Erica Hunt Essay - Critical Essays


Erica Hunt’s poems often seem to concern non-African American issues, but her work is motivated less by nonracial aesthetics than by progressive politics. She uses avant-garde forms and methods to uproot politically retrogressive values within and without black communities. There are markers of race in her poems, but these alone do not make Hunt a “black” poet. Rather, Hunt’s poetry confronts the problem of the human body as a subject in matrices—social, political, economic—that include both gender and race. The extent to which Hunt appears to privilege gender over race may be due less to political concerns than to the grammatical structures she uses. Gender is reproducible in grammar by “proper” names (for example, Eric as opposed to Erica), common nouns (man as opposed to woman), and pronouns (he as opposed to she), while race is reproducible more by common names, less so by proper names, and not at all by pronouns. Simply put, Hunt’s poetry invokes gender much more often than it does race.

Local History

The photograph on the back cover of Local History reveals that Erica Hunter is a black woman, but the poems do not mark themselves as African American poetry. Indeed, given the multiple lineages of this work—which include experimental poetry, the Black Arts movement, and feminism—it is difficult to determine a referent for the “we” in the opening “Preface.” Each permutation of this “we” appears to refer to someone different: a couple, friends, women, writers, black people in general, and so on. However, while such indeterminacy holds for the multiple “we’s” in the preface, such is not the case for the “I” that opens the preface: “I was thinking that if the ceiling were mirrored we would have to watch what we say about what we feel.” Regardless of how one interprets this playful but serious commentary on the indicative and the subjunctive voices, on the relationship between standard and colloquial expressions, the “I” appears normative in its self-referential function. It seems to refer to Hunt. However, since this same grammatical function appears in the next two poems, “Voice I” and “Second Voice,” it may be that this “I” has merely a narrative or generic function that cannot be “reduced” to a human referent. That is, sometimes the “I” refers to Hunt and sometimes it does not. This is true for all the other singular pronouns—she, you, and he—in this book. They may or may not refer to Hunt. Thus, structure and form take on political and cultural functions for Hunt. The division of Local History into three sections, “Local History,” “Correspondence,” and “Surplus,” is analogous to the function of pronouns in Hunt’s work: Sometimes they correspond to the author or known “others,” and sometimes they correspond to an unknown other or others.


As Saar’s woodcut on the cover suggests, Arcade alludes to the Venus Hottentot, the African woman who was displayed in circuses and side shows in early nineteenth century Europe. Created by way of correspondence between Hunt and Saar over a two-year period, Arcade explores in words and woodcuts the terrain of the black body engendered as woman. For example, Saar’s woodcut of a black woman hung by her feet suggests there is never a reason to hang her by her head, which is presumed to already be “dead” or “empty.” The right hand cupping the left breast and the left hand cupping the genitalia may be read as both affirmative (sexuality, perhaps even nursing, in spite of all else) and negative (this body is only sexual, only good for nursing).

Facing the woodcut on the recto page is Hunt’s poem, “Coronary Artist (1),” first published in Local History as “Coronary Artist.” In Arcade, it is the first of three “Coronary Artist” poems and has been slightly altered in format. This poem...

(The entire section is 1617 words.)