Book Review, Books, Litstyle, Stephen Furlong
September 9, 2018
Go for bone. Write the hard stuff, and be honest about why it’s hard.
Amorak Huey, in interview with Up the Staircase Quarterly
As a creative type, I’m often asked what I’m working on, and asked if I have a book out, or in the process of working on one. I’m asked by friends, family, mentors, and strangers. This isn’t uncommon and I do embrace it as part of the process. When I first started being serious about writing, around sophomore year of high school, I found the question exciting and thrilling. As I have gotten older, it goes in ebbs and flows truthfully, especially given very real difficulty of post graduate school burnout, I avoided the question like the high school version of myself would avoid eye contact. It felt too personal, too much of an affront.
The fall of my first semester of graduate school, I attended a poetry workshop in Kansas City with David Baker. It was a sentimental return of sorts for Baker because he was originally a Missourian, though born in Maine. I was the youngest poet there by easily 20 years; several members of the workshop already had multiple books, as opposed to my three publication credits. We discussed narrative poetry and, through the course of the workshop, Baker dedicated time and effort to the image of a quilt as it related to poetry. The stitching and weaving of fabric to create a wholly new thing was similar to poetry because poetry, in paraphrasing Baker, is of the act of taking memory, applying sensory detail and personal philosophy to create something new altogether. The workshop itself had maybe a minute and a half worth of writing; instead, we invested time in reading poets like T.R. Hummer, Linda Gregerson, and Albert Goldbarth and sought patterns of narrative and discussed where and when in the poem there were the cross stitches overlapped. Like the leaves falling around me as I entered the building, each bit of light that bled through, each line that was dissected and discussed, allowed for some sort of transformation and opportunity to see the poems differently. As the workshop drew to a close, I was invigorated and wanted to write poems, but before I did that, I asked one-on-one to Baker, for some advice for a young poet like myself: Don’t rush yourself. I’ve seen too many young poets in a rush to publish. Take your time. Hone your craft, he said, as I graciously thanked him for the workshop and his insight.
I first read Amorak Huey when I was an undergraduate student; I read his ghazal poem “Memphis” which was in the 2012 edition of Best American Poetry. (Scribner Books, 2012). I remember being struck by the voice of the poem because it was torn between unable to stay, yet not exactly free to go either. To this day, I remember the line “None of us ever falls where we belong—we are ghosts on our way to someplace/else.” Though a tiny act of placement, the separation of someplace and else left me gasping. It was an act of fracture and it was captured by a line break. I knew then and there that Huey’s poetry was something special. Of the poem itself, Huey mused “[T]his poem is about longing, and temporariness, and being a tourist: the sense that we never entirely belong to any place or time. At least I hope it’s about those things. And music. Always music.” I was amused by the comment’s tenderness and to this day, when describing poems of mine, I utter a phrase similar to I hope it’s about those things as a little homage to Huey.
Even with reading, and falling in love with Huey’s poetry, as a dutiful reader, I had to wait a year and some change for his chapbook The Insomniac Circus (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2014) and first full-length Ha Ha Ha Thump (Sundress Publications, 2015) to grace my bookshelves. Still, I was drawn to Huey’s poetry like a moth to a lamp and have given him a title reserved for a handful of writers: Poetry hero. This title, knowing I was going to review his book, made things challenging as this review has been through many iterations before I found a fitting theme, one I shared earlier on: longing and temporariness.
In Seducing the Asparagus Queen (Cloudbank Books, 2018), Amorak Huey has articulated a book of longing and temporariness, where landscape defines individuals as scar tissue as a branding of sorts. The speaker of these poems travels through states, countries, ages, and musical tastes only to find out that “You move away, but cannot move on. The landscape/never changes,” as written in “The Letter X Chooses His Own Adventures”. Perhaps more striking than this rooted stagnation is the haunting of what familiarity can offer, as earlier in the poem we learn “…Familiarity is the first step//toward trust—trust the only path toward betrayal.” By having this poem in the early portion of the first part of the book, Huey’s speaker sets the scene for the rest of the book, and though the places and ages and times change, there is consistent searching inward and outward, which makes this book such a strong and impacting read.
In the middle of writing this review, I also read Richard Hoffman’s moving memoir Half the House (Harcourt Brace, 1995), and something rare happened: I read back-to-back books that I needed to read. In brief, Hoffman’s memoir tackles familial distance and anger and what we pass on to the living and the dead. It’s also a striking account of father and son relationships, anger, shame, and disappointment, recovery and loss. I bring this up because, about halfway through, there’s an image of a shoebox shared; it’s falling apart, filled to the brim with family photographs, but Hoffman’s mother holds onto it, instead of using an album or something more stable. Hoffman writes “A memory is something that happens. To arrange memories in a particular order is to protect oneself, to substitute form for feeling. Better to reach in the box and pull a card at random. My mother’s shoe box was an emblem of her courage.” The shoebox holds pictures of Hoffman’s brothers who have passed away, pictures of a time passed. I share this segment because Amorak Huey is able to capture memory in his book, but comparatively, he does it with music. Perhaps the most poignant of these poems is “Elegy with ‘Satisfaction’ Playing in the Background”. The poem opens with daggers for opening lines:
Life is assembled from the splinters and shards
of the broken things we never get around to replacing,
repairing, discarding. It’s remarkable,
the flaws we learn to live with.
The poem is one that considers the impact of building, as well as the costliness of doing just that. The poem doesn’t concern itself with the financial cost so much as “…the calloused hand, the aching muscles/a single hard-earned beer in the evenings.” The complexity of the poem stems from its mystery; there is no specificity of who the elegy is being written which, honestly, makes the poem even more haunting, even more powerful. It helps to showcase the strength of fracture which allows memory and loss to fuse so many different complicated feelings and emotions. The poem uses sensory detail of smell and sound, while paired with the Rolling Stones song, to illicit bonding between reader and speaker and speaker and the elegized. Huey writes:
…You have been gone years
but I do what I can to call you back.
In your past are cigarettes and war stories,
a youth well spent when being young still meant
having something to look forward to.
The speaker of Huey’s poems reflect a somber tone, but also one that is deliberate and, also, hopeful. Huey’s speaker gives voice to the photographs or the sensory details of youth which prove to be lingering, like the scent of cigarette smoke. By allowing us in the landscape of youth and wizened reflection, Huey creates poetry that is truly captivating and alluring with its intended goals of temporariness and longing. This all circles back to the anecdote about the workshop I attended because, with Huey’s poetry, I don’t want to rush through the words, I want to have them sink into me something permanent. I want to hold the poems up to the light like a roll of film and say “Here’s one that shows a younger me, one when I found out my parents were fallible. Here’s one where I tried something I wasn’t supposed to. Here’s one…” And through those imagined and reflected memories, I have found understanding and humanity, despite life’s fleeting nature. Because of this, Huey not only succeeds in writing the hard stuff, but also shows us why it’s hard.