Book Review by Steve Harris
Useless Virtuesby T.R. Hummer
(Louisiana State University Press, 2001)
With his new collection's title, Useless Virtues,
T.R. Hummer immediately signals to the reader that his poetic landscape
is paradox and anxiety. However, Hummer's collection is not another
catalogue of ironies though they do exist do but rather a platform
for fierce questioning by the poet. The questions may be unanswerable,
but they are always posed with intelligence, and often, severity.
collection's opening and title poem, the author explores suffering and
the Book of Job. The examination is conducted by three friends
(recalling Job's three friends) hot-tubbing it in "brothel-scented"
foam, while drinking wine and contemplating the night sky:
Under California Constellations, it is easy
to picture the Man of Suffering, the whirlwind,
Dead Cattle, the warehouses of the snow
Especially the warehouses, which have vast
Quartzite double doors, where helicopters
Of ethereal whiteness enter and vanish . . .
three friends quickly hit the same wall encountered by intellectuals,
philosophers and theologians when faced with the reality of suffering
and the absence of God and meaning itself:
..........................It is about nothing
Except the incommensurability of everything
the shitty drama of pain that stretches
From Behemoth down to the structure of the atom.
Nobody agrees. Even God refuses to be God
But Breaks down into windy turbulence.
line break (and he is a master) at "nothing" is mocking, and the "windy
turbulence" the three assign to God could just as easily be hung on the
three, bitching and star-gazing in their hot tub.
this strangely interrelated world, however, is a sleeping Cambodian
boy, flying above in a 737. The mystery of God is not pierced or even
contemplated by the boy, but his experience of evil is vivid, more
immediate than the musing Californians:
...............................The image comes through
This clear, this real: a yellow-and-black spider
makes its decisive way across the vacant left eye
Of the dictator, which has been precisely punctured
by a round from a surplus M-16.
boy is a survivor, cradled in the jet, as the jet "threads darkness"
between cities, its vapor trail a strand in an invisible web that joins
H-bomb sites with the face of the moon. There is the suggestion of a
barely discernable grace that somehow sustains both the Cambodian boy
and the Californians in their hot tub. Under what logic does it
operate? In the jet, with the boy, all are asleep, even the pilot, who
is "like God." The passengers lack this knowledge (of the sleeping
pilot), otherwise they would wake "screaming." Great forces may (or may
not) be at work, but sensing the machine of the universe is not the
same as understanding its operation, or its operator:
Leviathan tortures Orion bloodlessly, and the great
Eagle Nebula, screwing stars out of twisted nothing,
Is twenty-three trillion miles of decorum. Still
the cattle are dead, the children are dead,
The body is pierced with cankers, and, on every horizon,
snow masses its chronic obedience.
beyond the grimness of Job, Hummer displays a deadly sense of humor. In
"Domestic Lyric," the American suburban hope of a safety dome is
punctured. A wife's abandonment, rumors of war, all scratch at the
surface routine of the greater tragedy: a life not lived:
She said on the way out the door. That
was years ago. As decades develop, he feels
The quality of his ignorance grow richer. Wars
come closer. He hears cannons in the mountains,
The scream of a horse with shrapnel in its throat,
the guttural thump of an Anglo-Saxon axe
Splitting a shoulder bone. He stirs a pot of soup,
adds lentils and pepper to taste. He shuffles
A stack of mail: her boxholders, a magazine.
collection's second section, "Erotica," has as its focus not so much
the flesh but materialism. In the title poem of the section, "Erotica"
turns out to be simply desire for the things of this world. Among the
trash and debris of a blasted city-scape, the imagination and a dash
of moonlight can for a moment create something lovely even in "the
shocking, beautiful curve / Of a forklift's roll bar." In the section's
one truly erotic poem, "Gnomic with Temple and Ashtray," sex is kept at
a cool distance, as a lover contemplates murder:
While they were making love, it crossed her mind
that she could kill him. Easily. Quickly.
He was so helpless there inside her, making
his little moans.
not so much that she'll do it, but that she can think about it,
envision it. There's no hate involved, just an exercise or dream of the
And she watched the pulse in his temple,
an enormous neutrality came over her.
There was nothing personal in it. When he died,
it would break her heart.
is left unanswered in the poem is what is holding her back what moral
thread. One is reminded of similar, but acted on, exercises in the
pages of Crime and Punishment and The Possessed.
collection's central effort is "Axis," a series of sonnets dedicated to
the poet's father. "Axis" plays the philosopher (and Nazi sympathizer)
Martin Heidegger off the heroic (and American) father. From the fields
of America, Hummer's father is a Depression-era child of hard
experience, but he knows right from wrong, good from evil:
Nothing is neutral, not sweat, rot or erosion
His enemy creates him. A V-formation of geese,
A platoon of cattle: everything is explosion,
No no-man's-land. And as for his child,
His orders are clear: you can have it as long
As you can hold it.
the other hand, Hummer's Heidegger ("2.1 - in which he receives a
designation"), draped in all his seriousness, nevertheless comes across
as a pulp-villain which is effective in evoking the period (see the
1940 movie, Doctor Cyclops), with its
cartoon-like propaganda. The arrogance of the abstract thinker who
turns his back on humanity, for the sake of knowledge, is clear here.
Whether the reader chooses Faust or Doctor Cyclops, a deal with the
Devil has been struck, and the contrast established:
From the other side of the earth, in the Holy City
Of Thought, the Philosopher of Being regards
My tiny father through the transparent indeterminancy
Of a glittering logical lens inflicted on him by the gods.
has fun, at the philosopher's expense, with the word "Being" or
"Dasein," an important concept in Heidegger's world of thought, and
uses it as a club to beat home his point: "Being" resists scientific
definition. It can jump from the petri dish and bite back. It can also
defeat you. One hears the whisper of Whitman when Hummer describes his
father's story. To some extent, Hummer is creating a World War II
"Song" for his father's self. In these lines, the reader sees Hummer
loosen the leash a bit, and to good effect, on his tightly controlled
In the middle of an ordinary midnight, in the middle of an ocean,
Dasein leans on a ship's rail and lights a Lucky Strike.
Match-bronzed, he is simply himself, a self-authenticating
Etched in scrubbed brass and khaki, backlit, moonstreaked,
Handsome as a filmstrip, a military classic.
He thinks precisely nothing. There is nothing to be thought.
That is the beauty of it.
("3.3 - in which he is illuminated")
As the sequence ends, and Fascism is vanquished, Hummer's father will eventually face the other, more enduring foe.
Time to die. Something in his brain
Dictates it. Some grubby little furher
In the genes gives the order
And the synapses fire. Bedpan,
Morphine, scalpel, hearse in the rain:
("5.3 - in which he vanishes")
this is a heroic death, even though Hummer's vocabulary is stark,
deliberately stoic, representative of man and his generation. Irony is
also here, with the presence of crematoria in American cities, and
there is always the promise (and betrayal) of words (Heidegger). Still,
Hummer, despite himself, provides transcendence as well, as it escapes
through the poet's stringent, necessary denial:
He turns his back. Away. He prepares
The corpse within him, and then becomes it: turns
into it, as we say. Our words turn on us. Crematoria burn
Discretely in our cities. He would have it so: no stars
Obscured by this rising, no carbonized trace
In the weather of his stillborn, unimportant face.
is a strong collection, dominated by its central sequence of poems
("Axis"), which really should be read along side of Geoffrey Hill's
poem "Churchill's Funeral" two very different, but equally moving,
elegies for a singular, but fast disappearing, generation. The
influence of Whitman is certainly present in Hummer's work, an
influence underscored in Hummer's previous collection, Walt Whitman in Hell. However, in Useless Virtues,
with its unreconciled ambiguities, its fierceness, one senses the
presence of another, more brooding, American literary giant: Melville.