GARRETT J. BROWN Reviews
Map of the Hydrogen World by Steve Halle
(Cracked Slab Books, Chicago, 2008)
“i fake it i tell jokes quote movies anything— / gibberish voices vaudeville… / all I can hear / is my own voice speaking in tongues… / it was my first poem.” So announces the speaker in the opening poem of Steve Halle’s Map of the Hydrogen World. This debut collection from Cracked Slab Books bravely seeks a poetics that can contain the multitude of voices and approaches that are so often at odds in contemporary poetry. And while poems that rely on a chorus of outside references, boldly incorporate borrowed material, and refuse any one style (formal or experimental) run the risk of seeming fractured or “speaking in tongues,” what emerges in Halle’s work is a genuine engagement with the poetic tradition in all of its incarnations.
Embracing a modernist commitment to words as concrete objects, Halle isn’t afraid to grab found language and twist it, turn it, and shred it into something unexpected, as in “Gun Variation”:
what are you going to do when the guns are drawn?
what are you going to do when the guns?
what are you going to do when the guns are draw?
what are you?
what are you going to do when the guns are
what are you going
what are you going
what are you going to do whe.
In this nod to the work of Bruce Nauman, one can almost imagine the lines of the poem written in flashing neon, letters winking in and out of existence as new phrases glow in brilliant yellows, blues, and reds.
But, unlike many who subscribe to a purely experimental poetics, this is a poet who doesn’t shrink from inhabiting a moment of lyrical narrative when the situation warrants—as the ending of “Obedients” demonstrates:
while flames devoured the wooden door.
Deep in prayer, she did not look at the children
who put their heads down on clasped
hands, closed their eyes, and burned.
Halle is at his best, however, in poems where lyric intensity and linguistic experimentation are blended. The poem “materiality” is perhaps his most successful attempt. Splashing blocks of text in various fonts and sizes across the page, the poem explodes like a myriad of billboards over a Tokyo street. And while some of these signs force us to confront words and phrases out of context (“suffer little children” attaining a double meaning when pulled out of the King James Bible) others provide us with moments of resonant narrative. Blending borrowed text from a variety of sources with language from museum labels at the Art Institute of Chicago, “materiality” expands to include not only the materiality of language but of art, religious ecstasy, and sexual desire as well. It is an elegiac poem that affirms the concrete reality of the world while simultaneously mourning its evanescence, as when Eleni Sikelianos imagines her sixteen year old father pulling a paintbrush hair from a Rousseau painting that “he fell for, and could not imagine living without.” The young man keeps this physical relic from a piece of art in his pocket for years, “fingering it until there is nothing left but a pinch of sand.”
Whether drawing upon visual art or employing literary collage, Halle is constantly engaging with, expanding, or humorously toying with 20th century modernism and its descendent movements. “the love song of homer j. simpson,” easily the most funny (and fun) poem of the collection, achieves all of these effects most effortlessly:
what jimmied donuts i’ve scarfed, and where, and why
i have forgotten, and what subtle chocolate iced cake
or boston crème lies staling on the countertop until morrow?
A recording of Halle reading the poem (available on the National Council of Teachers of English website: www.ncte.org/tyca/poetrymonth) contributes an additional dimension. His Eliot impression is so well done, you can almost hear the scratching record in the background—“materiality” (here of the human voice) emerging yet again.
Garrett J. Brown is the author of Manna Sifting, which won the 2009 Liam Rector First Book Prize from Briery Creek Press. His poetry and creative nonfiction has appeared or is upcoming in Poetry East, TriQuarterly, Natural Bridge, the American Poetry Journal, the Ledge, and Pif Magazine.