from “Poetry and ‘Real Things’: Erica Hunt’s Local History”
Kathy Lou Schultz
Kathy Lou Schultz
In 2001, Erica Hunt noted that “Years ago, I was asked whether my poems are about ‘real things.’ . . . That question about poetry and the ‘real’ jostles the horizon for poetry: how does aggressively speculative writing, strategies of intensification, opacity/excavation/illumination have value beyond their practice, to influence the world in which we live?” Hunt’s work enacts this heuristic through a series of prose events in Local History, her first book published in 1993 by Roof Books, but which, Charles Bernstein notes is “the product of over a decade of intensive engagement with poetry by a writer published in some of the most innovative anthologies and journals of the time.” The publications to which Bernstein refers, including In the American Tree and The Politics of Poetic Form would seem to place Hunt’s work solidly within the Language Writing community, though her work is rarely discussed within this context. In fact, though Hunt is well-known among many poets, critics rarely discuss her work.
This paper will examine Hunt’s engagement with the local, which can be as intimate as a missing connection between an “I” and a “you”: “She must be someone’s missing person, the unread portion” (12) or as broad as a sought connection between the subject and history: “Thanks to the facsimiles provided by the Visitor’s Center, the traveler can obtain some idea of what the plaza must have been like” (35). In seeking to understand these connections-—or rather these missed connections—I will attempt to elucidate Hunt’s conception of the “real” and poetry’s incursions into it.
Hunt’s playful prose poems present new histories, local histories by an African American woman who is witness to a world order in which appearances are not what they seem: “In an era of palaces inhabited by officials who’ve inherited their squint you have to do more than scratch the surface” (40). Hunt does indeed do more than simply “scratch the surface”; these poems converge at the dialectic between the personal (including the ordinary facts of daily life) and global power structures that while seemingly abstract inform the progressions of the everyday, addressing “how writing can begin to have a social existence in a world where authority has become highly mobile, based less on identity and on barely discerned or discussed relationships” as she states in “Notes for an Oppositional Poetics.” (“Notes” 687).
For example the impending crisis in “A Coronary Artist” (“You can smell the smoke answering the alarm”) is positioned within the dailiness of family life: “To bring one’s face into the morning when it’s barely light. To promote sunshine to my daughter while surviving my own ferocious will to sleep. This is the corner to turn to the bathroom. This is the sink, I look at myself and see the person I might have been had I gotten more sleep” (13). In this world, the lived experiences of gender are highlighted in the artificiality of their construction: “One becomes an adult without knowing the details of how it was done, knowing only which team you’re on, which hat corresponds to your glands,” but the effects of gendered power dynamics are still very real: “Custom has it that a woman gets up first to solve the dilemma of the burning moment” (13). The “family soundtrack” runs in the background “putting everything on hold.”
Hunt’s concern with the exigencies of daily life place her in conversation with the earlier work of Dadaist and Surrealists who:
identified everyday life under modernity as the central locus of sociocultural inquiry . . . they felt strongly that any viable politics of liberation would have to be fought on this terrain. Daily life under capitalism, they believed, was becoming increasingly degraded, routinized and ‘cretinized’, in that the individual’s capacity for autonomous action and creative self-expression was being squandered in the pursuit of material wealth and social status (Gardiner 24).
Or, as Hunt writes in “Second Voice”: “Pinocchio didn’t know what fear meant. I come flying out of the elevator, out of my container, out of my box. I am myself, not the product you asked for, not the one you pointed to on the shelf. This one, not that one. No strings and anything might happen.” (Local History, 11) The poem draws our attention not only to the materials of the language, but to the making of the product/poem itself, demonstrating the speaker’s awareness that her subject position, and that of her poems, occupies a place within commodity culture. Yet, possibilities exist outside of the box, the speaker’s “container,” namely that point at which “anything might happen,” because there are no longer any “strings.” This is the point where the imagination takes off, the imagination, which we know from Muriel Rukeyser’s Fear of Poetry or Audre Lorde’s “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” has the power to build a bridge toward social change. Lorde writes: “Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundation for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before.” Poetry, Lorde explains, puts us in touch with “those hidden sources of our power from where true knowledge and, therefore, lasting action comes.”
Put a very different way way, Amiri Baraka writes in “Black Art” (1969): “Poems are bullshit unless they are / teeth or trees or lemons piled / on a step” (Reader 219). Poems are “bullshit” unless they are constructed of, and connected to, everyday life.
Though concerned with many of the same issues that Baraka presents, in the eighties, Hunt’s tone is more fanciful, creating and discarding a series of situations in which the veracity of language is tested—and, importantly, she moves a female subject to the center. Hers is a poetics in which “fore” competes for space with “ground;” appearance is constantly juxtaposed with reality; the mechanism by which the official state is run exposed for its bare brutality. For example, the piece “cold war breaks” describes the “movie version” of the twentieth century “which soon will be the only version anyone remembers”: “The routine explanations of atrocity will be clocked, to present them precisely as they do on the evening news. Anchors will play themselves, mime a mix of concern and fatigue, as if the news had happened to them. It will entertaining however” (Local History, 23). Replicant versions of history repeat exponentially in which the news anchor is an actor played by the news anchor himself. Atrocity is boiled down to a bland soup of “routine explanation” in which the emotions are engaged only enough to mime concern and “entertain.” Such ideological manipulations put this reader in the mind of Disneyland’s “It’s A Small World,” wherein generic—read “white”—“world citizens” serenade the viewer/rider with what white liberalism most wants to hear: The Other is not “Other” at all, in fact, the other is just like me. This worldview flattens difference, ignoring the xenophobic outcome that results from the imposition of dominant cultural codes upon people of color.
Having revealed the ideological functions in “ordinary” language in these poems, Hunt presents language as an active presence that can trip up or inflate experience. For example, in a poem entitled “The Order of the Story,” the speaker exhorts the reader to “invent a language” and to describe various things:
Describe the buts in the doorway, in the doorway and everywhere in between, where she trips or slides down them into some other contingency, a sentence with a dangling clause. She is the figure in the vicinity of her experience with its distracting claims on her attention. Capital letters inflate routine, without which days curve away (15).
Hunt is creating a kind of grammar of experience where language itself not only marks daily routine, but is also worn upon the body; the speaker becomes in effect “a sentence with a dangling clause,” a part of speech that exists outside of the accepted “laws” or rules of grammar. She exists in violation. In addition, the title draws attention to the fact that Hunt’s writing practice de-orders or deconstructs traditional narrative structures, literally the way in which a “story” should be “ordered.” Furthermore, language is the intermediary through which experience necessarily must be understood, indeed felt, but the woman in the poem can only hope to get within “the vicinity” of her own experience. Language itself presents a hurdle to getting near to knowledge of her own subjectivity.