Featured Poet:
John Kilroy

Visual Art
Contributor Bios

Book Review by Steve Harris

Useless Virtues
by T.R. Hummer
(Louisiana State University Press, 2001)
Cover - Useless Virtues:

          With his new collection's title, Useless Virtues, T.R. Hummer immediately signals to the reader that his poetic landscape is paradox and anxiety. However, Hummer's collection is not another catalogue of ironies — though they do exist do — but rather a platform for fierce questioning by the poet. The questions may be unanswerable, but they are always posed with intelligence, and often, severity.

          In the collection's opening and title poem, the author explores suffering and the Book of Job. The examination is conducted by three friends (recalling Job's three friends) hot-tubbing it in "brothel-scented" foam, while drinking wine and contemplating the night sky:

Under California Constellations, it is easy
      to picture the Man of Suffering, the whirlwind,
Dead Cattle, the warehouses of the snow —
      Especially the warehouses, which have vast
Quartzite double doors, where helicopters
      Of ethereal whiteness enter and vanish . . .

The three friends quickly hit the same wall encountered by intellectuals, philosophers and theologians when faced with the reality of suffering and the absence of God and meaning itself:

..........................It is about nothing
Except the incommensurability of everything
      the shitty drama of pain that stretches
From Behemoth down to the structure of the atom.
      Nobody agrees. Even God refuses to be God
But Breaks down into windy turbulence.
      More wine.

Hummer's line break (and he is a master) at "nothing" is mocking, and the "windy turbulence" the three assign to God could just as easily be hung on the three, bitching and star-gazing in their hot tub.

          Inhabiting this strangely interrelated world, however, is a sleeping Cambodian boy, flying above in a 737. The mystery of God is not pierced or even contemplated by the boy, but his experience of evil is vivid, more immediate than the musing Californians:

...............................The image comes through
This clear, this real: a yellow-and-black spider
      makes its decisive way across the vacant left eye
Of the dictator, which has been precisely punctured
      by a round from a surplus M-16.

The boy is a survivor, cradled in the jet, as the jet "threads darkness" between cities, its vapor trail a strand in an invisible web that joins H-bomb sites with the face of the moon. There is the suggestion of a barely discernable grace that somehow sustains both the Cambodian boy and the Californians in their hot tub. Under what logic does it operate? In the jet, with the boy, all are asleep, even the pilot, who is "like God." The passengers lack this knowledge (of the sleeping pilot), otherwise they would wake "screaming." Great forces may (or may not) be at work, but sensing the machine of the universe is not the same as understanding its operation, or its operator:

Leviathan tortures Orion bloodlessly, and the great
     Eagle Nebula, screwing stars out of twisted nothing,
Is twenty-three trillion miles of decorum. Still
     the cattle are dead, the children are dead,
The body is pierced with cankers, and, on every horizon,
     snow masses its chronic obedience.

          Moving beyond the grimness of Job, Hummer displays a deadly sense of humor. In "Domestic Lyric," the American suburban hope of a safety dome is punctured. A wife's abandonment, rumors of war, all scratch at the surface routine of the greater tragedy: a life not lived:

......................................................I'll call,
She said on the way out the door. That
     was years ago. As decades develop, he feels

The quality of his ignorance grow richer. Wars
     come closer. He hears cannons in the mountains,
The scream of a horse with shrapnel in its throat,

     the guttural thump of an Anglo-Saxon axe
Splitting a shoulder bone. He stirs a pot of soup,
     adds lentils and pepper to taste. He shuffles

A stack of mail: her boxholders, a magazine.

           The collection's second section, "Erotica," has as its focus not so much the flesh but materialism. In the title poem of the section, "Erotica" turns out to be simply desire for the things of this world. Among the trash and debris of a blasted city-scape, the imagination — and a dash of moonlight — can for a moment create something lovely even in "the shocking, beautiful curve / Of a forklift's roll bar." In the section's one truly erotic poem, "Gnomic with Temple and Ashtray," sex is kept at a cool distance, as a lover contemplates murder:

While they were making love, it crossed her mind
     that she could kill him. Easily. Quickly.
He was so helpless there inside her, making
     his little moans.

It's not so much that she'll do it, but that she can think about it, envision it. There's no hate involved, just an exercise or dream of the will:

And she watched the pulse in his temple,
     an enormous neutrality came over her.
There was nothing personal in it. When he died,
     it would break her heart.

What is left unanswered in the poem is what is holding her back — what moral thread. One is reminded of similar, but acted on, exercises in the pages of Crime and Punishment and The Possessed.

           The collection's central effort is "Axis," a series of sonnets dedicated to the poet's father. "Axis" plays the philosopher (and Nazi sympathizer) Martin Heidegger off the heroic (and American) father. From the fields of America, Hummer's father is a Depression-era child of hard experience, but he knows right from wrong, good from evil:

Nothing is neutral, not sweat, rot or erosion
His enemy creates him. A V-formation of geese,
A platoon of cattle: everything is explosion,

No no-man's-land. And as for his child,
His orders are clear: you can have it as long
As you can hold it.

           On the other hand, Hummer's Heidegger ("2.1 - in which he receives a designation"), draped in all his seriousness, nevertheless comes across as a pulp-villain — which is effective in evoking the period (see the 1940 movie, Doctor Cyclops), with its cartoon-like propaganda. The arrogance of the abstract thinker who turns his back on humanity, for the sake of knowledge, is clear here. Whether the reader chooses Faust or Doctor Cyclops, a deal with the Devil has been struck, and the contrast established:

From the other side of the earth, in the Holy City
Of Thought, the Philosopher of Being regards
My tiny father through the transparent indeterminancy
Of a glittering logical lens inflicted on him by the gods.

          Hummer has fun, at the philosopher's expense, with the word "Being" or "Dasein," an important concept in Heidegger's world of thought, and uses it as a club to beat home his point: "Being" resists scientific definition. It can jump from the petri dish and bite back. It can also defeat you. One hears the whisper of Whitman when Hummer describes his father's story. To some extent, Hummer is creating a World War II "Song" for his father's self. In these lines, the reader sees Hummer loosen the leash a bit, and to good effect, on his tightly controlled Romanticism:

In the middle of an ordinary midnight, in the middle of an ocean,
Dasein leans on a ship's rail and lights a Lucky Strike.
Match-bronzed, he is simply himself, a self-authenticating
Etched in scrubbed brass and khaki, backlit, moonstreaked,
Handsome as a filmstrip, a military classic.
He thinks precisely nothing. There is nothing to be thought.
That is the beauty of it.

("3.3 - in which he is illuminated")

As the sequence ends, and Fascism is vanquished, Hummer's father will eventually face the other, more enduring foe.

Time to die. Something in his brain
Dictates it. Some grubby little furher
In the genes gives the order
And the synapses fire. Bedpan,
Morphine, scalpel, hearse in the rain:

("5.3 - in which he vanishes")

However, this is a heroic death, even though Hummer's vocabulary is stark, deliberately stoic, representative of man and his generation. Irony is also here, with the presence of crematoria in American cities, and there is always the promise (and betrayal) of words (Heidegger). Still, Hummer, despite himself, provides transcendence as well, as it escapes through the poet's stringent, necessary denial:

He turns his back. Away. He prepares
The corpse within him, and then becomes it: turns
into it, as we say. Our words turn on us. Crematoria burn
Discretely in our cities. He would have it so: no stars
Obscured by this rising, no carbonized trace
In the weather of his stillborn, unimportant face.

Useless Virtues
is a strong collection, dominated by its central sequence of poems ("Axis"), which really should be read along side of Geoffrey Hill's poem "Churchill's Funeral" — two very different, but equally moving, elegies for a singular, but fast disappearing, generation. The influence of Whitman is certainly present in Hummer's work, an influence underscored in Hummer's previous collection, Walt Whitman in Hell. However, in Useless Virtues, with its unreconciled ambiguities, its fierceness, one senses the presence of another, more brooding, American literary giant: Melville.

Comments or questions: contact.us@avatarreview.net
Copyright 2004 Avatar Review