Barbara Deakins: BOOK REVIEW
The Never Wife, by Cynthia Hogue. Mammoth Press.

Cynthia Hogue’s poems are moving without a whiff of sentimentality, honest without being brutal. The core of the work is a concern for what it means to be human interacting in a world that often doesn’t leave much room for us to be human. She communicates this with a clarity and lyrical exactness reminiscent of Marianne Moore. This, as well as her subtle observations and mastery of voice combine to form poems in which, as Moore’s father said: “The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence; / not in silence, but in restraint.” Hogue has a careful particular ear that allows her to treat even the horrible with, if not sympathy exactly, then generosity of spirit.

Those are the generalities; now I’d like to talk about specifics. The poem Leaves illustrates many of these elements of craft. It begins with a minor ecological disaster:

In our yard, birds on their backs
stone dead; the 10 p.m. news announces
“We’ll tell you why!” Politicians cite
stats, 100 miles from Three Mile Island’s
latest release of radioactive gas.
In this section of the poem Hogue’s mastery of voice makes for an ironically humorous tone. Her unexpected line breaks build momentum in this section, as well as throughout the poem. At first it seems she is writing a straight narration about living in a country that thinks it can explain away danger, but in the third stanza the focus narrows into a single relationship:

In dreams we curl.
Is it grief that rends us
awake? We cannot recall.
You scream at me, in amazement
watching yourself scream at me
The first line is wonderfully open. “Curl” conjures images of two lovers curling in sleep together for comfort or a stuck animal curling away from a stick. The image is evocative and creates tension in the reader. In the next line the phrase “rends us” leads the reader to believe the lovers are joined, but being rent apart by some unknown force, possibly grief. Instead the question is not whether grief rends them apart, instead it is whether grief rends them “awake”. With that word, the reader is uncertain which direction the lovers “curl.” Toward each other? Away? What is the state between them? This is great in a poem that opens with a yard littered with dead poisoned birds and politicians attempting to explain the phenomenon. By poising the uncertainty of human disaster in front of ecological disaster she subtly creates an atmosphere in which the reader feels nothing is honest or healthy.

The last portion of the third line “We cannot recall.” emphasizes this uncertainty. They do not definitely know what awakens them, but considering the supposition is grief, it seems likely that there is something wrong. The next two lines present a concrete narrative scene, the lover screaming at the speaker, but the lover’s act is most noticeable for its self-awareness. Hogue highlights this through the repetition of the phrase “scream at me,” balancing the outer and inner actions of the lover: one a violent verbal act and the other an observation and subsequent “amazement” at finding oneself capable of such an act. She uses repetition throughout the book to reveal subtle differences of meaning in the same word or phrase by varying its context.

The last stanza of the poem weaves the personal story of the lovers in with a soundbite to form a bleakly humorous comment on both the state of the relationship and the state of diplomatic affairs:

The sum of our actions
is in sum innumerable. We think
of consequences (having only so many),
as voices—“plainly not serious
about détente”—rise in branches.
The repetition of “sum” emphasizes how the actions have accumulated. “Sum” is used first to mean mathematical total, meaning the counting is over, or as finished as it can get since the total is “innumerable,” then next to mean rhetorical summation. The first use gives the sense of the lovers analytically listing and adding every offensive action, the second of a presentation of these faults. “Innumerable” makes it clear to the reader that the two have been trying for a clear total and just can’t get one; this is not a new argument, just one that has become impossible to resolve. This attention to language and subtle shades of meaning is one of the hallmarks of Hogue’s work. Her poems are carefully wrought machines (Williams would be proud) that convey a crystalline awareness of human weakness through intricate word-by-word workmanship.

Hogue emphasizes the contrast between the “sum innumerable” of their actions and their limited consequences by choosing to state the limitation “having only so many” between parentheses. This serves as a visual reminder of their containment, the phrase itself contained, as well as an ironic aside to the reader. The last two lines of the poem return to the beginning stanza. After revealing to us that the relationship between the two lovers has devolved into a stalemate, she gives us this wonderful little quote from the TV commentators “plainly not serious about détente.” This is bitterly funny. The voices become not only the political voices, but also the voices of the lovers. It’s such a banal confrontation, another fight in front of the TV; then you hear a commentator sum up the state of affairs in politics and it parallels the state of affairs in your relationship. This quote gives the poem the immediacy of a relationship epiphany, that moment when you realize its all over but the shoutin’.

The final image of the poem is beautifully ominous. It functions both on a literal level and a figurative level. The windows of the house are probably open and the sound of the voices is leaking out into the surrounding trees. Even nature is no longer a refuge from the relationship; the birds have been replaced by the voices. Every line of the poem points to this, but the end is still unexpected.

The second section, “Three Streets from Desire,” is a narrative cycle about the poet’s three-year stay in New Orleans. Each poem is as beautifully wrought as Leaves; linked together they are a powerful documentation of material poverty and human reaction to it, both the privileged white poet and the black residents. What characterizes this section is Hogue’s mastery of voice. By documenting her stay in the voices of some of the people she met, she gives the series an authenticity and humanness that is remarkable. Hogue uses the qualities of specific speech varieties native to the area to subtly indicate everything from race to socio-economic level. This is most emphatically not a sentimental portrait, produced by somebody who gets to leave and is damn glad about it but looks for the beauty everywhere, no, Hogue takes an unflinching look at being poor, but still being human. The people in her poems are not metaphors or symbols, but real people.

One of my favorite poems of the series is Mrs. Rose. The poem is in the voice of the poet’s elderly, poor, uneducated, working class neighbor. You’d think this would be an automatic recipe for condescension, and in someone else’s hand’s it probably would be, but Hogue gives her speaker a quiet dignity and, better yet, a heroic lack of self-consciousness. Mrs. Rose tells the poet:

I didn’t get much schoolin’
like you. Read when I had the time.
Oldest of nine. Worked cleaning
For the Boutiers and the Beauregards
She continues to describe her life in the same honest, rhythmically beautiful language, concluding with these lines:

…was strong as a mule
till this last sickness, thank you.
You see my scar? (She lifts her blouse.)
Got no breast no more.
What you think of that!
This speaker is a survivor, and one with a wicked sense of humor at that. The contrast between the speaker telling the poet “I didn’t get much schoolin’/ like you” then asking, “What you think of that!” when she shows off her scar seems to be designed to make the poet as uncomfortable as possible. This emphasizes that no matter how solicitous the poet is, she’s still an educated white woman, an outsider. It also records the speaker’s humanity. While Mrs. Rose took care of herself and her family in a culture that made that extremely difficult to do, she’s no saint. She’s not above getting a dig in at the outsider, even if it is a good-humored dig. She speaks like a real person, not a symbol, and as a real person, she has a poignancy and appeal that rings authentic. It is her ability to record the human beautifully and skillfully that makes Hogue such an excellent poet. Her poems are a sharp pleasure.

Barbara Deakins is a former Stadler Poetry Fellow at Bucknell University. She currently teaches at the University of Syracuse where she is a third-year-candidate in the Master of Fine Arts Program. She is on a staff of Salt Hill Magazine.


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