Reviewed by Heidi Lynn Staples
Christine Hume’s first collection, Musca Domestica, presented a remarkably coherent set of motifs and themes that articulate a governing aesthetic. Her second book Alaskaphrenia offers readers another ambitious articulation of philosophical insight and rich meditation on human consciousness.
Like Wallace Stevens, who famously wrote of a Florida-of-the-mind, Hume uses the landscape as a trope through which to communicate her poetics. She presents two concerns most salient within her project: an evocation of the poetic imagination--like other wild places--as host to fracture, refraction, variation, and mutability (to name a few of the more familiar species), and an implied caveat that the “Cliff-dripped blinking” fecundity of associative logic where “Cold will be holy,” “Wild will be holy,” has been rendered fragile by an approach that fences off the imagination with convention, that drills for modernist code, and that exploits until “Everything goes to prospect.” Implicitly and explicitly, Hume pursues a perpetually transforming (and transformative) consciousness. She asserts the poetic over the narrative, the circular over the linear, the process over the product, the mutable over the monumental: “Therefore, I dumpstered the novel and did not threaten any sodden hills with bombs.”
Not content to rest on her binaries, Hume resists a prescribed lyricism--notably, the collection offers no traditionally formal verse--but instead, she infuses the prosaic with the poetic. For example, Alaskaphrenia’s reader encounters institutional forms and documents transformed by a lyric imagination. Examine these titles: “Comprehension Questions,” “Dialogue Among Unincorporated Towns Concerning Alaska’s Resources,” “Do’s and Don’ts About Fur,” “Brochure,” “Diagram Explanatory of Lucency,” “Index of Observations on Pioneering Portraiture, “Translation Key to ‘Exercises and Dialogues II,’” “Explanation,” and “Instructions for All Parties A.K.A.” Within paper-work’s flourescent-lit partitioned cubicles of bureaucratized consciousness, Hume riddles in her chains hikes the freeze.
By which I mean, word-play and metamorphosizing metaphors took this reader on quite a journey. Hume, by her own description, has “adopted an Alaskan ear long before; with it, it’s not unusual to hear from inside the hammer: stampeded terrain, yea, avalanche.” Perhaps by Alaskan ear she means that within the common phrase and association handed down in traditional iambs, Hume hears meanings thunderous with possibilities. Read darefully the following lines from “No Less Remarkable Is the Metamorphosis of the Mastodon:”
“Under these circulations
You could not wear cirrus the way cows do
Always your mange meant to be smoke
You own the smoke, its slow muzzle
in sheep’s clothing.”
A close look reveals intricate hilarity married to portent. The associative logic refracts the poetry’s tone; thus, although words like ‘cirrus’ ‘mange’ ‘moonglow’ and ‘growl’ come from a familiar body of poetic diction and cast a pervading shade of portent, the poem’s logic and wordplay turn the tone with a sharp, glittering bit of cracking up--check out how she moves from ‘circulations’ to its aural echo ‘cirrus’ and from the then implied ‘cloud’ to its seek-sound-cousin ‘cow.’ She goes on to superimpose the cloud image with ‘smoke’ and then echoes the cow’s lowing in ‘molting, moonglow’ (‘mo,’ ‘moo,’ ‘low’). Finally, she conflates the cloud and the cow in the image of a smoke’s muzzle. At this moment in the poem, the Mastodon of the title becomes many things at once, as the decentered description freezes many times as one; the muzzle becomes smoke, cloud, extinct pre-historic animal and that sadly terrifying implement of modern man, the smoking gun.
Hume’s felicitious aural patterning puts a sensational spangle and spin on her words. Her poems reward and reworld multiple readings with deeper ever and more pleasurable mystery. Less interestingly, the poems often close with an overly familiar evocation of profundity and/or gravitas. The concluding sentiment or perhaps merely the final word of a poem goes a bit frequently and too gently into the night--words like ‘ecstasy,’ ‘insane,’ ‘spirits,’ and ‘blood’ simply fail to surprise as arrival points for a poem. What strikes me as frustratingly ironic about repeatedly portentous endings in a book is that their ordinariness as an artistic gesture (conventional as they are) simply seems at odds with the augury they connote.
That said, Alaskaphrenia offers a dynamic tonality across the collection, and Christine Hume has again given us ingenious forms, suggestive syntax, transformative metaphors, and exquisite wordplay. In her palpable lands, “The mist possesses authentic talk.”