the wooden urn.
I won’t mention what this might entail.
I won’t mention the noise
escaping from the urn.
The poems throughout Revolver in the Hive are the “noise / escaping from the urn.” At the center of Nicolas Hundley’s masterful first book is grief, but it’s a grief that takes on peculiar forms. In the first three sections, the grief is dislocated from the surreal world the various speakers and characters inhabit, appearing mostly through tone. Many of the poems in these opening sections have a frenetic pace to them, as in “They,” where “They gave out roots, ate roots. Always / with their sickness, sickness / of numbers.” In these poems we are aware that we are witnessing a mind obsessing, and, although in some poems such as “Tooth and Blur,” where “I had become the grief. I gnashed and bit / at the air,” grief is directly spoken of, we are left on unsure footing as to the cause of the speaker’s emotional upheaval.
As the poems rotate around this obsession, they adopt different tactics to try to voice the inarticulable. There are poems which give the appearance of narrative, but upon closer inspection are composites that don’t actually provide us with any clear story, as in “That’s When I Was Thinking,” which begins on familiar and spatially located terrain: “When first I noticed the ridges in my hands, / I was on a picnic in the Ozarks” and ends in the fantastical of “harbor planes tied to the bamboo decks” where “some of the planes were spotted. Others wrinkled.” Similarly there are poems which seem to provide us with a lyric portrait of a person, like “Their Instruments,” where:
In order to calculate the precise moment of your death, you
donated yourself to their instruments. You fed yourself to
them, and it was years before you were digested. You received
only printouts-–a Tourette’s of symbols-–as souvenir.
Yet these poems, instead of illuminating the characters they are portraying, raise more questions, making us unsure of who the speaker is, and in the most successful poems call into question how we understand ourselves. This questioning is amplified through Hundley’s repeated use of poems addressing “they” or “we,” which implicate the reader and the community in the speaker’s searching in a way that is affecting, even before we realize that the cause for the searching is grief. These poems resonate with the idea of grief as destabilizing force, one that separates us from previously held ideas of ourselves, while at the same time severing our social bonds
It is only in the fourth and final section that we encounter poems that directly approach the grief, as in “What the Wires Feed”: “Dear father inside the urn. / Dear ash. Dear dark inside the urn, darker still.” Reaching this section, although it still occupies a surreal landscape, we feel we are finally directly touching the grief which has occupied the first three sections. There is a sense of having passed through the emotional turmoil of grieving to arrive at a place where we are able to name it. In the final poem of the collection, “Meadow Vacant,” we revisit the urn we encountered in the opening poem of the collection and have followed through the pages, except now the speaker is able to touch the urn, to open it: “And then I took the urn . . . . / I opened the urn and poured out the song.”
This is a collection which relies on the unique powers of poetry to evoke and allude. Hundley wields these powers in a deliberate and accomplished way that is ultimately very affecting.
CAITLIN MALING has published poetry, non-fiction and criticism throughout Australia and the United States. Her poetry is forthcoming in Westerly (Aus) and her non-fiction in ThreePenny (USA). Her first collection of poetry, Conversations I’ve Never Had, is forthcoming with Fremantle Press (Aus) in 2015.