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Sisyphus My Love (To Record a Dream in a Bathtub)
BlazeVOX [books], 2009. 100pp, US 25. 1935402269. paper
In some ways, writing a review of Laura Hinton’s astonishing and ambitious debut volume, Sisyphus My Love (To Record a Dream in a Bathtub), feels a Sisyphean task.
Hinton is known as a critic and theorist of hybrid and visually-oriented writing, and Sisyphus brings to bear all that theoretical expertise to make a book-length poetic sequence of varied and various languages, visually-differing fonts, and differing, juxtaposed genres, replete with occasional photographs and overlays. Sisyphus My Love is intellectually and poetically compelling.
before encountering the absurd, the everyday man lives with aims
This quotation is, of course, from Camus’ essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” and it is in the spirit of Camus’ revisionary understanding of the myth that Hinton situates her own revisionary Sisyphus. She floats quotations from Camus here and there in the text along with various other quotations having to do with the mythic underworld — Dante’s The Inferno, Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, Williams’ Spring and All — and wittily, Deer Proofing Your Garden, by Rhonda Massingham Hart (Hinton would be alert to that serendipitous pun, no doubt). In Greek myth, Sisyphus, the King of Corinth, was avaricious of life as well as of wealth, escaping death through and being finally punished for his wiliness. Hinton’s Sisyphus is a gentler, less privileged version, not a Greek king but a French second son of an “ill-fated” father who married “a Coquette,” summered on the Riviera, and died young of a heart attack, having been wounded in the war. Sisyphus becomes thereafter an Orphan of the State (“i remember nothing”), who is sent by his widowed mother at fifteen to Geneva to work in a grand hotel serving the wealthy.
Now in the States, he has a garden wherein he moves a rock “shaped like an egg // without an edge”:
Rock ruins my
this habitat abyss
of severed ground
can describe its own hollow sound
(Sisyphus 14, 18)
The rhymed near-couplets in this and other passages indicate Hinton’s fine ear in poetry (indeed, as a trained singer, she does have a musician’s ear for tone). Sisyphus has in life an absurd “aim,” which he attempts to accomplish literally in his own back yard: he wishes to clear his garden of rocks and a deer. He shoos away the deer making its home in a bed of flowers, but she comes back again and again, and finally, gives birth to a fawn. It has been raining for forty days and the garden is muddy: “The rock / moves backward / battered Earth / splatters” (Sisyphus 23).
To want to speak in lines of poetry but to be forced to speak in prose
His wife dreams of Hollywood stars (Cary Grant, Gregory Peck, Katharine Hepburn, Dorothy Arzner pop up), wishes in one of the periodic “Dream in a Bathtub” sequences which punctuate the book for “a poetry full of chaos and the appearance of light” (Sisyphus 17). She recalls that Sisyphus’ “rock” was a 400-pound boulder, that moving it almost cost him his fingers, for there was no edge to grip. The wife is passionate and thoughtful. She acknowledges, in a passage of linked and floating words across a full page:
… … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … ..
Strikingly, here is a strong female figure — “i am all female lacking contrition,” the passage continues — who follows her heart. In the Greek myth, Sisyphus’ wife is obeying her husband when she does not bury him; she is either silent or silenced. Who ever thought about it? Hinton’s character articulates her grief in poetic complaint:
if i am the wife and i’ll be damned
if i am to assert
i will not be thrown
frenzy thanks to Thanatos [. . .]
The wife may comply in action (she does not bury Sisyphus and he does not die), but as we learn in the penultimate section, it is her decision. She refuses to participate in his verbal delirium (dying, I take it), although forced to witness it.
Sisyphus My Love is at once love poem, postmodern feminist epic, and a revisionary resurrection myth:
To think how quickly circumstances shift
To think that Sisyphus died this summer
To think that he came back from the dead this summer
As epistemological musings (the repeated “to think” is varied only by “to know” in the passage as a whole), and as subtle, personal lyric, the “dreams” function much like prose to provide a ground from which to launch a kind of hallucinatory travelogue through the underworld.
Who knowest not the language of the dead?
While his wife registers the phenomenology of death (“I move towards / your blood scent — your/ naked collar bone”), Sisyphus is dead, which he will return to describe as indescribable:
— horrid, the experience
the lack of dream
unnamed or seen
His task will be to return. His wife’s task is, as Hinton writes in a stunning passage, to
translate this process into in a language that
bears no direct predecessor I translate the penetrative and
regenerative — associative — capacity in language into an image
of the witness
(Sisyphus 4 9)
The role of witness is a most difficult subject position. Survivor, the one left to observe, who cannot affect outcome although forced to record it, the witness steps into her role often by happenstance, involuntarily, for no other reason than that she is there. But it is a lonely burden, for, as the poet Paul Celan remarked, “No one bears witness for the witness.” The wife of Sisyphus seems well aware of this responsibility that has landed upon her, and approaches it poetically: “I translate the . . . regenerative . . . capacity in language into an image of the witness.”
I hesitate to claim that the reproduced photographs of luminous shorelines, shadowed sunsets, and ruins comprise “an image of the witness,” or that we are clearly to read them as images for “Paradise” or “The Land of the Dead,” although they are juxtaposed in relation to such subtitles. But such lines as “Stupid / stones,” for example, are followed by the photograph of a stone, and that seems too literal a relation for this complex work (Sisyphus 43). Yet, all the photographs cluster in the hallucinatory sections of the couple’s journeys around the Mediterranean, some with enhanced and altered colors, as in a dream sequence, a vision, or an odyssey. As such, each photograph functions as a kind of orienteer among deliriously spaced lyric passages, punctuating and pacing each other.
To translate language’s regenerative capacity into an image of the witness is akin to how a poem works, I would suggest, and what this poem, with its penetrating portrait of travail and regenerative struggle, seeks.
a woman takes pleasure in resistance sometimes
Sisyphus’ wife refused to leave him to the grave, refused to “let his body rot,” preferred “bee-pollen Coppertone to embalmment,” and
. . . gave him bobbles of fruit to eat
from her own crooked teeth
Like Hades himself, the wife “demanded all of him, skin, teeth, hair.” This penultimate section is witty and wry, but it is also gritty, sensual and touching. It is in what the final “Dream in a Bathtub” sequence rehearses, however, that Hinton reveals the poem’s heart, intoned so simply as to quiver with eloquence and understatement:
To think my love came back this summer
To have died and come back from death is no small feat, and yet we realize that it is in life itself that Sisyphus moves the rock, not alone and certainly not for eternity, but in his wife’s “sunny lair,” where he’s passionately loved. His burden, in Hinton’s nuanced and psychologically profound insight, is that he — banished second son of an ill-fated man who died young — must bear life to be loved! Hinton’s Sisyphus may stand as a feminist, life-affirming corrective to Camus’ darker existential figure. Sisyphus My Love is smart, honest writing — formally bold, at times ruefully funny, but also, often, emotionally harrowing, even fearless.
Cynthia Hogue will publish two new collections of poems, Or Consequence (Red Hen Press) and When the Water Came: Evacuees of Hurricane Katrina, a collection of interview-poems with photographs by Rebecca Ross (University of New Orleans Press), both in 2010. She is the Maxine and Jonathan Marshall Chair in Modern and Contemporary Poetry in the Creative Writing Program at Arizona State University.