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Christine Hume
reviewed by Chris Glomski
Ugly Duckling Press, 2008

This review is about 3 printed pages long. It is copyright © Chris Glomski and Jacket magazine 2008.See our [»»] Copyright notice.

The voice of instinct


The pineal gland is a pea-sized organ near the center of the human brain. A mysterious appendage, it has something to do with orchestrating our sleep rhythms according to the greater or lesser presence of sunlight in the atmosphere. It is most active in pre-pubescent children. After puberty, it begins to shrivel, and produces increasingly less of the sleep hormone melatonin; in many adults the pineal gland shows up completely calcified in X-rays. Partly because of its apparent unity (later revealed as conjoined halves) and its proximity to the midpoint of the brain, Descartes thought that the pineal was the most likely location of the human soul.

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Michigan is a peninsula, actually two peninsulas, alternately rocked and lulled by the cumulative effects of four great lakes and the jet stream. It occupies a central place in the North American continent, and the poet Christine Hume happens to live there. Her new chapbook from Ugly Duckling Presse is called Lullaby: Speculations on the first active sense. It is a collaborative work, mixing Hume’s surreally-inflected vivisections of human experience with the ambient music of composer James Marks.


What makes Lullaby particularly interesting to me at this moment is its attempt to re-route some of the more gestural and arbitrary valences of Language writing away from historicizing imperatives and theoretical impulses. It is another small piece of concrete evidence that, like those of Surrealism before it, the innovations of Language writing may not be seen historically as some kind of artistic extension of Marxism, despite the fervent wish of some Language writers that this be so. Lullaby bears many hallmarks of a writing produced by someone who has taken Hejinian, Harryman, Berssenbrugge, and Waldrop as promulgators of the most natural and reverential poetics capable of attending on the physical world.  It resembles a work of the Enlightenment more than it does the Grundrisse. It also extends Hume’s project of mapping the unexpected berths that languages give way to:


Semantics is nothing doing
            (Branch ticking at the window)
From the beginning you know words mean to crush
Listening, your body downpours
Goes down that hole rhythmized
Baffles traffic’s chaos outside
Seconds shedding their tick
Grammar latches on to compulsion and silences


Like much of Hume’s 2004 collection Alaskaphrenia, Lullaby dwells in the hypnogogic realms promised by its title. There is indeed something strange about a work whose ultimate success should lie in an ability to put its listener to sleep. To dream perchance? There may be the rub:  occasionally the verses in Lullaby seem to stretch obtrusively between provocations designed to combat its soporific endgame (the poem is, after all, addressed to adults) and its more intimate “speculations on the first active sense.” And so, only occasionally, the poem feels a little forced. To my ear, this derives partly from the strange and essential reduction of language that forms, along with touch, one of the most critical nexuses between a parent and her or his pre-verbal child. Being what it is, Lullaby demands an excessively staccato rhythm (listen to Marks’s playing) in order to mirror its fluctuation between imperative and declarative outbursts, a fact which reminds us that Hume’s “speculations” are imaginatively, and sometimes bitterly, mimetic:


Let blood depart and recombine, let it eavesdrop
By lub-dub and by left-right
Lullaby is language’s best way of being duplicitous and hedonistic
Lullaby is Pavlovian oblivion
Lullaby is porous, scabbing
Lullaby is infused with mourning
Lullaby pours those fuckers back to you


But these occasions are few and far between, and even they recall us to the fact that, to an infant, the signified content of speech is deeply subordinated to its choral tone:  a purring music can make reassurance of the most desperate semantic content. And in its own words, Lullaby is a bold attempt “To extract lyricism from the infantile.”


Perhaps that is fitting, given that Hume’s Lullaby also admits to being “a desperate, singular object of mad dedication,” full of wonder and anxiety, and reads like an instruction to be left behind:  “Listen your mama is gone, your papa is gone.” But speaking about it exclusively in terms of speech is to ignore that it is a multi-media work, accompanied by a CD of Marks’ descending guitar-chord progressions, which finally give way to delicate, gut-string picking maneuvers; the musical text flows in and out of the sound of rainfall and feinting piano chords. Hume does not read her poetry over it, and the speech / musical texts can easily be enjoyed separately. But I recommend listening to and reading them together, if only to appreciate how a collaborative process “speculating on the first sense” must at least begin to initiate an imaginative “merging of subject and object, where,” according to the French poet Jules Laforgue, “the nature of genius lies.” Mostly, Hume’s and Marks’ rhythms are remarkable for their ability to liberate even “what [they] would contradict,” and are likely to make good on their promise of remaining “Under your skin even when forgotten.”


I’ve always understood Laforgue to have in mind the etymological link between genius and kinship, a tutelary presence rooted in being of the same kind. Lullaby is composed, in other words, in the voice of instinct, one in which “Holes in the words dilate and dream.” And in their dream, ears can “pant” quite naturally, like mouths lapping at a “rhythm” that “localizes the infinite.” At its best, Lullaby becomes a “bacterial” presence covering us “over with [its] skin” until the “I” is “carried away.” Yet what I like best about Lullaby is its ultimate call to wakefulness; the way text and music point us back to a mutually shared, constant backdrop of things to hear. Dogs bark, water flows.  The mind wanders, “builds a fort in your ear.”

Chris Glomski

Chris Glomski

Chris Glomski is the author of Transparencies Lifted from Noon, a collection of poems published in fall of 2005 by MEB / Spuyten Duyvil Press. He is also the author of a chapbook, IL LA, published by Noemi Press in 2002. Another chapbook, Eidolon, was published by Answer Tag Home Press. He lives in Chicago.

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