Available Surfaces: Essays on Poesis . T.R. Hummer. The University of Michigan Press, July 2012. $29.95.
My crotchetiest prof in grad school always said he looked forward to retirement so he could watch Bergman films in his jammies for the rest of his life. It’s the same game as listing what you’d take to a desert isle or eat for your last meal: trying to satisfy the imagination before life’s death sentence can be carried out.
One of my own wishes might be to read through the entire Poets on Poetry series  from The University of Michigan Press. Their newest title, by the poet, critic, and editor T.R. Hummer, is a collection of prose pieces that range in length from aphorisms—one of my favorite forms—to sectioned essays playing variations on a theme, to more straightforward essays you might read in a popular magazine. There’s a lot to enjoy in this relatively brief book—one thing the series always provides, since poets’ prose values compression that many prosers might emulate—and because Hummer engages with philosophy, science, music, race, class, and region. Poetry itself is sometimes only his implication.
It’s a little weird writing a book review in the Internet Age. By title I’m T.R. Hummer’s friend, but it’s merely a fannish Facebook designation, so it struck me when he quotes E.M. Cioran: ”A golden rule: to leave an incomplete image of oneself.” Facebook friending of writers, poets, and artists, who already have a public presence with their work, creates a doubled-down sense of knowing, which is not. “[W]orks of art are always less complex than those who make them,” Hummer writes. There’s a joke in there somewhere, but I suspect it’s true. But what is it we hope to know?
Hummer writes of poetry that it
...inhabits and enunciates an incommensurable zone between individual and collective, between body and body-politic, an area very ill-negotiated by most of us most of the time. Our culture, with its emphasis on the individual mind and body, teaches us very little about how even to think about the nature of this problem, which means that our culture, as a collective, is far more mysterious than it seems: even the mystery is hidden. E pluribus unum is a smokescreen: what pluribus; what unum? And yet this phrase is an American mantra, as if it explained something.
It’s true that the effects of that zone manifest in peculiar ways in American culture, from our use of social media to attempt to engage strangers, to obsession with celebrity of inconsequential people, to fractures so great between the two dominant political ideologies that it’s hard to see how a nation can survive them.
Hummer, of course, is enunciating the loneliness in this void, but when people ask, “What does poetry do…what good is poetry if it has so small an audience?” he answers here with the consolations of a first philosophy:
What good is your pituitary gland, I am prone to answer, and can you say that at this moment you are aware of it? Do you even know what it does? Are you sure you even have one? For the culture, I am convinced, poetry functions on that level…. The maintenance of a body politic is, perhaps, an act of poesis: a making the very name of which is foreign to our ears, and yet is essentially ours because it is us. We atomized creatures, each alone in the universe of our own body, strive to contribute to a web of conscience we call Humanity.
That is, it closes the gaps among us, jumping like impulses between synapses, and spreads the word of shared experience, even when it’s not all good news. I like this notion very much.
Given this, and the title’s announcement, it’s no surprise that one recurring motif in the book is the different and prolific ways we write:
We write what we know and what we do not know. But what do we write it on? On any available surface: on a computer screen, on legal pads, on the walls of prisons, on our lovers’ skin, on our own DNA. The available surface accommodates us, and our context; it becomes us, and our context.
The available surface is our instrument, and also our soul.
(Hummer describes himself as a recovered neoplatonist, on the wagon these 40 years, but still unafraid of and inclined to the word “soul.”)
The motif is what ties this collection of essays together. As Hummer rightly points out, humans have altered, manipulated, and engineered their largest physical landscape—the planet itself: “And everywhere we turn, the earth is marked, its poem still being written.”
In the title essay, broken into seven parts, the ways in which things are written, determined, or have meaning include tattoos on a veteran uncle; boxes containing every issue of The Georgia Review, founded in 1948; bundles of elementary-school homework thrown unread and ungraded into the trash can; aerial views of the UK versus the US; how lecturing is different from seminar teaching and resembles a foray into territory delineated on a map; how the landscape of youth ingrains itself in a poet’s mind and provides the scale and rhythms for a life’s work; rewriting the collected works of Thomas Aquinas, letter by letter, in the palm of blind and deaf poet Jack Clemo.
These variations alone are well worth the price of the book—especially the moving section on Clemo and his devoted wife, Ruth, together perhaps the ultimate literary couple—and I urge you to have a look.
Among the palimpsests of memory and culture, Hummer is most aware of landscapes overwritten with the perjuries of race. He describes a scene (“Begin with a human figure…walking down a road) in which a man leads a mule through the Mississippi farmland of Hummer’s childhood. The man is beset by children begging to ride the animal, and he dutifully lifts each in turn, thanklessly, and lets the child ride for a few yards. As Hummer revisits the scene through the essay, adding details, he builds doubt—not only about what we think we’ve seen, but about his own reliability as narrator of the event. (“…I record it, one might assume. It would be pretty to think so.”)
The man is black, of course, a tenant farmer for white landowners and therefore not even at liberty to refuse the (perhaps bratty and self-entitled) children. The fact that Hummer can’t remember specific details of the man’s life, and we can’t imagine our way into his experience either, is an indictment of us all. It’s an important essay that does not wear its importance lightly. (It’s titled “A Length of Hemp Rope,” which denotes the mule’s halter but also connotes “halter” as an archaic verb for hanging.)
While this meta- quality—how are we even to speak of or remember racism when it’s written so huge on the land that many, including the children, can’t even see it—will delight some, it also plays perhaps accidentally into some of the soul (that word again)-searching by contemporary writers of literary nonfiction, over what is responsible portrayal, since there’s a point at which we might say the failure of inquiry is laziness, a house with a rotten foundation.
Early in the essay Hummer focuses on the difficulty of knowing even concrete physical details, let alone the man’s mind and life. “There are questions about everything I have described here,” Hummer says. “About the road, for instance, it is worth wondering when it came to be here, and how, and especially why.” He meanders through some further description but isn’t all that interested: “Is it usual for county governments to build and maintain roads for such constituencies and narrow purposes?” He doesn’t know, because he doesn’t ask. Fatalistically he says, “[T]he relationship between what I remember and anything we might call ‘fact’ is profoundly problematic. The problem, of course, is both commonplace and insoluble, and I do not propose to solve it or even more than glancingly address it here. Better minds than mine have foundered on this issue….”
This is the “poor postmodern us!” syndrome, in which all of life is ineffable. Thing is, there are gradations and scale of unknowability, and Hummer admits, “As to fact: there are certain sources that might verify or deny some aspects of the poem of the past I embody: research that could still be done, interviews that could be carried out.”
There are. But having raised a potential objection, he burns it: “The ‘facts’ I might discover thereby would in reality be nothing more than the contents of other peoples’ memories, compounding my own illusions with the illusion of corroboration or correction.” (In a different essay, later in the book, he has no problem with data collected: “Mr. G. [a teacher]…also had, I learned years later, a rather serious drinking problem….”)
This is the contemporary “problem” of “reality” that claims complete subjectivity from the very top of its slippery slope to the bottom. But in general, might one not look into something with a little research, e.g., Why was the road built, if that’s a pertinent question? Might there not be administrative or journalistic records that would not be mere “memories”? (The suspicion here of memories is de facto denial.) At the least, legwork adds complexity. But this kind of nonfiction likes to sit and spin on its own pondering, to have its reverie on a theme go undisturbed by historical complexity, which might make the poem of the past richer and truer.
And Hummer is too good not, finally, to own up: “The shameful truth is that I am not interested in facts.”
When you write with a nod to historical context, but the only mule you ride in on is your own memory, of course everything is up for grabs. It would be comical, that tendency, if it wasn’t sometimes morally serious.
Hummer writes: “And who was I? What house did I live in? Did I go to a war? Was I ill? Did I live or die?” I don’t know, I respond: I’m just the reader, but now I do wonder: Did you go to a war? Because I know many who did, who had real experiences there, and I’m curious about your implication. Also: I suspect you lived.
In the title essay, the tattooed uncle served as a marine in “the Great War…serving in the Pacific Theater, where, I gather, he saw a good deal of combat on islands,” some of it “from under a jeep? Or have I imagined that detail?” In the end I guess the WWI reference is merely an error of editing. (There are a couple of typos in the book, and printing errors too.) Otherwise, Hummer’s imagination created a jeep 25 years too early, in the wrong theater of war, near as I can tell, unless Uncle Ernest was Australian. But see: facts do matter.
Minor quibbles. Hummer’s ability to create turns of phrase and images makes every piece in the collection interesting. What happened to the mule in this picture? “Most likely it is left in the field where it falls…and becomes client to the good undertaking of the earth and its assistants, the beetle and the buzzard.” Similarly, we’re shown a
...black Angus heifer, dead of unknown causes, swollen to half again her normal size…a gaping cavity in her belly, out of which stepped, as I stood there, one of the lords of the underworld at his leisure: a huge turkey vulture who had been entirely hidden inside her and came forth now to my view like the issue of a Caesarian birth: grand and otherworldly…one of the royal family of Otherness.
And the hemp rope? …it might well endure, might still exist, unknown, unused, unrecognized, an Ariadne’s thread for memory if memory could only locate it.
But back to the main topic: being the product of a racist society:
“When I was born, my people came to me and said, in essence, this: you will believe as we do, because we love you, and so you must; if you do not share our belief, you will be the enemy; but what we believe cannot be believed in the clear light and under the scrutiny of clear vision; and so, my child, with love in our hearts, we now will pluck out your eyes.”
Despite this, Hummer had an epiphany—“the beginning of something like real sight”—that reminds me of Conrad’s, “Before the Congo I was a mere animal.” Hummer says,
“What was it I realized? There is a long answer and a short one. For the present, I’ll give the short one: it was Mississippi, it was the 1950s, we were white people. Everything we had was stolen, even ourselves. Therein lies the doubleness: I possessed, and was possessed by, a pilfered Eden. I lived in it even though I had no real right to it. Already fallen, I lived there like a tiny god.”
In another essay he picks up the thread and says that from the ages of 11 to 22 he lived in a “situational depression produced by the place and time in which I was living. The only salvation for me was the one I finally chose for myself—removing myself physically and mentally from the source of the problem.”
Being a tiny god, he expels himself from his corrupted Eden. Is it any wonder he refers occasionally to Joyce, and their shared eye problems? (“When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets,” says Stephen Dedalus, Joyce’s alter ago.)
Hummer says, “A violent but solitary struggle to annihilate a ‘false’ self—one based on the old-style Southern racism to which I was heir—was coming to an end. In the course of the next decade I would move across several plateaus, bridge an abyss or two, spelunk various cave systems, and become something perhaps remotely resembling an authentic human being.” (Joyce/Dedalus: “…I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”)
Hummer is an aphorist, even in the sections where he isn’t consciously using the form. (“[E]ditors are the weightlifters of readers,” he says in one essay.) When he does use aphorisms consciously, he tends to build them in series and sums: “Eleven Critical Aphorisms”; “Eight Entanglement Assays”; ”Fifteen Chemical Assays”; “Nine Compositions for Saxophone and Electron Microscope”. Two of those 43 combined aphorisms, just to give an example, progress like these, on their way to another apologia of poetry:
The mind, inclusive of the senses, filters the world through myriad flues, traps, refractions, and transformations down to the DNA.
Poems, reflective of the senses, filter the world, through myriad tropes, prosodies, and figure-tortured utterances, into the body politic.
(By making them work more like syllogisms, they may actually no longer be aphorisms.)
Hummer has developed an argument about the aphorism, some of which I buy: “The potent aphorism is a revolution wrapped inside a sentence. It is highly portable, and extremely volatile, and yet its volatility is entirely mental.” But he makes the odd claim that while
Europe has a long tradition of aphorists; America as far as I know  has produced practically none , and there is indeed something about the aphorism that strikes me as fundamentally non-American …the form generally demands a willing suspension not of disbelief but of personal authority. […] Our tradition of radical individualism stands, rather hypocritically, in opposition to the nature of the aphorism’s claim to, and its toying with, authority. We claim the right to our own authority, but let another claim a similar right, and there’s trouble in River City.
My links above should serve as evidence to the contrary, and in fact Hummer goes on to propose something like the very opposite of his argument—that a culture of rugged individualists should be conducive to aphorists: “The aphorist is a thinker who is allergic to systems, who is all method, and whose intention is anarchic.”
Hummer works as a philosopher in these aphorisms, or, rather, what he calls a “half-philosopher.” It’s not a pejorative term; he calls “systematic philosophers" such as Nietzsche “half-aphorists,” by which he means the same thing--that thing he is.
This collection contains essays about Hummer witnessing his father’s death, playing with a band in a casino, and working for the Corps of Engineers on a campus with a charming and sublime “model ocean.” The whole is about as finely shaped as one might hope for when poets apply their craft to prose; it’s entertaining and meaningful. As Hummer says, “Still, the book can make a difference; the book can vivify, and the sum of books makes up an important part of the brain and nervous system of humanity.” Books for a desert isle.