2012 National Book Award finalist in Poetry: Cynthia Huntington, Heavenly Bodies
November 2, 2012 § 2 Comments
My grandmother lived to ninety-seven years
through cunning and fornication,
but never came to visit or to claim me.
I was found beneath a tree by a herd of wildebeests
who fed me on salt water and tears of the dead.
I endured innumerable blows inflicted by hypocrites.
I lay cast out on the ground. No one
pitied me or looked on me with kindness.
A woman bore me and consented to have me killed.
I believe I have a human soul.
My name is Sorrow. I fell into the earth like a seed
and grew like the grass of the fields
and I am alive today by no one’s grace or will.
– from the final stanza of “Bastard’s Song
Sorrow, solitude, suffering – these are things that poets utilize in their stanzas and singers express in their lyrics. In her latest collection, Heavenly Bodies, Cynthia Huntington explores topics ancillary to the struggles that women have had over the centuries in Anglo-American (and in extension, the world, although the forms of those struggles can differ in some regards). In poems such as “Bastard’s Song,” Huntington notes with some bitter irony the ways in which women have been (mis)treated through space and time:
My mother was a whore, a midget, a human sacrifice,
and a candle guttering at the top of a stair.
Yet within this callous observation is the sense of something else: the mother as being described as these but not defined by them. Earlier, the mother-as-“priestess of suffering” is introduced, again as a means of referencing the crone-whore-holy virgin triad in which so many women are shoehorned in cultures and their literatures. It is a bitter world into which these women (the mother, the grandmother, and the narrator/poet) emerge: sorrow and suffering is their subsistence, yet is not their substance, as Huntington’s later poems explore.
Huntington often utilizes stark, searing images to go at the heart of certain contentious issues. Take for instance the opening to “Meds”:
Living from pill to pill, from bed to couch,
what doesn’t kill me only makes me dizzy.
Pain dissolves like chalk in water,
grit on the bottom of the glass.
In this poem, Huntington expresses eloquently the mindset and language of that unwitting junkie seeking her next high. Pain, masked by Percocet and Percodan, together with the steroid Prednisone, become the center of the narrator’s life. The mind races, the images spill out “Razzle-dazzle razz,” as a werewolf in a white suit is seen, a new friend is made, one that may destroy her. The adjectives spill forth in a rush, creating a sense of unnatural speed and alteration of bodily rhythm, as the “mind explodes in the dark of space,” doomed to a forgetfulness that leaves the narrator wanting more.
Several of the other poems in Heavenly Bodies describe characters on the wrong end of the stick, wary of tradition, pushing back against what is forbidden to them. This sense of incipient rebellion is directly referenced in “The Judgment,” which also contains elements of parental/child conflict:
Her palm raised to strike. Do not come down
again today, or let me see you. Do not cross
my sight, she said, to save me
from punishment, to keep herself
from hurting me. Mad child that I was,
did I want to make her hurt me?
Huntington in this collection does not go easy on the reader. Again and again she comes back to the images of the drug-addled, the lost, the repressed, or the rebel, finding subtle new ways to reconfigure their place in a cold, distant society that seems content to view them as lesser than what they are. It perhaps can also be viewed as a metaphor of sorts for the general treatment of women in societies over time. If meds are required, then obviously the woman is being “emotional” or “weaker” than a male in a similar situation would be. If there are rules, those rulebreakers, like the grandmother in the first quote from “Bastard’s Song,” will be seen as little more than whores or sluts, largely deprived of true reasoning faculty.
Needless to say, Huntington does not subscribe to these beliefs. Her “heavenly bodies” are those women who are strong when others might find them to be weak, “sinners” whose “sin” is merely the rejection of that which degrades them. These elements run throughout her poems, making Heavenly Bodies the most thematically unified of the four National Book Award Poetry finalists that I have read. Yet despite this, there are times where the metaphors are a bit too direct, lacking a necessary subtlety that would imbue her poems with even more depths of meaning and possibilities. Although this is a minor complaint, it does make it difficult to view Heavenly Bodies as being as uniformly excellent as Susan Wheeler’s Meme or Alan Shapiro’s Night at the Republic. Yet even despite this, Heavenly Bodies is a collection that most readers could re-read multiple times, taking something new from it each time.