(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

Near the end of this exciting and engaging first collection, there is a nearly whimsical poem called “Volume 13: Jirasek to Lighthouses.” It celebrates the curious turnings of thought by noting some of the juxtapositions created by the alphabetizing of knowledge in encyclopedias. The poem takes its epigraph from Charles Fort’s Book of the Damned (1919): “We are not realists. We are not idealists. We are intermediatists—that nothing is real, but that nothing is unreal: that all phenomena are approximations one way or the other between realness and unrealness.”

This brief manifesto speaks persuasively for many of the poems in this book. It would be foolish, of course, to suggest that even so young a poet as Cathryn Hankla would have discovered the pertinence of Fort’s statement to her view of things before discovering her own view of things; the themes so persistently and lovingly explored in these poems are Hankla’s for at least as long as the reader is in her hands.

Even a glance at the titles listed in the table of contents reveals Hankla’s preoccupation with the split between dream and waking, between things seen and things almost seen, between night and day. Many of these poems are so replete with detail that they are at first hard to follow. It takes some time to settle into them, and if the reader tends toward literal-mindedness or familiar structures—narrative, say—then the profusion of things glimpsed peripherally may seem at first like Surrealism. It is not that at all.

Surrealism, as practiced by recent American poets, is occasionally powerfully evocative but often merely automatic and perfunctory; it seems to have bcome too easy to find the words for bizarre imaginings. It is more difficult to find the words for the perpetual editing out, as it were, of sensory impressions that threaten to distract consciousness from its central purposes. Hankla suggests this constant impingement of the world in series of quick flashes for which she is sometimes quite clearly unable to find the words, because she has the intelligence to see that there are many such phenomena for which there are no words.

That a poet should concern herself with the unsayable is one of the art’s oldest paradoxes: The sayable can often be paraphrased, whereas a good poem is usually destroyed by paraphrase. “The Night Hunting,” for example, though its brevity makes it atypically focused and immediate, demonstrates Hankla’s ability to sharpen an instant’s perception with a word or two:

A dead deer splitsthe dry leaves, hooves to humus,its smooth flank in the dusk, fleshtoned and white, coveredwith flies. Eye upturned and eaten,bone socket bare: it was the liquid eye,first, that darkness touched.Rain struck, I watch the carcassshedding bullets like blooduntil my hands are watersoaked inside both pocketsand the hollow eye socket, flooded, openswith blue light, it too,pooling through pale branches.

This is among Hankla’s smaller and less ambitious poems, but unusual technical skill has been at work upon it. The few internal rhymes, such as “pockets/socket” and “blood/flooded,” make sharp connections, and the more delicate assonances and alliterations help give the poem its durability of phrasing. The heavy enjambments in the third lines of the two stanzas create momentary misreadings that are rewardingly ambiguous: “until my hands are water” is a notion that Hankla permits the reader to entertain briefly, until the line turns to a detail of the real world.

What is remarkable is the apparently effortless skill with which such effects are...

(The entire section is 1677 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

Booklist. LXXIX, August, 1983, p. 1442.