Sift, a new poetry collection by Christian Hawkey, reviewed by Esteban Rodríguez

The cover for Christian Hawkey’s first collection of poetry, The Book of Funnels (Verse Press, 2004), features a stuffed, anthropomorphized duck standing on the edge of a bed and staring blankly at itself in a mirror. Tinged in an orange glow, the cover is quite uncanny, since we as viewers are led to see ourselves in this duck and to question the humor and ridiculousness of the photo. In many ways, the cover is the embodiment of Hawkey’s early poetry and its focus upon subjects both serious and outrageous, recognizable and unfamiliar, relevant and banal. In his newest collection, Sift, however, Hawkey’s poetic pendulum swings more globally, and although there are traces of lightheartedness and an always fresh display of lyrical playfulness, Sift’s tone and approach illustrate language’s limits and power, and it offers a sober reminder of our role in the world’s daily triumphs and struggles.

To read Sift is to temporarily suspend how one would read a book in the traditional Western sense. Right justified, the lines visually resemble a competitive Jenga tower, and the constant tonal shifts, fragmentary sentences, and lingering phrases mimic the fragility of language’s reliability. As Hawkey indicates in the Acknowledgements page, Sift arose out of an invitation of the New Museum’s Temporary Center for Translation and an engagement with an essay by the Moroccan philosopher Abdessalam Benabdelali. But in course of its creation, it took a life of its own, and from the get go, this book-length poem seeks to be more than just words on a page: 

this isn’t a problem
of translation   i want

a two-way skin      a fur-like outer covering
made not for passage over land
but through    a water-thick interior thick
with traffic    corporate-sponsored
affects   gulf texts  i want 
to turn myself inside
& repeatedly out
so form never nouns

announces   i want to say unequivocally
replacing letterman with colbert
(& the further problem
the desk itself   (the form
that holds the problem    the desk
(whoever sits there    gnawing
at the legs   (the page
facing   shredding it
in the name   of a stream (that works
with you      (
to install a lake      (

The pop culture reference to Letterman and Colbert is no doubt reminiscent of the references you would find in Hawkey’s first two books of poems, but their inclusion here hints at one of renewal, of knowing that the old way (Letterman) of using language must be replaced by a new way (Colbert). The platform (the desk) might not change much, but the delivery is important, and as an individual who has words and the power behind them at their disposal, it is necessary that the message be precise and right for the audience,

As the speaker says in the stanza before, he wants to transcend the boundaries of language, ensuring, for example, that nothing can revert to the certainty of a noun. This requires a constant rethinking of the way words are put on page. In a moment when Hawkey breaks the rhymically quick and shifting line patterns, we see how he renders the problem into a narrative we can follow more closely:

B said, together we are an alphabet, A said, speak for yourself, B said,
or a code, A said, but that’s the structure of the patriarchy, how it codes itself in language, B
said, yes, A said, yes is the structure of patriarchy, B said, no, A said, you said that, B said,
yes, A said, i don’t understand, B said, you have to decipher it, A said, resist it, B said, alter
it, A said, you can say that again, B said, that’s also not enough, A said, what exactly is, B
said, get off the floor, A said, i’m not interested in subordination, B said, sit with me &
see, A said, what, B said, what follows from here

The conversation resembles a Beckett play, except no one here is waiting for Godot or God, but rather for a different way of expression. B, unlike A, understands that together like-minded individuals have the ability to form a new “alphabet,” and it is precisely this formation that undermines the “patriarchy” and resists submission to the status quo.

Consequently, the speaker begins to question the ordinary, especially how we treat events like war, conflict, and the effects of colonialism as ordinary. When thinking about the conflict in Iraq, the speaker examines the language being used in the face of violence and death:

the green zone
why the fuck
is it called that & not
the blood zone

There are different estimates regarding the loss of life during the multiple phases of the Iraq war, with anywhere from 400,000 to 650,000 civilians having thought to have perished since 2003. Regardless of where the official numbers eventually land, too much life was indeed lost, and creating a distance from it by using phases such as “green zone” (used to describe the militarily secure zone in Baghdad) don’t reveal the entire truth of the matter (think also of the phases “enhanced interrogation” or “rendition” and how they were meant to desensitize our understanding of their intentions). The euphemism is in actuality a barrier to establishing a world we can rely on and that brings to light what has long been kept out of the public view.

While the speaker may long for this type of world, he no doubt understands the immediate limits of overhauling language. The powers that be are still in charge, and because they are, destruction and unnecessary loss will still be a part of our everyday vocabulary. Nevertheless, there is a recognition of hope, as there is in all of Hawkey’s collections, and we see that those in power cannot take away what is everyone’s to share:

they can take
yes the signals the airplanes
cell towers radio stations
but not the air
not the clouds the rain not
the kites
inhaling wind &

the start of a different
world     they can take
this one but not

 the thought
a bird’s exhale
might even be
in sleep inhaled
not the chests
that rise & fall not
the large chests & the tiny ones
they can take the drinking water
not the rain the desert dew
which is before the sun rises
the ocean’s breath
dnal gnihcuot

None of this negates the fact that the powers in charge will do anything to exploit the land. But the earth will find a way to correct any injustices against it, and the speaker recognizes that the beauty we find in these everyday moments are worth cherishing precisely because they live with us and are ours alone to infuse meaning into. There might be those that take possession over the world’s material things, but they cannot take possession over the spiritual and personal connection we have with others and our surroundings, no matter how much they try.

Additionally, we will notice the inverted words in the lines above (dnal gnihcuot = touching land), a technique that occurs throughout the book. Upon first encountering these phrases, there is a pause from us attempting to decipher what they actually mean, with some perhaps even tempted to place the text against the mirror. Whatever the response, the pause gives us a chance to look at the text differently, to not expect what is so easily expected, and to move outside of their comfort zone when reading, which is what great literature does and should always do.

When the book must come to a close, the speaker reflects on the trajectories others have already placed on him, whether through language or through physical constraints:

i was born
my spine
left justified        what
dominates    who
within a previously agreed order
gets to    marginem
“edge, brink, border

what returns blood
to lungs      sdrow
as if language ever
was one

Like any great book, Sift challenges not only the way we read, but how we think, and throughout the course of the collection, through every inverted and non-English word, through every lyrical tangent, through every inquiry and resistance to the status quo, we learn something new about ourselves and how we look at the world. You might not find concrete answers here, but you will no doubt discover something more about who you are in relation to others, this planet, and most importantly to yourself, which is precisely what poetry as provoking and relevant as Hawkey’s is should always make one do.

Sift, by Christian Hawkey. South Bend, Indiana: Action Books, October 2021. 108 pages. $18.00, paper.

Esteban Rodríguez is the author of five poetry collections, most recently The Valley (Sundress Publications 2021), and the essay collection Before the Earth Devours Us (Split/Lip Press 2021). He is the Interviews Editor for the EcoTheo Review, Senior Book Reviews Editor for Tupelo Quarterly, and Associate Poetry Editor for AGNI. He currently lives in central Texas.

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