|Eyewitness Storm Spotter
Christian Hawkey. The Book of Funnels. Verse Press, 2004. Paper, 77 pp., $13.
In Christian Hawkey’s first collection of poetry, The Book of Funnels, forces of nature transport us to an alternate Oz, one where both speaker and reader negotiate heightened landscapes. The funnel is appropriate transport, for it lifts the ordinary objects of the world and blends them in unexpected ways. Though John Ashbery rightly calls the landscape of Hawkey’s work “an open, undetermined space in which all kinds of crazy mental and physical things are going about their business simultaneously,” Hawkey’s speaker helps the reader manage this overwhelming place, often breaking it into fragments as if it were viewed through the funnel itself. The funnel’s aperture just widens or narrows our focus. Danger lies in the funnel’s eye expanding to encompass too much chaos or contracting to limit the reader’s view too much. The book plays out this tension, the struggle between unruly landscape and controlling eye, and Hawkey’s work shines when neither of the two achieves total dominance but rather they coexist in precarious balance.
Rules of engagement
Hawkey’s speaker is our careful, authoritative, and often humorous guide through this strange world. He explains the rules:
Put on your helmet.
Take off your clothes.
If anyone even thinks
it will be
the end of us
and warns us of what lies ahead: “No such thing as exit for a man lost/ In the middle of a cornfield.” At times the speaker seems hopeful of peaceful coexistence with nature; at times he is resigned to endure what nature thunders down on him.
The opening poem in The Book of Funnels sets up many of the rules of engagement between man and nature. In “The Isle of Monapia” (another name for the Isle of Man), a passive speaker stands by as a wasp-like “thought drones in.” Here at the start of the book is the arrival of the muse, one to which the speaker seems almost indifferent or even ill-disposed, as he tries to “shake it.” Ultimately, he cannot, and the thought rattles around in the eaves of the mind. From this meditation on the mind as a cluttered wasp’s nest, we make associative leaps to different parts of the body: ladder-like foreheads, ribs that float with each breath, and hands that are loved for the way they close neatly inside one another. Thus, the body is the first landscape in this book so concerned with place. These opening lines create a fractured, constricted image of the body and seem an example of the poet controlling the world too closely.
The poem opens up and begins to breathe when nature takes center stage:
a flash of lightning
and the bolt of landscape unrolled
for our arrival
is cut in half;
we jump back
under a purple beech, the last place we want to be.
Look, that rivulet beading off the brim
of your hat is a sign,
all the argument
we need to stay here, safe.
The pair is forced by lightning to the “last place they want to be”; the rain is an oracle, “a sign,” a warning to the pair to stay safe and hidden from danger. These figures have been in hiding before—we learn that they spent “afternoons / under the porch,” a vantage point that led them to understand their fellow man as an amalgam of “ankles,” “footsteps,” “thought[s] being passed around.” Suddenly the piecemeal body at the start of the poem makes sense—this speaker’s odd angle of vision inevitably leads to this fragmentation and to association as a method of understanding. What differentiates Hawkey’s work from his contemporaries who also traffic in fragmentation is this moment of explanation—he shows the reader not only how his speaker came to see the world this way, but that it was in response to an uncontrollable world. Thus, the fragmentation feels earned and not just a fashionable decision for a twenty-first-century poet.
At the end of the poem the figure gets lost in “dream of snow […] dissolving on an ocean / with no islands in sight… a periscope breaks the surface, / looks around, withdraws.” The figures looking out from under the porch delimit the sightlines of the book. It will get to know humanity from a constricted point of view—all ankles and footsteps; it will reconstruct the world from the pieces described by the periscope’s eye.
Nature and the verge of the inevitable
The book is broken into six sections and the first section takes up this struggle of man against his landscape. Hawkey’s speaker in “Love, Charcoal, Weather Vane” leaves a dictionary out in the rain “and the rain won / —no contest—which is why I refuse / to drink water.” The rain wins undisputed victory over man and man’s language as symbolized by the dictionary; and the speaker fights back in a doomed gesture, his refusal to drink water. “Night without Thieves,” with its allusion to Christ’s declaration that he would return like a thief in the night, also emphasizes the need to be ready for confrontation, but this time, with nature. It boldly and biblically proclaims, “Be not afraid to chase large animals,” only to reveal a few lines later that in the speaker’s own confrontation with a moose: “I was terrified. I froze. I backed away.” There are some efforts in this first section to reconcile with nature, for example, in “Because We Are Starved Our Entrails Spark,” the speaker decides to “spend a life / making wind chimes (the wind will be my partner)” and to “spend [a life] with a goat.”
The speaker’s humor and vulnerability in these early poems build the reader’s trust and investment. Thus, by the section-closer “Since Judgment Is Also a Storm,” the reader sympathizes with the resigned voice on the verge of the inevitable, making this the most powerful poem in the first section. The poem opens in the middle of a storm that strips trees of their bruise-colored leaves, portending violence. The storm becomes a figure for the unstated conflict between the speaker and his beloved, a metaphor for the chill that has come between them, “the thin wall / of snow // along the curve of your body” which the speaker awakes to find. By the poem’s end, as the storm rushes toward them, the speaker warns, “Even the perfectly sheltered / take shelter // at the approach of a storm. There are things we can’t measure. Play it safe. / Even the wind seems to argue that everything matters.”
The hidden within the ordinary
Buried things, including a painting beneath a painting in “Goya’s Grotesquerie” and a drawing on a reverse side of a letter in “Note Left Behind on a Table,” present another theme in Hawkey’s book. These buried figures are alternate, simultaneous realities: “One surface / in the room that was raining when Goya // woke, walked downstairs in the dark & began / while the woman, over whom he painted, laughed.” They bring us face to face with the multiplicity of self:
as you read this your lips
are half open. Perhaps it is night.
And when you look up, a face
in the window, yours, but not all yours.
The buried figures are also representative of second chances, as in “Whatever It Takes,” where the speaker struggles to rescue a crab apple tree that has been buried in sheets of ice after he hears its “voice/ like a prayer, the sound of green wood / creaking under weight.” The buried will not be silenced; they demand to speak. These poems are more clearly narrative and less associative than the other pieces in this book; some readers may dismiss them as too traditional. However, the poems’ anxiety about revealing what is hidden within the ordinary feels quite apropos of the project of poetry, and renders them my favorite pieces in this collection.
The book’s title section, “The Book of Funnels” contains thirteen funnel-shaped poems of irregular length. Each has an opening line that appears several spaces above the body of the poem; their short statements “Where does this lead,” “Dust,” and “There is a Queen inside” function almost as titles. The two closing lines which appear several spaces below the body of each poem—for example, “Two faces, // one above the other” and “It’s a goat’s breath, thistle clean // light fog on the monitor’s screen”—feel like tentative envois. The form results in tanka-like, imagistic poems that achieve the precarious, alluring tension between what exists in the world and what the speaker reveals. As a result, this section will by turns frustrate and delight; it is full of poems that reveal new facets with each subsequent search.
The section begins with a Williamsian wheelbarrow, not red and in the rain, but rusted, overturned, and thus rendered undependable. Two figures hide in the shade of it, “exchanging our genitals / as if they were kingdoms” and their bodies expand into the landscape, setting the stage for this thirteen-part meditation on bodies, how each is filled with its own complex landscapes; how two can come together and drift apart; how man, just like nature, is full of violence and threat, as he is seen wielding a tire iron over a field of frozen “miniature sheep.” Though these poems continue to negotiate the relationship between man and nature, they make swifter associations than their precursors, and the funnel-like shapes make them seem less fixed, ready to float off the page.
Tour de forces
As an image maker, Hawkey is at his best when describing the small and particular. His precise detail helps root his often surreal images in reality, for example in “Third Lung” when he brings the lung “which resembles a smashed bagpipe” into bed with him, “where it breathes / calmly and sometimes, purrs. It produces / more air than either of us could possibly use.” His images are less strong when they become more generalized and abstract, as in “Spring Fever,” which ends with a description of moving through stillness “with our eyes closed, our mouths open, / breathing in the eighth wind: blue triangles, red squares.” These triangles and squares do little to root us in this strange world of eight winds, and fall especially flat after the particulars of the other seven—“wind in the shape of a lion,” wind “carrying the ocean on its back,”—but such abstract images are rare in this work. His poems hold their figures at a middle distance; the wry, authoritative voice rarely lets uncertainty creep in. This results in great tonal consistency across the book, but readers might yearn for a few more pieces that risk more emotionally. The pieces that do risk more, such as “Since Judgment Is Also a Storm” and “Secret Ministry,” with its confession, “these are my instructions—I have none—” are refreshing and memorable.
Hawkey’s works regard their defamiliarized world with awe. In “A Coppery Rain Slashes through It,” they marvel at the forces that give rise, rip things asunder, forces that produce both mitosis and divorce, both explosive bombs and kisses. They watch and they listen, they learn rules and they explain. They often make us laugh. The poem “Green Solitude” near the end of the book gets its own section; its solitary figure could be recording the moments that give rise to all of Hawkey’s poems:
There were no dreams.
Only a voice
That he knew was near, not his own,
And he listened, for a minute,
To the cold wind
Before finding the road again, and the sound
Of his listening was the landscape
Advancing at his approach.
As readers, we trust ourselves to the speaker’s listening trance; we hold fast to him, braced for the moment of encounter with the equally powerful landscape, the moment of mutual advance.