Michael Todd Steffen

Issue #
September 9, 2014

The Eternal Present of Joan Houlihan’s Us Cycle, Ay the Sequel

Joan Houlihan’s previous book, The Us, named a 2009 must-read by the Massachusetts Center for the Book, concluded its narrative sequence on a note of irresolution, with its protagonist Ay wounded by an act of malice and, in recovery, getting his first glimpse of a vision of the other world, “ours father come as never killed, as tall/and with a look that bathed me warm” (p. 63), leaving the possibility of, if not suggesting, more to come.

Now, five years later, the poet has brought out the sequel. Released by Tupelo Press, bearing the protagonist’s name as title, Ay (ISBN 978-1-936797-41-7) continues the narrative of the young survivor’s recovery, restitution and encounter with the other world, his reconciliation with misfortune and with his assailant, greb, another member of the tribe called the us.

As in The Us, the narrative of Ay is defined and carried by the headings of its 5 parts. (I. Wherein Ay recovers his speech & mobility & is treated as a god, II. Wherein Ay leaves the us & meets the dead…)

Portraying a people in their primitive life as hunters and gatherers, in times out of mind, the individual poems work at the counterfeit of primitive expression, in a language conspicuously of Houlihan the poet’s forging, keen in elemental perception of basic phenomena, seasons, plants, animals and birds, night and day, sea and land, in a language stripped almost entirely of concept and abstraction, of Latin or Greek derivatives or terminology.

                SUMMER RIPE in the ground, deer fled
                red-gold in the wood. Sticks put sharp
                in the side bled the trail.

                For antlers the us downed the dying
                and took the heads of the kneeling
                day-long they would build
                what must be built by digging down.

                As day burnt low the tinder piles were tossed.
                Hemp stalk held above, one took from a tall
                and torched them all to rising. In the wood, a deer,
                head bowed, showed its blood spots brightening. (p. 6)

In light of the rudimentary and partial or fragmented presentation of the separate poems, the part headings, an essential map for readers, could almost be read as scholarly addenda, like indications in a reprint of a Sioux Indian hide painting or a hunt sequence from a cave at Lascaux. (They remind me of the Latin captions describing the scenes and action in the Bayeux Tapestry depicting William of Normandy’s conquest at Hastings: UBI HAROLD SACRAMENTIUM FECIT WILLELMO DUCI.)

The immediate effect of the language used in The Us and Ay is jarring, puzzling, as risky and fragile in its emotional venture as it is alluring, like a riddle, for its difficulty and resistance, the abruptness of the violence it depicts and its thoroughly physical appeal. The idiom, however, is generously sustained for over 60 pages in each book, and readers as generous with the suspension of their disbelief will be rewarded with pleasure and many insights, among them the convincing continuity between the poet’s subject and its tailored language. The expectations proposed at the onset of the work are fulfilled in its working out. Like Auden using old English alliterative prosody in The Age of Anxiety, Houlihan asserts herself in these books as a smith of language, plyer of medium. Readers who tune into this will marvel at both her rigor and liberty.

Yet far from being an exercise or demonstration of linguistic management and invention, Houlihan’s narrative resonates substantially with potential concerns of our society today. The story of the us and Ay apparently is set in a pre-historical age, apparently deep deep in the past, before Christianity (hence the absence of Latinate vocabulary), when stone sun temples like the one at Stonehenge were being built:

                The us pry stone from stone,
                raise a wall with cracks and watch
                how father makes a shape of sun between. (p. 9)

To leave the reader’s curiosity whetted, I’ll limit myself to saying that transposing her story to an a-historical time allows the poet creative space to comment about society without risking identification with any specific persons of her time and place. That is partly why Shakespeare liked to situate his stories in Venice or Denmark or pre-Christian Scotland. Maybe another, more profound motivation for the narrative’s pre-historical setting stems from a concern with permanent human nature. Its central tragedy identifies with the story of Cain and Abel, and though of such a primitive region of our psyche, to this day it continues to be a major source of parental woe and daily news.

In Burnt Norton T.S. Eliot says, “If all time is eternally present/All time is eternally unredeemable.” Rather than seeing the narrative of The Us and Ay in some remote, long-forgotten past, being that a contemporary poet has placed the story before us, presently, we do and in a sense can only understand it as taking place in the eternal present, not the cultural or historical present, as the poet has omitted these from the poems. Seamus Heaney used the same strategy in his poems on the primitive bog corpses and the Vikings who ruled Dublin in the dark past. Heaney did this to speak covertly or differently about the political and religious troubles of Ireland in the 1970s, in terms of ancient ritualistic violence whose origins far preceded differences between Catholics and Protestants.

Radical portrayals of a subject, psychedelic air-brush portraits of Marilyn Monroe or a hunter-gatherer stone-age narrative of homo sapiens, reveal that subject for its subtler, more hidden, otherwise imperceptible characteristics. The primitive approach Houlihan uses to talk about them underscores a timelessness about her characters and about human nature. It is a nature that may yet have the chance to surprise us by outlasting our civilization and its wonders of science and technology. We may one day be tasked with surviving our advances’ breaking point as well. Glimpses of the future, near or distant, in many of our minds today include survivalist scenarios on a planet ravaged, unplugged and bewildered.
In this context, it has been wondered if Joan Houlihan’s poems are taking place in a post-historical setting, in a recurrent future rather than the once-and-forever past.

In the first poem of Ay, longing for comfort and thinking of g’wen, his mother dead early in The Us, the young survivor speculates about the mother’s resurrection in images that are at once archeological and scientifically very advanced, suggestive of DNA research and engineering, with a nod at Steven Spielberg:

                WHO KILLS the past
                knows it is buried
                in the same air Ay breathe.
                Only a hair is needed to keep you, mother.
                Only a bit of bone…

Giving us all that is needed to re-imagine ourselves in what Martin Heidegger terms the “throwness” of being, our being cast into a world, however evolved, advanced and equipped it may seem, these narratives set us precisely in the jaws of this world, where our survival and witness toe the line, cross that line and fall, have to get up and walk again.

In your and my English, yet as you’ve never encountered it before, Joan Houlihan’s Ay reads with the elements of great poetry, with an immediate simple if disconcerting charm haunted by profound resonance.

Reprinted from Doug Holder’s blog, The Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene

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