desolation : souvenir | Paul Hoover
Fiercely elegiac, the title poem of Paul Hoover’s desolation : souvenir began as a “filling in” of the blank spaces in A Tomb for Anatole, Paul Auster’s translation of Mallarmé’s grief-stricken notes for a poem that he never completed on the death of his ten-year-old son. However, Hoover’s writing soon turned to his own consideration of life, death, the breaking of family relations, and loss of love as experienced by all of us: “when death plays / with a child / it goes out nimble / comes back cold / life that traitor / aboard a razor boat.” Written in three terse stanzas, each of the poem’s 50 pages offers a phrase that becomes the title of its opposite number at the other end of the manuscript. The result is a haunting echoic effect that becomes especially rich as the phrases “cross” at the middle of the sequence. At times, the poem mourns the loss of the earth itself: “what will be enough / when the earth / contains no one / will the harvest still be full” and “no bees in the hive, no hive / sound returns to its bell.” Inspired by his reading of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, the companion poem, “The Windows (The Actual Acts),” consists of a series of philosophical propositions in everyday language: “An object is the actual awaiting further action. / It can wait a long time. / Time is fresh in objects even when they decay. / You can’t give one example of time getting old.” Another series of thoughts begins: “Have you every gazed from a window to see if everything’s still there? / And see your own face in the glass, superimposed on the view? / Consciousness rests among its objects. / Which makes the objects restless.” Long established as a poet of wit and intelligence, Paul Hoover now establishes himself as an important voice of deep emotional resonance and far ranging vision.
Two poems, one grounded in Mallarmé’s deeply moving elegiac fragments for his young son, the other a now playful, now serious riff on Wittgenstein’s propositions. The former notably expands our sense of elegy’s range and its various tones. The latter illuminates the richly exploratory and ever surprising thrust of poetic logic – or is it anti-logic - as it engages with seas and selves and worlds. Together they offer seamlessly paired instances of Paul Hoover’s always impressive field of poetic invention.
The comfortable tone of the aphorism gets cracked open in these dense truisms as they all go slightly off-kilter, careening quietly into brand new territory. Interweaving elements of radically different tenors---hypnotic rhythm, sharp observation, elegiac impulse---Hoover's brilliant stanzas and one-liners are moving constellations presenting the raw materials of the world in constantly shifting and illuminating relations. Throughout, thinking and feeling egg each other on; the result is a simply stunning book, both deeply wise and extremely moving.
In the two long poems that make up Desolation : Souvenir, Paul Hoover unravels the edges of empirical knowledge—the logic that perception provides—and finds it wanting: “to seem also means/no logic to the senses." In lines like “our deaths are quite near/also loose-fitting,” he boldly, often humorously, takes on the imponderables that haunt our daily living. The range of elegiac tonalities, from “invisible antecedents” to “matter’s afterglow” is impressive. But the elegy here is finally for time itself, for our hesitation at the threshold of an eternity that we can’t comprehend. What’s so moving in this book is the lucidity with which Hoover takes on matters that can’t be resolved or reclaimed. He marks himself as “sufficient/to the absence I imagined,” yet in this restless absence, the poet can also recognize that “a word walks with its candle.”
- Paul Hoover is the editor of the influential anthology Postmodern American Poetry, co-editor with Maxine Chernoff of the literary magazine New American Writing, and author of twelve previous poetry collections. His prizes include the Frederick Bock Award from Poetry, the Jerome J. Shestack Award from American Poetry Review, an NEA Fellowship in poetry, and the GE Foundation Award for Younger Writers. The Hölderlin volume that he co-translated with Maxine Chernoff (and that was also published by Omnidawn) won the PEN-USA Translation Award in 2009. Born in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and raised in the rural Midwest, he lived and taught for many years in Chicago. He is currently Professor of Creative Writing at San Francisco State University.
Born in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and raised in the historically pacifist Church of the Brethren, Paul Hoover was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War and published a novel about that experience, Saigon, Illinois (1988) in the noted Vintage Contemporaries series. He has traveled widely to present his poetry and translations, including the countries of Brazil, Belgium, Vietnam, China, England, Russia, Scotland, and Mexico. And, he curates a poetry reading series at the deYoung Museum of Fine Art, San Francisco.
A brief interview with Paul Hoover
(conducted by Rusty Morrison)
What aspects of your history and/or what particular obsessions of yours do you see apparent in desolation : souvenir?
desolation : souvenir began as a “filling in” of the blank spaces in A Tomb for Anatole, Paul Auster’s translation of Mallarmé’s grief-stricken notes for a poem that he never completed on the death of his ten-year-old son. However, my writing soon turned to my own consideration of life, death, the breaking of family relations, and loss of love as experienced by all of us: “when death plays / with a child / it goes out nimble / comes back cold / life that traitor / aboard a razor boat.” Written in three terse stanzas, each of the poem’s 50 pages offers a phrase that becomes the title of its opposite number at the other end of the manuscript. I wanted to create a haunting echoic effect that would become especially rich as the phrases “cross” at the middle of the sequence. At times, the poem mourns the loss of the earth itself: “what will be enough / when the earth / contains no one / will the harvest still be full” and “no bees in the hive, no hive / sound returns to its bell.” Inspired by my reading of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, the companion poem, “The Windows (The Actual Acts),” consists of a series of philosophical propositions in everyday language: “An object is the actual awaiting further action. / It can wait a long time. / Time is fresh in objects even when they decay. / You can’t give one example of time getting old.” Another series of thoughts begins: “Have you every gazed from a window to see if everything’s still there? / And see your own face in the glass, superimposed on the view? / Consciousness rests among its objects. / Which makes the objects restless.”
How might you compare this book to your previous books?
In recent years, my poetry has also become increasingly project-oriented. For instance, Poems in Spanish consists of poems written as if in Spanish; Sonnet 56 contains 56 formal variations of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 56. In the title poem of desolation : souvenir, I have filled in the missing words of a unfinished Mallarmé work, published in Paul Auster’s English translation as A Tomb for Anatole. In the second poem, “The Windows (The Actual Acts),” I’ve rewritten the Tractatus of Wittgenstein from a poetic, rather than purely philosophical, point of view. The two long poems in this volume can be described as lyric proceduralism, especially the title poem.
What interesting story might surprise readers about the inception or process of writing this book?
“The Windows (The Actual Acts)” was written in 2007 at the Universal Hotel in Rosario, Argentina.
Why would a reader want to choose to read this collection of poems now? Or…What issues arise for you with respect to this work?
This book speaks to the essential and universal rather than to matters of politics and history. Poetry can ask what rain is saying or wonder how it would be “to awaken as an owl / hear the mice traipsing.” The title poem inquires of a former sweetheart: “what will last of us? / stir of you in the bed / warmth I can only remember / who will say your name? / who puts his words in you?” Likewise, in a later section: “crimes of the heart / confetti all over the bed / mother and father / travel without a map / one twisted, one deviant being / when love is being made.”
Poetry can also make philosophical statements, such as “There is no freedom for objects with names. / They’re stuck being themselves. / For example, you can’t rename a thing. / It would alter the world too much. / What instead would you call ‘scissors’?”
Who are the authors with whom you feel a kinship? Who are you reading currently? Do you see any direct or indirect similarities between their work and your own?
Many contemporary poets write long serial poems and sequences. But those doing so with lyrical intensity are few. The poets I am drawn to include Michael Palmer’s Autobiography series in Promises of Glass (New Directions, 2000) and his Fragment and Classical Study series in Thread (New Directions, 2011); recent books of Ann Lauterbach including Hum (Penguin Poets, 2005) and Or to Begin Again (Penguin Poets, 2009); and the gnostic word play of Andrew Joron in Trance Archive (City Lights Books, 2010). The thrust of Lauterbach especially is outward, resulting in long, sweeping movements, where the muchness of the language can fall to vacancy. The pinch of Joron is toward the word, albeit the word in its multiple and homophonic relations (weight / wait).
All three poets are sizeable in their achievement as poets and also different, but all share the practice of abstract lyric, in which thought and song are joined. Because of the song-like element, the thought is given pleasure. In the modern period, it was developed most successfully in the work of Wallace Stevens. In the Palmer work above, we can also feel the influence of e.e. cummings.
What, specifically, were some of the most interesting or most daunting challenges you faced as you worked through this text? Where there any unexpected surprises—with respect to form or content—that opened in the text for you in the writing process?
In writing the poem “desolation : souvenir,” I was faced with the possibility that I was drawing power from someone else’s grief. This concern faded as I proceeded further into the writing. It is always a challenge, of course, to create ex nihilo. I was not working from memory of a narrative of my own life, but rather with shreds of feeling. I found that my chosen form—unpunctuated, lower case couplets—was very helpful in approaching this burden of silence and white paper. Each short line must maintain the tension of a step taken. It can move forward or swerve; it can conclude or extend something already proposed, but it must be active and maintain the quietness of the tread.
I had already investigated quietness in the long serial poem “Edge and Fold” (2006):lake bed quiet
covered with snow
windows shining orange
because of certain dusts
invisible to the eye
even the road is silent
not a single tire moving
along with its cold
Thus presence and size are achieved through absence and minimal phrasing.
In “desolation : souvenir,” the pressures are of world and fate, the living world shaken by its knowledge of death. The form of the couplet is retained but given more room for development in the triadic stanzas of each page. In “sound returns to its bell”:the absolute if there is one
the darkest thoughts are trees
with a hint of light behind them
life has been and is
a miracle death discovers
in the farthest well-lit room
what had been silent
staggers back to its voice
only the sound of life
houses without doors
moral fish and moral laws
let me sink my teeth in that
now that all is gone
this thought is on its own
go, my carrion nouns
seek what you have found
In short, I view these poems as an argument, or plea-bargaining, with eternity. The “engine” of expression is the paradox of being itself, what is in struggle with what is not, for example:that which passes
waiting for its meaning
how’s this for a thought
poetry tears the cloth
even as it repairs it
The book’s second long work, “The Windows (The Actual Acts),” has a structure similar to Ron Silliman’s long poem “The Chinese Notebook,” that of a numbered series of propositions. Because I worked my way through the entire Tractatus Philosophicus in producing the poem, I see my poem as closer to Wittgenstein than Silliman’s, which comments primarily on poetry.
You chose the artwork that was used in the cover design for this translation. Can you talk about your reasons for this choice?
I typed the word “desolation” into the Google search engine and it took me to some images on Flickr, the image-sharing site. Many of the images were of wastelands and debris. But as I continued the search I came across the work of someone who went by the name of “an untrained eye.” His images had a bright melancholy and intensity of attention different from the others. The image I selected was taken in a subway station, gazing up into a concrete hollow onto the floor above, where a man happened to be resting on his elbows. But it was the warm ring of gold light surrounding his blue-gray figure that made the image special. In his Flickr notes, “an untrained eye” indicates that he waited for half an hour until something happened within that ring of light that brought his camera to attention The same was true for the making of poems. Sometimes you can sense that a certain place has promise for you—that clearing of trees, for instance in the movie Blowup. You keep photographing it even though nothing is there, because you sense something will emerge. For me the “draw” was every aspect of the book design of the aging Mallarmé volume, from the fading trees on its pale green cover to the darkening paper within.
The poem wonders and asserts and tests, hinting at the authority of the earlier sequence, but tempered by doubt: “To know an object, you have to know its future.// Many objects were in our mouths as children.// They tasted square or round, hard or soft.// We were seeing with our mouths.” Through these many lines, Hoover illustrates his notion that “[t]o be beside yourself is to be fully conscious.”
Hoover spends each poem answering questions the reader did not know she had, as the best sort of poetry is wont to do; his words have the concurrent qualities of being riveting and believable, as those of the most historically significant humans have always had; and his tone is at once comforting and ennobling, a tonic few of us do not implicitly cry out for every time we turn to language for belief or understanding.
If pith is the mode of the automaton and the worker bee, then Desolation: Souvenir, Hoover’s latest work, puts smoke in the hive. His work is the interruption to the monotony of habituation, deadly as Schlovsky claims. It calls attention to the anemic patterns of habit, using pain and courage to carve through.
This is the most beautiful meditative voice I have heard since Eliot's Four Quartets. Like Eliot, Hoover displays a stunning compression of ideas that open over time as the mind's own flowers. "The farthest well lit room" may indeed be the mind itself. To be conscious of death is to be conscious of life in the same mind-breath. So the reader is brought into another essential exchange, a turning circle whose circumference grows. Hoover's apophatic understanding gives us hints and guesses that move us toward unexpected affirmations.
another word for earthhands joined how
as if in thought dying
as if a song roared
the rain forgot to pour
what point in space divides us
which one holds us close
sheerest of walls
to feel is to fail
venus envy, filial wail
water and bell
ringing with each wave
a work of vastness
too lucid for the mind
behind what wall
is the private sacrifice