Helen Humphreys, Anthem
Julie Bruck, The End of Travel
Helen Humphreys has published four widely acclaimed books of poetry, and her recent debut novel, Leaving Earth, won, among other honours, the Toronto Book Award. Anthem, her most recent poetry collection, is an exquisitely precise and acute exploration of language, love, and the various kinds of separation entailed by both. This poetry is as intellectually compelling as it is emotionally nuanced, poetry that “rises as memory, comes down as prophecy” (“Foxes”). Poetry that “comes down as prophecy” is, of course, a risky business, given the fine and unforgiving line between vatic wisdom and affectation; Humphreys, however, is clearly a writer on top of her game, and usually pulls it off. Only rarely, as in a few of the imagist epiphanies of “Architecture of the Everyday,” or the concluding sequence of “Yaddo”— “to be here is to be gone”—do the lines strain under the weight of Humphreys’s characteristically terse, aphoristic logic; far more frequently, one is dazzled by the way form and meaning come together with beautiful rhythmic control and inspired cadence: “I’d like to feed her words. Lying on our backs in the dark. / Lower them to her lips. Incarnadine. Rhodopsin. Sweet / droop of them” (“For Jackie, Who Will Never Read This”).
The poem addressed to the beloved non-reader above indicates the vein of playful irony that alloys the philosophical mood of many of these poems, and yet points simultaneously to one of the more complex concerns of this book with the gulf between knowledge and language. Anthem’s imaginative reach into a world of subjects who exist in language, but who cannot, for one reason or many, fully inhabit it, includes the dyslexic friend who spurns books in “For Jackie”; and the father in “Climatology,” whose “weather diary” consists almost entirely of purely functional, factual notations; and, significantly, the poet herself, always probing “the space” “between / what I know and what I can say” (“Foxes”).
The collection offers several excellent examples of poems that self-reflexively explore their own compositional procedures to genuinely insightful, as opposed to merely clever, ends—”Chinchilla,” “Narrative,” “Foxes.” The four-part “Chinchilla” lays bare its own associative processes for the reader at the same time that it serially rewrites the memory script it recounts.
My dictionary glosses “anthem” as “a song or hymn of praise or gladness,” but Humphreys’s Anthem is an altogether more complex admixture of tonalities. If a song, then it is one of those poetic “Variations” of song that (to paraphrase Walter Pater) recognizes its own aspirations to the condition of music. If it is a hymn of gladness, then it is a hymn of a deeply provisional hope, the tenuous faith of “the shaky knot of hand in human hand” (“Bluewater”). That might be all we have, a “shaky knot” of hands and elusive words to chase. But maybe that is enough. “A word is not pure sound,” but skillfully conducted, it can, after all, “persuade the air to change” (“Variations”).
Both of these books deserve readers; look for them.
MLA: Wiesenthal, Christine. Two Gold Bricks. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2011.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #176 (Spring 2003), Anne Carson. (pg. 117 – 119)