Anselm Hollo Essay - Critical Essays


Anselm Hollo’s poetry has a light and airy appearance, with short and sometimes abrupt lines of verse arranged sparingly on the page. While spare, the poems often demonstrate remarkable depth, and while often short, they are richly endowed with humor, intelligence, and imagination.

Against the tradition in which poets become best known for their longest works, Hollo first established and then maintained a reputation for short poems. This emphasis is a conscious one, reflected in the way he has presented individual poems in more than the usual number of retrospective and summary collections. The appearance of the poem “bouzouki music” in successive books, including the major early compilations Maya and Sojourner Microcosms, for example, helped give the short poem a prominence it might have lacked if Hollo had not actively kept it before his readers.

Hollo has also used the context of the different compilations to give new perspective on his poems. He offered his collection Space Baltic, for example, as a collection of his “science-fiction” works. The inclusion of many poems within this book broadened the ways in which they could be read. A poem such as “old space cadet speaking,” which earlier might have been taken as a purely metaphorical exploration of unrealistic ambitions, lent itself to a more literal, narrative reading within this new context.

As might be expected of a poet involved in translation work and whose own career carried him far beyond the borders of his native country, Hollo has demonstrated a deep concern with European literary traditions. At the same time, as a longtime U.S. resident, his poems have become deeply interwoven with the literature of his adopted country. In his frequent dedications of poems to contemporary writers and in his frequent allusions to writers of other times, however, he reveals his true allegiance, which is to a literary world whose borders transcend political lines.

While the seriousness of his poetry has never been in question, neither has Hollo’s sense of humor, much of which is based on his observations of modern life. On occasion, his poems take a turn toward black humor, as in “manifest destiny.” Others draw their humor from his observations of the literary world. Whether using situational humor or wordplay, Hollo has managed to steer clear of the coy and artificial.

“manifest destiny”

Anselm Hollo’s shorter poems often have a more distinctively assertive character than his longer poems. Some of this distinctiveness may arise from the pointed emphasis on the intersection of the personal and political worlds. The short “manifest destiny,” first published in No Complaints, ranks alongside such other poems as “t.v. (1),” “t.v. (2),” and “the terrorist smiles,” from Finite Continued. In “manifest destiny,” Hollo initially creates a vision of a comfortable middle- or upper-class life, “in pleasantly air-conditioned home with big duck pond in back,/ some nice soft drinks by elbow, some good american snacks as well.” Hollo explicitly evokes the wealth of the privileged: “at least four hundred grand in the bank, & that’s for checking.” The evocations of comfort and wealth ground the reader in a reality that becomes unreality by the end of the poem, when the meaning of the poem’s title becomes clear. The unspecified people who “arrive in front of a large video screen” in the poem’s first line spend “a copacetic evening” at the end of the poem,

watching the latest military techné wipe out poverty everywhere in the world in its most obvious form, the poor.

The poem is notable not only for its concision and effectiveness but also for its prescience in making a point that would remain undiminished in its accuracy during succeeding decades.

“bouzouki music”

Originally written and published in the late 1960’s, “bouzouki music” is a poem that demonstrates the poet’s ease at handling classical or mythological subject matter. Introducing the figure of Odysseus in its first line, the poem can be read as an incantatory exploration of this particular character, or of the type of character Odysseus represents. Written in five brief sections, the poem includes some of Hollo’s finest lines:

a man’s legs grow straight out of his soul who knows where they take him

A light touch and glancing vision, as opposed to a possessive grip and direct stare, give the poem expansive force. Other poems, such as “on the occasion of becoming an echo,” which invokes Gaia, and even “the new style western,” which draws on a modern, media-created mythology, give similar demonstrations of Hollo’s approach.

“old space cadet speaking”

One of Hollo’s “science-fiction,” or speculative, poems, “old space cadet speaking” explores notions of reality and unreality. While a poem without the political dimension of “manifest destiny,” it similarly begins by presenting an unreal world in terms to establish it as real and similarly concludes by exposing its empty underpinnings. After beginning with a storyteller’s opening phrase, “let me tell you,” Hollo introduces the character of a spaceship captain possessed by the sensual vision of union with his lover. Although his physical destination goes unmentioned, the Captain dwells on

exactly what he would do soon as he reached the destination he would fuse with her plumulous essence & they would become a fine furry plant.

The adventure of space travel is reduced to the entirely personal dimensions of an erotic dream, the “ultimate consummation of long ethereal affair.” Above and beyond the erotic episode, moreover, the Captain envisions a kind of transcendence, in which “he would miss/ certain things small addictions/...

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