allegorizes the scandal of content itself, the obscene content which wrecks the well-made (that is, crafted) form.
Christine Hume contributes to this conversation with her recent chapbook, Lullaby, and with her new volume, Shot; in both cases the textual version of the poems are ghosted by a performed version involving ambient music and a lo-fi doubling of live and recorded voices. The generative tension of voice incarnate and in stereo is thus foregrounded in performed versions of these works. Reading Shot¸ however, the excessive material of the biological splits in status along generational lines -- while the women speakers and figures assemble and disassemble, groping a sleepless nocturnal landscape, the fetus occupies a position of stillness, center, and even Voice itself.
Contrary to its title, Shot is mostly not a violent book but a nocturne -- a fluid, continuous nightscape of dark pines and graveyards, owls, ghosts, and moons. Rather than sending out a projectile or even a somnambulist to wreak havoc on sleeping citizens, the speculative direction of this book is always inwards, marking and remarking interior borders:
I surveyed an inner shore. Its facets operated on me. I lost my lights and began my midnight thus: mental feet, mental lake, little mental pines, mental mile around the muzzle.
This passage is truly a passage; "surveying" works two ways here, to denote first that the speaker visually inspects an interior vista, and then that she measures and records it, maps it for the reader through the list of "mental feet, mental lake," etc., until the reader, like the speaker, is groping this self-same shore. Groping at night, we arrive at the Dickinsonian "muzzle," to our own dread and surprise, embracing the gun that retroactively converts all the "mentals" to "metals." Shot indeed.
This orientation towards an inside, an internal mystery that can be palpated, gravitated towards but never quite grasped, is emblematized again and again in the book, as in the title and imagery of "Looking for a Wormhole":
Here every phrase presents this image of internal voyage; the eye becomes not an instrument for surveying an external world but a passage that can be moved into. "Taste" doubles for sight, just as the biological neatly and seemingly intuitively doubles for dreamt or meditative space. Here as in the above-quoted passage, violence lurks at some delay, in the wordplay at the end of the sentence, though by the time we readers arrive there, it feels inevitable, the image of a revolutionary overturning predicted by the implicit roundness of the eye and the implied car's wheels. In other poems, it's the eye imagery that recuperates potential violence. In the poem "Apnea," "Your thoughts are rabid," and a comparatively wild nighttime scene, delivered in short lines reminiscent of Frank Stanford, concludes:
I am driving high into the taste of vanishing and starting points. Their arrows double-joint the dark. I am driving into my own eyes. . . . My pulse stuck to the signal: turnoverturnoverturn.
Here the double-wide river is a kind of grave, reconfigured as a dream and then as an eye, the eye more ultimate than even a dream if it acts as a passage where two may move "through." In other poems, violence and eye are indistinguishable, as when "a girl . . . bled // from her eye / until it turned // itself in and / cannibalized sight." Such an image recalls the opening shots of Un chien andalou, the single slit eye, twinned with the moon, which will provide the passage for the birth of avant-garde cinema.
The sopping grass restirs
Its smell and stops
At the river two bodies wide
A dream of seeing through one eye
As such a birth suggests, the eye may be the most mobile image of the book -- providing, indeed, a passageway for mobility both physical and meditative -- but the fetus, nestled in "amniotic shores," provides the ultimate embodiment of Shot's logic. In the opening sequence of the book, the speaker can only ask questions, while the italicized, gestating voice speaks with authority and conviction:
What do you hear of our talk?
Blood fastens to all language at once, alive and lying; all tongues lapping one another, dousing for routes into bodies.
Going far beyond a figurative or synesthetic connection between taste, touch, and sound, here language is linked directly to the body -- is, indeed, body's instinct, a seemingly deterministic notion made all the more so in that it issues from the mouth of a speaking fetus. Compared with his interlocutor, the fetus occupies the position of absolute knowledge. The fetus has all the answers, answers involve totalizing words like "all," and his particular conviction is that of the biological nature of language, a bodily affinity which seems to overleap even cognition in its desire to "fasten to all languages at once."
The fetus seems to hold the book's central site, the moon at the center of the lunar halo, the eye in the lake, the place from which language issues and to which, by echolocation, it returns. The poems' speakers, by comparison, go tumbling after. Mothers and women are multiplied and montaged in this book, like the clutch of mothers who perform a "dusk mutter" in the dialogic "Interlude" ("Mother Defect," "Mother Claustral," "Prosthetic Mother") or the laboring figure in "My Actress," "costumed and impostured in her sheet," who "cues hormonal ghosts with scheming cunts and sequin eyes." In another poem, "She says get yourself out of that flesh suit," "Unzip that sweaty woman suit," as if all bodies but the fetal body were simulacrum, prosthetic, a dream out of which one could step.
This split between the absolute site of the fetus and the proximate, divisible body of the mother is a fascinating if ultimately problematic one, joining the lessons of the third-wave regarding the constructedness of gender to an apparent revision of the second-wave in which the child and not the woman holds the ultimate term. Considering the fetus's statements on the biological imperative of language, Shot appears to propose an assertively hybridized worldview in which some elements are securely deterministic, and others run reactively or at random until they're run to ground.
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