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Book Review

Andrew Prall

The Book of Motion
Tung-Hui Hu
University of Georgia Press ($16.95)

“Wit” comes from an Indo-European base that means “to see or know,” and it is also an ancestor of the Old English words for “wisdom,” “vision,” and “idea.” The latter trifecta of related words reminds one that wit is a form of wisdom inextricably tied to a subjective vision, a created idea. Tung-Hui Hu’s The Book of Motion subtly acknowledges the limits of wit while reveling in its possibilities. As one moves from poem to poem, one becomes aware of a consistent voice or persona amidst the constant flux. More buoy than beacon, the voice is not one whose purpose is to guide a ‘wayward’ reader ashore, but one that perhaps marks a channel, a range in which safe passage is possible, although certainly not guaranteed.

The voice that surfaces in this collection evokes, yet also resists a context of “environmental” or nature-oriented poets, such as Robinson Jeffers and Gary Snyder. Like Jeffers and Snyder, Hu is concerned about the relationship between humans and the environment, and there is a sense in some of the poems that humanity’s survival depends on its ability to ‘become’ nature. However, Hu avoids the often unappealing didacticism frequently evident in poems that explore the link between humans and nature. Rather than corrective, the poems are suggestive. The frequent metamorphoses between these phenomena—the ‘subjective’ realm of humans and the more ‘objective’ realm of nature—deliver more questions than answers, affording the reader room to maneuver. In the opening poem, “A rock a fish,” the narrator observes a different kind of people, people who “are capable / of greater passions than / us.” Among these people is a man who thrusts his car off of a cliff:

[. . .] Sliding
through the waters,
it breathed, and its gills
began to whiten with air–
how small the car must
have looked from above,
but to the fish it was as if
a continent had shifted,
stretched, and birthed
a new mountain range.

The human subject becomes a natural object viewed from various perspectives. Car becomes fish and then becomes either a dissipating speck in flux or a momentous habitat of gravity and stasis, depending on one’s perspective. That the range of motion in these poems is limited by one’s subjectivity is a reason for hope, recalling Robert Duncan’s famous return to the meadow where he finds a place of first permission and the “everlasting omen of what is.” Hu’s omens often manifest themselves in the everyday: in a climb up a hill, in swatting flies with a newspaper, in a summer vacation to Atlantic City. Yet Hu’s “everyday” place is one that can veer from the mundane to the sublime within the span of a sentence, which may be (or perhaps should be) a further definition of “wit.” In a section from “Elegies for self,” the speaker, caught in the rainstorm, dreams a meadow: “I watched blackbirds take off and found that they were my fingers waving goodbye.” The “Elegies for self” are prose poems in which the narrator is perpetually dislocated, on the horizon, between presence and absence. In another section, the narrator distinguishes himself by being the “best sleeper in class,” having practiced by:

[. . .] lowering myself slowly into the pond and waking to waters endless as insomnia, the liquid press of the eyelids; then by going to airports and meditating until my heart rate matched the tempo of planes taking off. Seals, too, lower their pulse when preparing to dive into the abyss, but often are so enraptured by the depths that they forget to return to normal speed. It is as if everyone has decided to become salesmen.

The students and teachers, momentarily fascinated by the sleepy narrator, become bored and resume their activity, ending the poem in a moment where the synchronic and diachronic seem to intersect. This is remarkably sophisticated, and even more so, when one considers that these poems were written as part of Hu’s senior thesis at Princeton University when he was only 19. Given this achievement, one certainly wonders what Hu might do next. The last poem of the collection, “What happens next,” tells of a narrator who is among a group of palm readers who set up shop at an Atlantic City beach. They are soon humbled by the limits of their agency:

What a pleasant time, sitting on the beach and deciding what happens next. Does the girl get sacrificed after all, or will she escape to the Aegean in time? Does the mother kill the father when he gets home, or does she go back to the kitchen? We read so many palms that sometimes we got them confused. Every so often someone would go back home and marry the wrong person. After that we were quiet as starlings in a cage.

Finding it hard to match the right fate with the right person, the fortune-tellers end up confusing destinies. Daunted by indeterminate fates and unforeseen outcomes, they yield to a silence that is unnatural – as if trapped nature. However, one may safely predict that Hu will not share the fate of his protagonists. This is a voice that is destined to keep on singing.