Review by Kate Umans
Charles O. Hartman's work has in the past opened its doors to everything from jazz to computer-generated phrases. Yet, for such a democratic poet, he is someone who delights in innovations made possible by restriction. His previous collection, for instance, contained a series of prose poems whose only requirement was that they never use the verb “to be.” Where does a poet who has already gone to these kinds of limits go next? One answer is anywhere. The other answer is somewhere--specifically, the Greek island of Aigina, which provides title and inspiration for Island, Hartman's sixth collection.
The book's ending essay, “Where Am I,” monitors “an especially restless islander” investigating his surroundings. But what restlessness translates to in the book's three sections of poetry is not agitation or haste in scanning its subjects, but rather an active dissatisfaction with the usual ways of processing them. The first of Island's sections consists of a single, hypnotic long poem, “Tambourine”--the book's most consuming and intrepid project. This is no ordinary epic, for it's driven by math before (but not in place of) the usual engines--discovery, quest, and trial. The premise is that the poem functions as a “pi mnemonic”-- the lengths of words follow corresponding decimal digits of pi (the first word 3 letters, the second 1, then 4, and so on).
Hartman peppers “Tambourine” with facts and images of Aigina, telling us, for example, that “to evacuate coasts / a ratsnest of murderous pirates / they built these steep streets.” Yet much of the scene is interior and philosophical, or is compelled by language's near-physical participation. The resulting language can at times be distilled into a proverb-like gravity (“Seeing invents / otherwise anywhere / is a same nonplace”) or even something approximating the stillness and concentration of the haiku (“water / toothless / gnaws senseless a shoreline / rawly new”) and then all at once let lose into a Whitmanesque rowdiness (“A bellow a roaring laugh and posthaste an ecstatic wave speaks lethally / a ten syllable of itself”). Whatever the speed at which the language moves, the effect of the poem is such that every word seems to hang, suspended and independent, in the air, despite the lack of punctuation's regulation. Motion is created by way of a series of poses, the way animation moves frame by frame.
Although Hartman self-deprecatingly references a dependence on a “halfassed lexic hoard,” the poem feels anything but inhibited. It brims with invented colloquialisms and fused-together words (“wayonback,” “mymisself”) that surely reflect, in part, a necessary ingenuity in dealing with the demands of the form. But in a poem which states an interest in processes such as orogeny (mountain making) and the forming and re-forming of shorelines, it is as if the words themselves participate in the protracted coastline drama. They become pieces of an emergent, mid-erosion language, not yet worn down to distinct forms.
The mathematical guidelines technically do their puppeteering from offstage, but “Tambourine” also openly relishes math's connectedness to human experience, geography, and time. And if most poems touch casually on such connections, this poem lives it out. Here, not only does water reveal that “counting enchants it,” but the speaker himself gets plugged into an elaborate logic problem where “the variable I / rehearses values / that like to approach constant X,” with X holding steady to the self's fluctuations, sometimes as higher power, sometimes as the sort of collective vibration of humanity's bustle. Always “out of courtesy / X eludes,” and the pursuit of it invents--in the way any theological search does--both meaning and the debris of “doctrinal middens.”
After this complex meal, the two-per-page short poems of the next section (“Morning, Noon, & Night”) are a palate cleanser--plainspoken, loose-reined observations of island routines, characters, and features. Each one might well be preceded by “Oh, look!” Where the opening long poem brings with it all that comes with the current, these poems better conform to the model of the tide-pool. One peers into each and sees a view, teeming or quiet, but always self-contained: “The lamb in the window has arrived at the height of self-absorption. / Like an invalid whom everything bothers, everything bores except illness, / it has perfected concentration on an ideal” (“The Apotheosis”). Here things and creatures take on their own inner lives; dishes, keys, cats, and dogs dream, plot, and contemplate. But these flights of fancy are all conveyed in the amused tone of the one who invested them with that life, the poet delighting in his bag of tricks.
When the poems withhold details, they do so with the same harmlessness of townspeople going privately about their business--gently, often endearingly--as in the tender but inscrutable lyric “Not One”:
The two--he says--are distinct and inseparable
like the color and the motion of an olive grove
or the pitch and timbre of a voice lingering over a name,
not like sky and sea on a hazy day when islands
and boats seem to float in a false position. Sometimes--he says--
they overlap like the two hands in the lap of an old woman in church
or the thought and word and deed of an honorable man,
not like fig leaves over the first offenders' suddenly private parts.
Never, though, are they one, any more than your two feet,
or your flesh and blood.
Section three (“Eight Greek Lyrics”) contains the logical next immersion. The poems were composed in Greek, and English translations are provided on facing pages. These poems are slower and more deliberate than those of the previous section. “Where Am I” notes, in a discussion of mapping, that “the Chinese reputedly used different miles for uphill and downhill.” If the poems of “Morning, Noon, & Night” are downhill poems, the Greek lyrics are uphill poems, and the mileage does register differently, though rewardingly in both cases.
The Greek lyrics employ the resources of the beginner's phrase-book--cataloguing, interrogation--but run through poetry's fanciful mill. Each new clause is added on with the care of a bricklayer, as in “The Phone Call”:
I wanted to speak to my father
among the dead, but the operator
said it would cost me
all I had. I had
lots: some mountains, a chisel,
two disparate eyes, the light,
the past year, the end of an ugly
cough, a tortoise shell, my pockets,
the tongue of the sea that said No, Yes,
nineteen promises. And a telephone. I asked,
All? The answer: All except
the debt. That you will need.
All the poems of Island seem joined in the act of questioning what happens en route to destination or solution--whether within math, pilgrimage, translation, or a life--following “whichever direction suggests the vectors / of veritably pilgrim progress.” The vector, in fact, could be the book's emblem, as it stands in for the limited, representative knowledge we have of everything--ourselves, time, geography, and the cosmos, to name a few--and “our ability to sample” them, which makes us both fortunate and disastrously constrained. Throughout, the island itself is not only Hartman's solid ground, but also his talisman against an otherwise chaotic vastness, as he declares triumphantly:
Now this universe at large has lost an I
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