Sawnie Morris

Issue #
September 6, 2013

That Fall, Christine Hemp

by Sawnie Morris

There is something of the fairy-tale to Christine Hemp’s That Fall; her speakers, often ordinary humans, experience forms of visitation or possession, as described in “The Things that Keep Us Here”:

  They aren’t dream times exactly,
   those moments when the wind finds you
   folding clothes or putting the milk away
   and all that was no longer is.

Or, as described in “The Cutting,” a poem that ends with the animation of the wild into the domestic, the vegetative into the human, the elements into the aural: “Though I left the forest the way I’d come,/ things had changed” Hemp’s speaker tells us, “Little beards of moss were pushing through the keyhole. / I began to hear the rain.”

More ambitiously, Hemp also offers up mythological or historical figures who report back to us of their heady flights on the elixirs of enchantment– as in “Icarus”: “Oh, how it felt, finally, to blow off Crete/ leaving a labyrinth of dead ends,” – and of their vertiginous descents – as in “Eurydice”: “Let’s fast forward to the grave and what/ I felt when I went under, viper’s poison turning into heady brew.” These are beings who, having become entranced, (seduced by artistry and its complementary magic: real or projected supernatural power), awaken, disillusioned. “I didn’t know I’d get drunk with the heat” says Icarus. “My body was an instrument/ someone else ¬– a god? – was playing,” complains Orpheus. And in “James on the Sea of Galilee”: “For an hour we bailed, trying to dump the darkness out. I’d seen storms but this was animal.” Unavoidably, dramatically, Hemp’s mytho-poetic speakers find themselves bereft in the hang-over of a spiritual crash and resentful toward the forces that seemingly got them into that mess. Here’s James on Jesus:

   I hated his face…
   …His body, curled calmly in the stern like ballast
   or extra line, made me curse the day I left my nets
   half-mended to follow something promised in his eyes.

   I wanted to cut him open to find what he was dreaming.

Hemp’s unleashing of formally attuned figurative language sends a reader’s own imagination into flight, (every time I read that last line, I see the silhouette of a head containing blue skies with white puffy clouds sailing past. Sentimental? Maybe. But also just exactly what that dreamer managed to dream up into reality during a nasty storm); while her “bass notes” provide the psychologically sharp, incisive edge that serves to cut open her reader’s mind just as her speaker does the dreamer’s.

What compels most, within this language rich with music and metaphor, is the way Hemp brings her speakers into ultimate union with the natural forces we normally view as “other.” Icarus becomes the very sun, benevolent now, that melted his wings. Jesus turns out to have supernatural powers after all and the animal storm “cowers” under his voice, then is “still.”

Yet, even where “happy” endings are implied in these poems, the price is high; the price is someone’s – usually the speaker’s – life.

One of the most intriguing poems in the collection is “Orpheus After.” Along with the flourish of musical gestures ¬ – “As we descended I composed a song/ to break the hearts of men, a subtle play between the treble and the bass.” – Hemp infuses the classical world with contemporary gestures, and does so with a sense of humor. Hermes “worked for the border guards” and “Wore feathers on his shoes,” while “Low riders/ with their amped subwoofers” Orpheus tells us, “could never have competed/ with the pulse inside my belly, inside my balls.” Hemp’s figurative language, especially pun, complicates the narrative deliciously. The title itself is a play on Orpheus after Eurdyce dies, and Orpheus chasing after Eurydice, but also Orpheus after his own descent and return, a return never quite entire from a decent in which the seducer becomes the seduced:

   Until I saw the outline of her body, I thought I’d have no problem
   seducing all concerned. Attendants swooned. The King smiled and closed

   his eyes. They were fools for what the strings could do. But her posture
   seemed unfamiliar, unblinking, and unlistening. I finished off my song

   …An audience without/ her face meant nothing to me…

Which is a big deal for a narcissist who depends on audience for all sense of identity. All of the themes present in That Fall come together here. Orpheus, in the aftermath of his loss, describes himself: “I kneel and tip my ear to every snake hole, every fissure in the ground.” The new gods reach back to the old goddesses; the magician seeks something of the solid, and the flutist notes the earth’s apertures with the primal gestures of a wolf or coyote obsessed by scent.

As part of the balancing act, the other poems in this book – while retaining the otherworldly nature established early on in the collection – move into the confessional with a personal “I” that may or may not be Christine Hemp, but she is willing to allow us to thinks so in order to achieve that willing state of disbelief within our belief. Thus we become entranced with her and along with her:

   Though I had left the forest the way I’d come,
   things had changed: Salmonberries dripped
   their pinky-orange beyond the bush;
   rhododendrons bloomed so white I had to look away.

Here is a speaker who is not only willing and able to become altered in the woods to make a poem, but to make a poem and build a house:

   I climbed the ladder to the roof. I pulled

   my hammer from my belt, lay the two-by-fours flat
   across the rafters, pounded sixteen-penny nails

   into purlins one by one.

It is in this, the title poem for the collection, that Hemp provides her ars poetica:

   There’s something clean and true
   about a square strike, to watch the shank
   sink into fragrant fir. And from that height

   I saw a bigger plan, one in which I measured
   up, made my mark. Something built to last.

The “I’ here is not merely the poet expressing her aim, but the alliterating poetic voice itself, replete with consonance and assonance, with subtle off-rhymes, punctuated by a spondee amid graceful alexandrines. The poems in That Fall are indeed built to last.

That Fall
Christine Hemp
Finishing Line Press, 2012
ISBN 1-59924-731-3
(cover image “Re: Coil #2” by ceramist, Anne Hirondelle)

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