Longing is universal, and heartbreak is as common as the cold, as any scanning of the literary canon will reveal. What the poet Lisa Hiton recognizes, however, is that the landscapes on which these universal longings unfold are wonderfully impressionistic, to the point of being somewhat unknowable to anyone besides one’s self. In Afterfeast, Hiton’s debut book of poetry and the recipient of the Dorset Prize at Tupelo Press, it is Hiton’s attention to subjectivity and mystery that sets her work apart from the existent trove of elegiac literature. A slender book painted with blue-and-orange brushstrokes, Afterfeast exposes the bizarrity of love and the fantastical nature of desire, in a series of structure-less poems that are anything but didactic and not particularly enlightening. Instead, in Afterfeast Hiton offers an evocative, emotional, and exploratory account of a poet’s journey through the interior experience of the desire: “It doesn’t have to be / something that happened to us / for me to write it. Finally / I have to arrive / in the field of what is / unsaid, and I am in it now, arrived there / as though it were a memory.” This is the voice of a poet accepting not only the ambiguity of love, wanting what is splendid but often unreal, but also the frailties and idiosyncrasies of her own dreams of intimacy.
Arranged into six unnamed chapters, the range of settings in Hiton’s poems is nothing less than epic: she tours forests and oceans, beaches and bakeries, Jewish synagogues and American cities, Grecian ruins and Cambridge buildings. But each unique poem is a parallel universe in itself. She writes mostly in narratival, parable-like poems containing storylines that are impossible to settle comfortably into because of their shape-shifting nature. In “The Senator,” for one, Hiton recounts a confrontation between an armed intruder and the Senator he pins against a wall, alternating between the subconscious memories of both characters so artfully that the factual elements of the narrative are entirely subordinate to the emotional vulnerabilities underlying the scene. In another poem, “Theory of Universes,” Hiton makes no effort to hide the instability of her narration style and even makes it a central pillar of the poem. She writes: “In another version we are eating eggs for breakfast. / In another version there’s oatmeal on the stove. In another version / it’s 1851 and we come in from a hunt to hang the rabbit over the fire.” Here the tangible and the tactile becomes relative, changing according to the dynamic perspective of the storyteller. In this poem Hiton continues with the breakfast-image, with which she also adds more peculiarities, including a file cabinet filled with cadavers and three randomly-appearing men named Conor, Alex, and Russell. However, what always undergirds the twisting “Theory of Universes” is desire, muted and ambiguous: “The light is the same / and we are waiting for snow in all the tiny worlds.”While the details of the poet’s desire itself is comprehensible only to the poet, the undertone of longing is achingly evident in this and every single poem in this collection despite the almost nonsensical settings of the narratival poems.
Laced with images that are either picturesque or corporal, Afterfeast is overflowing with allusions to lemons, boats, olives, herbs, and oceans, but also cadavers, spines, hands, bodies, and dead animals. More surreal than grotesque, these images are ultimately grounding, and it is this relationship between the ideal and the real that enliven Afterfeast’s panorama. Hiton’s lyrics soar when she lingers on the loveliness of the world, in a subtle attempt to elevate the ordinary into something extraordinary. “I want to make a mythology out of the image / in the window, you picking tomatoes,” writes the poet in “The Space Between Trees,” a seven-stanza poem that symbolizes a yearning not only to create romance out of love but also to merge dreams with facts. It is within this tension that Hiton’s art exists: “That’s what the poem is, the space between trees / the landscape of distance, which is a longing, / which is a hunger, which is what makes us / lines on a page reaching from one trunk to the other / but there is no telling between the two.” How does fantasy become reality, and how does the tangible become mythological? This is the central, heartbreaking question of “The Space Between Trees,” which sees the poet reflecting on a failed romance, and the simple answer would be that poetry suffices to bridge the interminable gap, except that Hiton is not appeased by the simple answer. In “The Lyrebird,” she conjures the image of a mystical creature resembling a “kookaburra,” and then she writes accusingly “You try to be everything and are therefore / nothing. It wasn’t about the trees being felled / as you railed on as the chainsaw. / And like Orpheus with lyre, you faced your doom and sang into it.” There is something glorious about the song of the lyrebird, making music in the very face of doom, especially in light of the connection to Orpheus, the patron saint of artists, who sang his way into the underworld in Greek mythology. But there is also a striking condemnation, as the speaker almost seems to denounce poetry as futile and unsatisfactory in the context of real longing.
This sense of futility is reflected throughout the book; there are no saccharine moments of requited love for the speaker. But this is a book in which the philosophical prevails over the pathetic. Instead of sighing over past paramours, Hiton is invariably focused on the very character of desire, which she seems to depict as inherently unfillable. “I thought I wanted a sister. / What I wanted was a lover,” she writes in “Pastoral,” a request that is echoed almost verbatim a few pages later, in “Lethargy,” when she confesses “I tell myself I want a lover. / I want a lover.” In both instances the emphasis is always on the wanting, and the wanting is accompanied by an underlying and ever-present grief for something beautiful but ultimately unobtainable. In Hiton’s skilled voice, however, the pain is gorgeously lyrical. “Gone / the thyme and tang of shallot, / as the garlic / burns in the oil,” she writes in “Mahler’s Ninth,” with vivid imagery that encapsulates the poet’s keen awareness of something absent. Interestingly, in Hiton’s eccentric chronicle of poems, there is no straightforward resolution for longing. The long-gone lovers remain gone, and the poet emerges from the emotional pilgrimage that is Afterfeast with no eureka moment. The final poem, “The Dwelling Place” is a dramatic conclusion to the book, a poetic tour-de-force that showcases Hiton’s mastery of rhyme and ability to balance every recurring theme with dazzling continuity. In the middle of this poem, however, she asks “Who will mourn these dreams?” This may very well be the lynchpin of the poem and perhaps the climax of the entire volume. What if there is no remedy for longing? What if love was never a problem to be solved and was always a dream to be mourned, according to one’s unique storyline? If this is true, then Hiton has done her work well: Afterfeast, with its magnificent narratives and radiant language of subjectivity, is a brave and bracing lament for the ineffable, out-of-reach elements of life. It is a book not easily understood, but not easily forgotten.
Afterfeast, by Lisa Hiton. North Adams, Massachusetts: Tupelo Press, October 2021. 78 pages. $9.48, paper.
Hannah Riffell is an upcoming graduate of Calvin University, where she studies writing and business. She won the 2018 National Writers Series Poetry Scholarship and the 2021 Academy of American Poets Prize for Calvin University. Her work is featured in PANK, Blue Marble Review, Dialogue, and the National Writers Series Journal. She hopes to continue sharing poetry after graduation.