Restless Messengers: Poetry In Review

Erica Hunt, Jump the Clock: New & Selected Poems
Nightboat Books, 2020, $19.95

Erica Hunt’s Imperative: Jump the Clock

Review by Rachel Blau DuPlessis

Why is Erica Hunt’s Jump the Clock: New and Selected Poems an important and singular work? A witty and not universal (sic) but inclusive book? A book striking in its particularity with a commanding empathetic ethical-aesthetic? And by the way—what does the odd title mean?

This book is a culmination (not an end) of a whole career of political and social activism/observation and poetic achievement. It’s a wise book, welcoming and confrontational at once, and as wisdom, it is a mix of compassion and muted rage that helps to set the terms of the encounter with haunting, crafty, persuasive poems. Hunt negotiates for us with her work, like a good organizer, by which I mean she sees a collective need for our understanding of our shared world. And in poems going stepwise, sometimes wry, droll, and semi-surreal, she tells stories of modern life at the granular level. Her question “What cracks, emotions overlap?” (49) marks the over-layering and mutual suffusion of the out there (city, streets, communities, the quotidian of our shared photographs of being) and an in here—personal, private—but linked to a wobbling system (whether nation, city, friendship, ethnicity). These are unseparated, not binary but like body and mind, joined in us and riven-together and faced as one complex feeling, interpretation and experience.

Gaps and peculiarities in this unseparated world are not seen as “ironic” (which assumes we have a superior position comprehending the clash between what seems to be so and what actually is) nor “paradoxical” (which assumes that specific dysfunctions were not engineered as the system one confronts, but are some sort of an outlying oddity). They are seen as what is: pure contradiction between humane lives and blasted ones. The poet surgically examines specimens of “unintended consequences”--or were those intended and predictable? Hunt enters here with a precise language to track the actually consequential.

One section of her book, Piece Logic, consists of a series of poem applying concepts that lie (yes) all around us, expressions sometimes harvested from the business page or the news: a set of droll but serious encounters with such odd phrases as “time management,” “piece work,” objects that symbolize “consumer confidence.” And then when a person does Big Box shopping in “the house of broken things” (or things soon to be broken), it’s “collusion picked up off a shelf.... heaven’s own brand” (68). Here, in these striking semantic images, Hunt drills into the surface of economy, need, and the chewing up of our time from many unnecessary things, while the crucial things remain hidden.

In one poem, her penetrating title “Invisible Hands” means two things. One is about demystification—to unmask the invisible connections. A phrase in economic thinking, often conservative, says that a market is regulated by an “invisible hand”—a concept bizarre enough to sometimes be parodied by the cartoonist Tom Tomorrow. The invisible hand is a myth that pretends no one can do anything about economic injustice; in contrast to this agency-less myth, government, business, policy makers forge a system of profit and particular interests. Declarations that any outcome was the result of an “invisible hand” at work conceals both cause and effect and agency. This whole concept gets demystified as Hunt takes it apart literally and allegorically at once—through the deep tactic of the semantic image. What are “invisible hands” in the plural? They are, as most people now (perhaps only temporarily) acknowledge in the COVID-laden regime of revealing systemic breakdown— they are people, workers, the makers, the hands who are never seen.

Hunt makes these citizens visible in stunning associative riffs of sound, sense and intellection (to allude to Zukofsky): “Invisible hands rice the peas, spice the rice, circle the turns, turn on the presses, raise the letters, letter the spaces, address the edges. . . . . Invisible hands milk the spill, ship the ink, jump the rope, rip the chute, lay the trail [. . .] fiddle the styx, ride the herd, read the horde, hear the roar, read the dim, damp the rhyme, rhyme the orange, toast the storage...” (71) The power of Hunt’s lists, including twists of the proverbial (fiddle the styx) with the pun (styx, the river in Hades), among other changes rung on ordinary phrases, encapsulates a collective language energy that has both ethical and aesthetic impacts.

Elsewhere in the book, Hunt devises a panoramic social mural, as in the great serial poem that closes the book: “Veronica: A Suite in X Parts”—the X meaning an algebraic unknown, but also perhaps alludinges to Black namelessness and militancy in one efficient condensation. This poem, an elegy for Black mothers whose children have been murdered by police or others, is a general survey for anyone suffering injustice or needing to understand and credit it. Here is an account of living day to day inside a devouring system, waiting for the chance move that could destroy your life forever. Hunt’s itemizations in this work have several functions: listing, reminders, accounting, tallying, enumerating how the one and the many can experience the same pain, loss and anxiety. This poem is one great summary work of this period. “Master”-work is a misnomer. It is a work of emotional power and political mastery and mourning.

Another poem, “Soft Assault,” offers a list of a poetics of seeing, naming, surviving in part through the “risible” and in part through rage. It is one place where Hunt’s poetics is foregrounded in a series of anaphoras of great power that literally “add up” to an array of strategic choices at every turn, tactics more than simply rhetorical choices, but life choices and ethical choices.:

substituting the actual
for the literal
by any means soaring
by any means ecstatic
by any means hanging
by the tips of my wit
by any means with a nod to the joke
by any means detecting the risible in the visible
by any means punching the line
by any means scotch the litmus test
by any means reining in the stutter
by any measure give gravity one more try and stop
the clairvoyance of
soft assault for each step
one takes in public. (168-169)

Jump the Clock is partly a selected poems, yet the work dating from as early as 1980 is as full-on for our now as one could imagine, for Hunt has been a reader, from the first moment she became a poet, of the social divisions and wrongs that she outlines. And she is a cunning and persuasive reader of the scrambles and shambles of capitalist nationalism, with its apparently transparent embodiment in whiteness, and in the gender-powers of maleness. This is not just a recognition but focuses the confrontative power of her embodiment— and of the particular bodies of being and knowing with which we face each other as companions struggling companions. This book is a re-centering. Because:

Not everyone makes it
To face forward towards the sun
Not everyone lives to jump the clock or
outwit the gaze that would turn us to stones
Not everyone lives to wake the dead if they have to. (117)

This poem first alludes to another calendar, the Mayan, but insists that our responsibility is not to the different “tabs” of time that separate us. Rather, our responsibility, cultural and political, is to account for every other “everyones.” They have been paralyzed by a Medusa head of prejudice and power, but if we are still in motion, we have to look, watch, notate, be patient—up to a point—and act.

The allegory of the title image also jumps the clock. Carmen Herrera is a Cuban-American women artist (b. 1915) who was certainly patient; she lived for about 90 years before she was given any art-world notice by the New York Times, not so much to be anointed as simply seen. If it takes 90 plus years (she is now 105 years old)—well god speed, one might intone. Or—alternatively—let’s JUMP that clock. Who says “their” rate of speed and titration of “important” players is the real A-list. Who said there is an A-list? It’s hard not to mock the ones who think that their thoughts are the only thoughts that count, the only thoughts that give an account and that tally the totals. This book—in its every line, in its every shift of idiom against the norm—says otherwise.

Jump the clock means jump the assumptions. Jump the clock that only permits your arrivals and departures on schedules not yours and not made, declared or upheld by you and yours. Jump the clock means stop the damaging clocking machinery and find another frame for being and acting. Hence Hunt’s constant attention to what happens in corners and pockets of the world. She is as if on the stoop with a homeless woman tearing pages out of a Penthouse from the recycling left on the street (5). Seeing her. Attending to her conditions of survival—no conditionals, no “middle ground.” You are her; her clock is yours.

One of my key words in The Pink Guitar was “otherhow”—writing otherhow. Erica Hunt’s word (in The George Oppen Memorial lecture on December 12, 2020 at SF State University) is “otherwise.” Both words take up manner and matter. To write in another manner with another matter of “wise-ness” (another way, another path)—this is a call for positioning on the other sides of known feelings and insights, to write toward an alternative. We do not make the circumstances in which we work, but by our work we can change the terms of what we say, how we say it, and find out how to make things and visions other than we once supposed. Only thru this imagining of the severe traumas of how we have been living, and its compacts “since 1980” (remember, the timeframe of this book), can the world be questioned, reimagined and perhaps enacted differently.

What is crucial about Hunt’s poetic methods are the readable, accessible languages of documentary and reportage which have been constructed in riffs, tropes, allusions and turns that always mean more than that surface tell. And yet, as in all situations of double, triple, quadruple consciousness, time is not always bendable. This book has many reminders of all the ways we are caught and re-trapped—sometimes very funny ones, with deft and suspicious insights.

even the stones are tired of war
thought neutral on the subject of thrown weight and carried malice
the audience tries to pry themselves out of the script, whatever that means,
but now, it’s almost time for the news.
[...]
... the reception is sharp and palpable
even if it induces nausea, familiarity the words,
recognizably impaled, plates of gummy platitude
served in modern translation
there is no end to the supply of wretch or
pity ... (“This is no time for nail biting,” 114)

Hunt is clear: pity is not the necessary emotion—it is anger. In this political world of obfuscation and mystification with a sub-specialty of genial veiling, life can simply clatter along—until one is found, as she writes in “Upon another acquittal,” “punched in the heart” (164) by the social world of division and uncontrolled hostilities.

Hunt’s embodiment creates assumptions in those who try to “read” her. The white, and male world (and any mix—the white female world is not exempt) can exact a price on her for her embodiment. She spoke directly of these assumptions in that recent lecture on December 12, 2020. In “Sorrow Songs,” she sees this embodies subjectivity with a characteristic brilliance and understatement:

If we stroll topsy they see turvy
If we tell tell we become consequence,
If the truth comes out, they still think we
‘re exaggerating.” (178)

“Tell tell” is not an error; it is a method, a verb and then a noun—what there is to “tell” is “telling,” it is striking, full of special meaning, revealing. People can be blamed for “telling.” The “kill the messenger” move that appears in Greek tragedies is real and with us today. These and any embedded references that abound in Hunt’s work—to proverbs, figures, axioms, titles, cultural allusions (as to “topsy” and “sorrow songs”) define multiple access to the multiple cultures of our time. Let’s just say that in that aspect, too, Hunt’s range is challenging and insistent as well as witty and honest, tending to an enlarged and full US culture, not a color-coded version of it and its choices of rhetoric.

That’s the necessary jump for which the book argues. We have lived in one chronology for many decades, of disrepair, divisions and fears. In response, Erica Hunt’s is a full-fronted other way of naming. In every detail and crevasse, her work unmutes voices and refigures necessary community. The critique exemplified here is not only about gender, race/ethnicity and consumer society: it is also a challenge to the split between thought and feeling; a critique of values of profitability and wealth as social goods when in fact they create inequality, exploitation and immiseration. Her work names and rejects forces that create the many disenfranchised. The task of this critique in language is the pluri-decentering of binarism and the smashing of hierarchy. It is a critique of power in the names of social justice and gender justice, based on inquiry, resistance, disobedience, rage. Hunt is crucial to an analytic poetry engaging in this work.

Post by Rachel Blau DuPlessis on 1/16/2021 at 12:00 PM

After the multivolume long poem Drafts (written between 1986 and 2012), Rachel Blau DuPlessis began another long work, now in process, called Traces, with Days. This multi-book series includes Days and Works (2017); Late Work (2020) from Black Square Editions; Around the Day in 80 Worlds (2018) from BlazeVOX; and the forthcoming Poetic Realism (2021), also from BlazeVOX. A Selected Poems 1980-2020 will be published in 2022 from CHAX.