Reviewed By Patrick Whitfill
- The Song Cave (2015)
- 80 pages
Emily Hunt’s debut collection, Dark Green, opens with an epigraph from Emily Dickinson: “To the faithful Absence is condensed presence.” This is refined in Hunt’s own terms with the opening line of the first poem: “goodbye gone kin.” Think Higgs boson, the name we give for the weight assigned to nothingness. For the speaker, everything around her contains a potential absence, which shrouds all in the potential for loss. Hunt’s speaker calls it Dark Green.
Hunt is a technician of the line and of white space. She chooses words more than she writes them. She eschews grammatical pauses, so that fragmentation becomes intrinsic to the phrase. Everything can and will stop suddenly. Some things may connect; and some events and emotions, some images and feelings, may seem to connect, but not necessarily because of causation.
The poems in Dark Green reproduce what it means to exist in Dickinson’s “condensed presence,” not a shortened presence, but a concentrated one. We see this in “Figure the Color of the Wave She Watched”:
goodbye gone kin like water
gone half, first self,
where is that friend
who happened to smoke
the first beautiful sky
where are the hours
she filled to see sink
those hollow shapes made
by wind, goodbye
cleared history, swept steps,
goodbye what’s left
The book opens with goodbye and a “cleared history,” with “hollow shapes made/ by wind.” And so we begin with emptiness.
Robert Hass taught us in “Meditation at Lagunitas” that losing the preconceived notions we have means we can refill that emptied vessel with our own meaning—that loss, in short, is an invitation for a romantic replacement.
This is a book about the presence of loss. The loss the speaker in Dark Green feels cannot be filled. Loss has its own weight, and it requires of us our acknowledgement, obedience, and faith. But a collection of poems singularly about the presence of loss could become repetitive, too dark, myopic in its suggestion that everything must exist in one palette of tasteless gray. And so, at times, such as in the poem “Original,” Hunt redirects her sense of loss into an act of creation:
I copy myself
and release my replica
into an olive grove
She is real, just a second
We race to find little foods to fix her
She eats what I know and runs with it
Her pleasures babble in the grove, they tell me
I should be able
Creating a copy of oneself, a projection, becomes a security device, a way to operate seemingly as “normal.” But what happens when the real inner self becomes jealous of the projected self’s ability to cope? The separation of the self in this poem is quiet, austere, and charged with an impending electrical crisis of the self.
When we encounter those suffering through grief, we say: It gets better; or, give it time. By this, we mean that, eventually, you’ll lose contact with the grief, you’ll find some kind of estrangement from your own feelings. But the speaker in Dark Green has that “year I can touch,” a palpable, physical pain that will always exist in a still-accessible dimension where time becomes tactile. As such, time in the collection becomes another major theme. Take, for example, the ending of “You Must Be So Tired”:
yesterday was a good day
I just didn’t want to be seen
as far as all the other stuff goes
maybe it comes down
to time spent, the shared, the known
the escaping what was shared
This shared grief will return at any point she encounters a person who knows the tragedy, who knows the story, and she will have to relive it with them. Conversely, it would seem that by spending time with people who don’t know the story, the story would remove itself gradually from the narrative of her life. Instead, we see throughout the collection that the loss stays with her.
The poem “The Crossing Over” tells of the speaker comforting a friend. As they tend to one another’s emotional needs, time moves inextricably on:
The sun was lower.
it reminded me of hell.
It felt like years had passed
and we were the only ones who knew.
Time, the speaker shares, possesses no definite dimensions, but moves according to how we perceive our reality. Sometimes it flies; sometimes it dies right in front of you.
As the book progresses, a narrative begins to piece together from the absence. We start to see that this absence, the one that sucked part of the ether out of our speaker when it left, has wider-reaching implications than just our speaker’s grasp of reality. Take, for example, “It’s Good to Be in Your Paintings”:
I go to the gorge
on my way to one river
they tell me take your dog
out of the lake
Two images stand out in this poem. First, the “one river” image separates the action and gives it a backstory, a sudden purpose, a reason to go there if only because she has given it a particular adjectival description. Following that, “they” tell the speaker to take “your dog/ out of the lake.” Whose dog is this? How does our speaker end up in possession of it, and who, of course, are “they”? I don’t know if we get any single answer, or if we really need one, but we begin to see that people know about an incident, that a singularity has occurred, and all things are moving toward it.
In “Bumping into Her,” the loss of the person has seeped into issues of identity and confusion for other people in the speaker’s world, too:
I saw her last week from afar
and forgot whether
she knew for a minute
by the look on her face
it was clear she could tell
People have a distancing mechanism for tragedies not their own, while our speaker has nothing to protect herself against the pain, as she says in “Song”:
what is the difference
between an empty square
and a square of light
and one knows
one’s cold role in love
I suppose that she’s right, but even if the speaker isn’t right about the difference in these two squares—as if anyone could claim a right to it, or a wrong—it wouldn’t matter. None of the underlying rhetoric matters because this isn’t just about Hunt’s world or how she perceives it, but how the world presents itself, of its own accord, back to her. Take “Computer,” a fourteen-line poem about a piece of news the speaker encounters on, let’s say, a normal day:
the music was blank when I found the news
and today was summer again,
the people take things
they no longer want,
maybe never needed,
spread them out on tables, and sell them
as the shadows grow from under spring
how I’m here, is why I’m lost,
and who I love, I live across
from a hundred graves, birds float by
like cuts in the cloud, a man and his wife
dragged a girl to a tree
and hung her high enough to live
low enough to brush the ground
The poem opens with a music gone “blank,” another absence where we shouldn’t have one. Then briefly, something new enters, a moment of filling the void. But instead of allowing this to be fully realized, the speaker focuses on yard sales, on seeing the world in terms of want and need, questioning the validity of both. She lives, like Dickinson, in spitting distance of a graveyard, and even birds are “like cuts in the clouds.”
Emptiness has pervaded the universe from the book’s opening epigraph. In “Blue Takes Over,” for example, our speaker sees dozens of colors as sinister existences, with motive. Everywhere she looks, she is met with mistrust and pain. “Computer” backs up, to some degree, this view of the universe. The “news” from the first line, becomes a macabre and mind-blowingly evil scene at the end of poem. These things happen. A lot. Perhaps this speaker’s grasp of the universe as a place of loss, pain, and strife isn’t out of place at all.
Here, we have an example of Sylvia Plath’s Bell Jar. In the poem, “TV,” the speaker contemplates the way her fish looks out at her through the glass wall and the water, the way the fish will,
for a few specks of food
I drop above
and I wonder how loud
his world might be.
The speaker knows that she is not exactly trapped in the same way as the fish, but, in many ways, she suffers the same issues. How big is her world? How much of it depends on morsels meted out by some other figure? The book constantly asks us: when does this world shift?
In the end, the book doesn’t release us with the beauty and sanctity of suffering. In “Last Tool on Earth” it asks:
what is loss worth
will it fly loosely
and break down
Indeed, what is loss worth to her, or to anyone? This is her “ghost cloud.” And these poems give it a kind of identity, a shape that doesn’t want to stay.
A clarifying moment occurs at the very end of the book, in the last stanza of the last poem, “English,” which begins as a catalogue of all the things in the world the speaker must encounter, presented line by line with no punctuation, no investment. The poem becomes a meditation on death, on its omnipresence, which follows her in her “ghost cloud.”
FASCINATE YOUR EMOTIONS!
it says in the same language
where my brother is dead
and my sister is walking
over a row of strange all-color rings in New York
The advertisement’s assertion to “FASCINATE YOUR EMOTIONS!” stands as a symbol of the impossibility the speaker feels in taking control of, or changing, the way the world looks to her.
The rest of the book hints at loss in a general sense. This final specificity, however, propels it into a realm beyond the inner workings of a depressive cycle. With this addition, we see a glimmer of hope. We have, potentially, a root cause, a central issue that might be worked through enough to let the speaker out of the fishbowl. But maybe not. That’s the heartbreak that the poems in this collection can’t stop nibbling at. What if this is as good as it will ever get again? What then?
What, exactly, do we do then?
Patrick Whitfill’s work appears or is forthcoming in Threepenny Review, Subtropics, West Branch, Kenyon Review Online and other publications. Currently, he teaches at Wofford College and co-curates the New Southern Voices Reading Series.