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Nicole Mauro reviews

The Kindly Ones
by Susan Hampton

94 pp. Five Islands Press. Paper
AUS $18.95 1 74128 093 1 cloth

This review is 1,247 words
or about 3 printed pages long

Tragic Histories

Hampton’s fourth book of poetry might also be called The Tragic History of Real People I Had Heard of, But Never Really Knew Existed. If this alternate title seems like the name of a fictional reality TV show about figures from Greek mythology who are forcibly evicted from their familiar plots, plunked into the world of the literal, and given the Herculean task of navigating popular culture and current events — reading one of Saddam Hussein’s romance novels, learning English with Gertrude Stein in order to understand Derrida, contemplating the statue of David’s genitalia (‘it would surprise if there was a better scrotum anywhere in art’) (32) — without a chorus to instruct from the margins, then you are, know it or not, one of them — a god in the terrifying process of being kicked alive out of the Colosseum of the Deified into the shopping mall of the mortal.

Teaming with the flawed and wicked, ‘On the Bright Road,’ the first half of the book, is a seemingly ironic signpost to the voyager-reader that the old familiar paradigms are presently colliding. In the title piece, someone asks for direction, and receives a metaphysical response from a guide, who offers no way out but contemplation.

The vast erasure of the self
contain somehow in their deep hold
the — I hesitate to call it a god —
the second self, a post-colonial god,
no longer a queen or king but an acting subject
in the realm of subjectivity, where
your best god is met after your worst self.      (17)

Human or god, one is, in this sequence, situated next to the other, the only space between a slim blip of punctuation. Hampton’s use of the comma links and creates connectivity where one would expect breakage and separateness. Superiors and inferiors — ‘self,’ and ‘god’, primaries and secondaries — ‘king,’ and ‘queen,’ and opposites — ‘best’ and ‘worst’ co-exist, but rather than affirm traditional hierarchies, Hampton uses one to deny the other its natural order. The ‘vast erasure of self,’ then, is neither a nihilistic nor theological rejection of self, which would imply absence or loss of feeling. It is, instead, the location of state-of-mind where examination occurs without arbitrary (social or numeric) ranking.

The poems in this section, mostly written using common structures like tercets and quatrains, only appear ordinary when viewed from afar. Analogously, a traveler looks out an airplane window and immediately sees squares and thinks ‘land.’ When the plane touches down, she sees the manifold textures contain layers of artifacts (rocks, plants, people, freeways, buildings), and no longer sees land, but ‘ground.’ Perspective alters, and with it language. Much in the same way, Hampton slips the reader’s mind, and supplies its tongue with the sharpness of insight in order to speak the vocabulary of impression. Thus the static event of looking ‘at’ becomes the infinite act of acquiring new vernaculars to reflect ‘that.’ Consider part of the poem ‘Horizon.’ In it, Hampton uses mouth imagery and subtle internal rhyme (‘lip,’ ‘cliffs,’ ‘myth’) to describe cognitive and literal shifts in landscape, and how the tongue slips when trying to communicate it.

where the lip of the escarpment meets
the skymetal urgings in the after-storm
light, a brush-edge, small gums

and below them panoramic leaps
of the future, serrated striated
sandstone cliffs

where the after-storm sea blurs into
what if left of the sky
in a terrible myth                 (27)

Hampton’s poems are too pointed and lucid to be disorienting. They are, rather, ruminations upon how we mis-, dis-, and re-orient ourselves in strangely familiar, and familiarly strange territories, including that of our own preoccupations. The pieces operate ocularly, focusing on up and down as literal action, and above and below — environments, psyches, perspectives — as locations of story, myth, and imagination. One of the dangers of casually reading Hampton, of looking straight ahead, is tripping and finding yourself not on your cliched face, or proverbial rear-end, but ‘in a dynamical system with random fluctuations’ (42). And the ground covered in the trip, the expanse traversed, the consequence of landing in an unearthly place, looking at the scape through glasses made of the clear stuff of tough perspex, is astonishing and stunning. 

In the second half of the book, we meet ‘The Kindly Ones,’ three Furies from Aeschylus’ play Eumenides who vacation out of their theatrical netherworld to visit regular Earth. Through them, we encounter a populace of ancient protagonists and popularly current iconclasts, real and fictive. Operating narratively as out-of-work Greek tragedy actors, Fury Tisiphone (Greek for ‘avenging murder’) is, like the reader, a bewildered tourist out-of-context in the un-literary world, wandering around actual and figurative terrains of the emotional and physical, without map or passport. Literally without paper, Tisiphone and her sisters Alecto and Megaera assume identities Las Vegas style, discarding their former lives as Hades’ vengeance-makers in favor of new ones where, on terra firma, they decide to become human, specifically a land-line telephone help-desk operator, a dominatrix, and a waitress.

Via the use of the structurally familiar five-line stanza, Hampton’s travelogue epic is — despite the presence of vipers, Harpies, a car crash, whippings, matricide, rape, and a beheading — oddly pleasant and totally accessible. The tone is conversational, even friendly, including the reader in on both the larger revenge picture, and the routine of determining its heinous, and often funny, particulars. One would assume the epic to be about avenging all manner and form of injustice especially committed against girls and women, and this is, to some degree, so, but, as a thesis, is too simplistic. On regular Earth, the Furies discover tragedy in excess, and human de-sensitivity to it rampant. ‘Too old for fury ‘ (72), Tisiphone asks Alecto, ‘Why is the human body so glad/to be hateful?’ (84) On the TV, Lyndie England holds the end of a leash wound around the neck of a naked Abu Ghraib detainee. Hampton’s narrative about supernaturally spiteful snake-haired women suddenly twists, and, as it does, everything upends, including reader expectation, and becomes brilliantly twisted. Women in positions of ‘justice’ are collaged together; some, like Alecto, wield figurative and ancient whips, others, like England, hold ropes, smile, and make hand gestures over hog-tied prisoners. When Tisiphone loses Beck, a dear human friend, to a drunk driving accident, she loses all appetite for revenge.

I remember arguments we had in the past
about pay-back, the problem with vengeance —
how endless, like the Middle East —
and then the alternatives — the concept
of forgiveness, now, can you come to that? I said.      (74)

In reverse expectation of her ironically bestowed moniker of ‘Kindly One,’ Tisiphone’s title, temporarily, becomes real. She falls in love with Jade, a lawyer and Beck’s sister, and finds (some) peace on the planet, and while awful, awful crimes continue to be committed against the most innocent, she is perhaps wiser, and definitely more empathetic. Contemplating her return to the underworld, she knows she’ll ‘live in a place whose reigning ethic/is punishment, and that place is hell, circular as its own argument ‘ (91). Faced with the problem that has plagued many a human traveler escaping her former life, situation, and location, Tisiphone — should she stay, should she go? — cannot bear the thought of losing Jade ‘to something so ridiculous as snakebite’ (91) and decides to return to the life of fury. As Hampton tells it, Hell is just as she left it. Tragically, having been a person, it is now her own personal hell, and while it is not humorous, it is so painfully comic, and so perfectly Greek, it is pure beautiful ludicrous.

Nicole Mauro

Nicole Mauro

Nicole Mauro has published poems in numerous journals, including 580 Split, Skanky Possum, Mungo vs. Ranger, Outlet, Syllogism, Milk, and Big Bridge; recent poems have appeared in Jacket, HOW2, and The Argotist. Her chapbook in homage to New York School poets, Odes, was published in 2003 (Sardines Press). She is currently at work on a series about raptors titled Prey. She teaches rhetoric and writing at The University of San Francisco, and lives in the Bay Area with her daughter, Nina, and husband, Patrick.

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