Barbara Deakins: BOOK REVIEW
The Never Wife, by Cynthia Hogue. Mammoth Press.
Cynthia Hogue’s poems are moving without a whiff of sentimentality, honest without being brutal. The core of the work is a concern for what it means to be human interacting in a world that often doesn’t leave much room for us to be human. She communicates this with a clarity and lyrical exactness reminiscent of Marianne Moore. This, as well as her subtle observations and mastery of voice combine to form poems in which, as Moore’s father said: “The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence; / not in silence, but in restraint.” Hogue has a careful particular ear that allows her to treat even the horrible with, if not sympathy exactly, then generosity of spirit.
Those are the generalities; now I’d like to talk about specifics. The poem Leaves illustrates many of these elements of craft. It begins with a minor ecological disaster:
In our yard, birds on their backs
In dreams we curl.
The last portion of the third line “We cannot recall.” emphasizes this uncertainty. They do not definitely know what awakens them, but considering the supposition is grief, it seems likely that there is something wrong. The next two lines present a concrete narrative scene, the lover screaming at the speaker, but the lover’s act is most noticeable for its self-awareness. Hogue highlights this through the repetition of the phrase “scream at me,” balancing the outer and inner actions of the lover: one a violent verbal act and the other an observation and subsequent “amazement” at finding oneself capable of such an act. She uses repetition throughout the book to reveal subtle differences of meaning in the same word or phrase by varying its context.
The last stanza of the poem weaves the personal story of the lovers in with a soundbite to form a bleakly humorous comment on both the state of the relationship and the state of diplomatic affairs:
The sum of our actions
Hogue emphasizes the contrast between the “sum innumerable” of their actions and their limited consequences by choosing to state the limitation “having only so many” between parentheses. This serves as a visual reminder of their containment, the phrase itself contained, as well as an ironic aside to the reader. The last two lines of the poem return to the beginning stanza. After revealing to us that the relationship between the two lovers has devolved into a stalemate, she gives us this wonderful little quote from the TV commentators “plainly not serious about détente.” This is bitterly funny. The voices become not only the political voices, but also the voices of the lovers. It’s such a banal confrontation, another fight in front of the TV; then you hear a commentator sum up the state of affairs in politics and it parallels the state of affairs in your relationship. This quote gives the poem the immediacy of a relationship epiphany, that moment when you realize its all over but the shoutin’.
The final image of the poem is beautifully ominous. It functions both on a literal level and a figurative level. The windows of the house are probably open and the sound of the voices is leaking out into the surrounding trees. Even nature is no longer a refuge from the relationship; the birds have been replaced by the voices. Every line of the poem points to this, but the end is still unexpected.
The second section, “Three Streets from Desire,” is a narrative cycle about the poet’s three-year stay in New Orleans. Each poem is as beautifully wrought as Leaves; linked together they are a powerful documentation of material poverty and human reaction to it, both the privileged white poet and the black residents. What characterizes this section is Hogue’s mastery of voice. By documenting her stay in the voices of some of the people she met, she gives the series an authenticity and humanness that is remarkable. Hogue uses the qualities of specific speech varieties native to the area to subtly indicate everything from race to socio-economic level. This is most emphatically not a sentimental portrait, produced by somebody who gets to leave and is damn glad about it but looks for the beauty everywhere, no, Hogue takes an unflinching look at being poor, but still being human. The people in her poems are not metaphors or symbols, but real people.
One of my favorite poems of the series is Mrs. Rose. The poem is in the voice of the poet’s elderly, poor, uneducated, working class neighbor. You’d think this would be an automatic recipe for condescension, and in someone else’s hand’s it probably would be, but Hogue gives her speaker a quiet dignity and, better yet, a heroic lack of self-consciousness. Mrs. Rose tells the poet:
I didn’t get much schoolin’
…was strong as a mule