The Hurricane Lamp by Sundin Richards
(Otis Nebula, 2011)
reviewed by Andrew Haley
In his first book of poetry, The Hurricane Lamp, Sundin Richards gives us lean, jagged poems that seem at first glance mostly erudite bravado but deepen with repeated reading until they span into multitudes. Under inspection, the language reveals simultaneities hung over the precipice of adept enjambment, and syllabic economy developed from scrutinizing the American masters of the short-lined poem. Individually, these poems nurture a fondness for the actual delivered via Richards’ predilection for the sordid: “the little / town fumes / in a cradle.” But try as he might, the effect is more H.D. than Bukowski. In “The Last of the First of the Last,” the misanthropic hangover opens into the lyrical:
I’m deeply sick
And want to be
Fire your flies
all you want
It won’t change
The modulation from bitterness to elegiac to self-censuring is standard throughout. The forlorn, even self-pitying tone, leads to wider laments (and not a few minor jeremiads) often with such sincerity that a handful of Richard’s syllables, divided among couplets or tercets, evoke the more sinuous lines of the Pisan Cantos. Few poets use the couplet so concretely. For a punk rock acolyte of Williams and Olson, Richards’ couplets have a materiality, a sculptural intentionality. It is no small thing to fashion short-lined poems which are hewn but not hatchetted. Perhaps because he writes his poems on old manual typewriters, Richards’ poems seem machined. There is purpose to their shape. They maximize conduction. The line of their music does not flag. In an age when free verse wears the pope’s ring, it is surprising how little attention is paid to the materials. Whereas Richards’ basic unit of expression is the syllable, it feels like many poets today use the blog post, or that staple of creative writing workshops, the so-called free write. Lines end with a keystroke, without cause. As a result, much free verse today reads like a paragraph broken at random on a smart phone’s screen. Richards puts such thought into the tooling of his lines, into their parsing, shaping, and selection that they exceed the sum of their parts:
and I’m sure
I might blos
som into breaks
As a collection, The Hurricane Lamp pays a subtle, but indebted, homage to The Maximus Poems. Richards’ Gloucester is Helper, Utah, a derelict coal mining town in the mountains southeast of Salt Lake City, accessible by the nation’s most dangerous highway, US-6. It is a scenic, nineteenth century hamlet abandoned to its ruin by the indifferent economic gods, a place whose present was hijacked by its future before it escaped its past. Richards’ grandfather lived in Helper and, as a boy, Richards visited by train from his native Colorado. It is from memories of these trips, and later visits, that Richards’ Helper, as imagined and remembered, is formed and populated. A blue-collar, tough-guy persona speaks from the last bar under the mountain but, as with Olson among his watermen, the intelligence, sensitivity, and education of the poet continually slip from beneath the mask. While “Firedamp is feared/up and down the line/and are those your teeth/or dice over there?” “chords are/no match/ for a starved/Solyma” and “singing saws/are thaumatropes.”
Alecto. Solyma. Thaumatropes. As tough as he tries to be, Richards swaggers though his honkytonks and hangovers quoting Milton, and not the usual soliloquies. Alecto, brother of Nemesis—one of the avengers, the Erinyes, born from the mess of Uranus’ castration—punishes moral crimes committed against the people. Richards has brought him to Helper. He is a man with no name. No town has better need of an avenger. This shuffling of rhetorical masks evokes Pound’s Cantos, which Richards knows well. The persona, as well as Helper’s role as an Olsonian topos commit less to a process of realism, than to a Poundian invocation of a lost arcadia; in this case, a plain-talking arcady replete with hookers, miners, and librarians isolated in the high mountains from transformative social and economic changes that destroyed Helper in the second half of the 20th century. Topos in The Hurricane Lamp is less important for what it is than for what it is for. Richards’ mountain-Gloucester is an instantiation of arcadia meant to evoke all arcadies. These are not histories, but odes.
In later poems, Richards’ poor, sordid habitations are visited by Enkidu and Metatron—Sumerian and Hebrew demigods. As in the Cantos, this kind of name-dropping blows out the walls of the realist project and sites the poet, and the reader, in a great vortex of culture and context. Just as Helper is meta-Helper, more variable than referent, so obscure, anachronistic characters and objects help universalize the scope of Richards’ poems and predicament. He too becomes a collage. The hardboiled tough guy, the miner, the drunk, the plain-talker, the Hellenist, the slighted wunderkind, the birdwatcher are all masks worn variously, with varying success, sometimes all within the same poem. Despite the chaos and complexity, Richards never lets up on his extreme focus. The poems are tight, clean, tooled. They are inheritors of the ethos of the Imagists. Take for instance that previously quoted line:
A thaumatrope is a Victorian toy which consists of a disc with two different images, one on each side. The disk is connected to a string. When both ends of the string are pulled in opposite directions, the disk spins, end over end, creating the illusion that both images are blended into one. A long-time student of Donald Revell, Richards has learned to abhor simile. Here the long, two-handed saws, themselves an anachronism, bend and twist, their blades flipping from one side to another, creating the illusion that both sides are one. The singing saws are thaumatropes. They are not like them.
In “An Explanation,” dawn comes early for the poète maudit and his female companion:
dogs all over
I’ll give you
As I’m not much of a scientist, I assumed Promethium was a neologism and, on first reading, I imagined “Promethium/for oracle” as a way of saying something nifty about fire. Promethium is an element on the periodic table. Highly radioactive, it was once widely used in luminous paint. The poet, lying in the half-dark, hearing dogs bark, is looking at his watch. As in “singing saws / are thaumatropes” here promethium really is an oracle. The beauty, complexity, and meaning of these three words are not conveyed through metaphor but through the things themselves, and the suggestion of wider meanings, of the gift of fire, of first dawns, and all dawns, occurs not in a pocket reality created by inventive word play but in our own minds as our educations and collective culturing respond to the exactitude of the poet’s choice. The same goes for “Numphe / arms reach.” Numphe, pronounced “noom-fay,” is an obscure Greek word, infrequently used in classical culture. It appears briefly in the New Testament and is adapted from the verb “nupto,” which means “to veil as a bride.” By extension, numphe refers to a young woman or bride. In this case, it is the girl stirring beside him in the twilit space between worlds, still a bride for a moment longer before she wakes up a wife. We have traded punk rock for Morgenlied. In the half-dark, woken by distant dogs, her veil-white arms and the light of a watch dial. It is the honeymoon when night has been forgiven and the day’s choices remain unmade. Even the brutest have their aubades.