Emily Hunt, Dark Green, The Song Cave, 2015
Reviewed by JoAnna Novak
- To begin with color isn't wrong. Other books that color their titles hitch hues to nouns: Green Squall, A Clockwork Orange, The Red Badge of Courage. Bluets by Maggie Nelson: even a study of a heart bound to one color is named for a low-growing, four-petaled flower.
- So Dark Green: A cold, coughy, achy, buried in blanket fall day. Something striped and stretchy I needed in 1993 (that Arizona-brand T).
- "Massachusetts is dark green," Hunt writes in "It's Good To Be In Your Paintings."
- Hunter—wasn't that once a catalogue synonym for a color? Hunter, like the boot. Like the armed and vested. Hunter like Hunt.
- Hunt, writing now, one of so many Emilys in the poetry world, tethers herself via epigraph to the tradition of Amherst's Belle—"To the faithful Absence is condensed presence." The speaker in Dark Green continually observes—through clarion observations that reveal/revile the self and its others; through painterly, deft details—the edges of solitude, the space left behind by those who have left the frame. The speaker is always in their wake. Another is always missing, the reader gathers, especially after Hunt dives into that lacuna from the first line of the first poem, "Figure the Color of the Wave She Watched": "goodbye gone kin like water/gone half, first self."
- Thought: this absent other is rarely a beloved, only sometimes surely kith or kin. Rather, some bodily apparition both familiar and foreign, like the frill of one's ear, where some people's flesh cauliflowers.
- "do you also know me//fake frenzy who wrote me," writes Hunt in "What Stunning Privilege," where the speaker's inquiry—at first benign, the diction bare—grows hounded, relentless chased by the second line's twin alliterations; and the poem's titular phrase is instantly sullied. "Stunning"—yeah, gorgeous, pretty-pretty, knock-out, knock-out, fist-smashed, face-bashed, punched. And the poem's subsequent images ("silk roses I bruised," "toy arm I bent into sleep," "chatting tin fate," "cold feathers," "very cracked sky") all turn in perverse ballets, their steps and curtsies herky-jerked.
- Hunt's lines in "What Stunning Privilege" are short, maxing out at six words. In minima, her language never feels rickety or gutted, but vibrant and arresting. A number of brief poems ("Say It Is Spring," "Summer," "Rough Belief," "Forest") throughout Dark Green are worth remarking on for their completeness via compression, but one stands out, and it's small (eleven words, seventeen syllables—not a haiku), so I'll share:
my blue light arrived
from Springfield today
to imitate the sun
- With the guileful objectivity of Lydia Davis ("Samuel Johnson is Indignant" comes to mind) and the empirical radiance of Basho, Hunt's "Winter" contains:
a. narrative. The reader knows that:
- winter is wintering.
- the speaker ordered a blue light.
- the speaker is removed from a larger place (perhaps a city?), where blue lights are more plentiful—or at least available.
- sun needs to be imitated, perhaps to feed a plant (medium-likely), perhaps to feed the speaker, whose diction (six of the eleven words monosyllabic) suggests outside artilleries (pun intended), such as synthetic UV action, are need to weather (pun intended) the long, cold months.
b. imagery. The reader can see:
- blue light
- gray or dull white or dark skies (skies sans sun)
- a package, a parcel, a white or brown box
- in the Poundian sense, emotional complex instantaneous, the hope and dread and drear in having to (potentially) manmake what should be the natural origin of light in one's habitat via manmade and outside means.
- "Winter" contains more, but Dark Green contains more, too. And as distilled and, yes, tongue-in-cheek as the miniatures are, the larger Hunt's canvas, the more she excels. Her long poems locate the reader in realized settings (her finesse with image never wavers) that allow the speaker to plumb the depths of her empathy. In "You Must Be So Tired," a kind of epistle, the speaker first imagines the poem's addressee riding the subway in New York. Luring the reader (the one reading the book, the one to whom the poem-note is addressed) in with an inviting, simple wish—"I hope New York is beautiful"—the speaker proceeds to plunge underground, where there's "communal relief in the dark/and then it's bright on the platform/and you can spend so long/just looking at people's clothes." Sweaty necks are imagined near hands that grip much gripped metal rods and "if you're moody on the train a million people are moody," and these pictures seem to come from a true observer, not dispassionate but detached enough, not judging or condemning, just noticing. This noticing could be the beginning and the end, but Hunt changes course halfway through the poem: "here, everyone's days feel more encased/and then, more observed/like a thousand plain, frenzied lines/side by side." While the speaker can imagine imagining the clothes (and sex lives and childhood appearances) of anonymous New Yorkers, her own surroundings are little more than "plain, frenzied lines." They aren't making contact, accidentally falling into one another; they're "side by side," not, as she writes about New York, "working on a day with everyone at once."
- Why isn't there a better word for fearless? Bold, brave, lionhearted, plucky—I don't mean to say Hunt is courageous or gallant or audacious (or that she isn't!), just that she writes honest, complicated, messy human experiences without special fuss. Dark Green: muddied, a little sad, sort of prep. And the more space she gives herself sketch out the terms of that human mess, the better. No better proof exists than "English," the book's coda. You can find it on the PEN website, but don't cheat yourself. Read it in the book. Because imagine a cartoon. An old one, where an avian conductor in ill-fitting tails quacks and maestros and then batons his band to play. First the woodwinds. Then the brass. Then the percussion. Until the entire orchestra is harmonious, one big and booming layered sound, the sort of sound so full, so necessary, that, when it's over, when the baton is down and the instruments are at rest, you, the random audience member, are stunned, awed by the presence in that Absence, that silence.