Hayden Church’s new poetry collection So What? opens with a more or less perfect short story. “Jackson County War” is narrated by a perceptive three-year-old who describes the razing of his family farm and the slaughtering of its black and white inhabitants by the Great Possums, a powerful Jackson County clan disgruntled by the outcome of the American Civil War. The narrator’s tone shifts from astonishment to detachment, from deep knowing to humble ignorance while establishing the book’s themes and concerns. Ideas about the nature of time recur, notably time’s articulation through the memory of traumatic events. This treatment of the self as a locus of time and trauma allows Church to find nuance between notions of self-awareness and self-representation, but the analytical approach does not end here. Most remarkable, I think, and critical, is the book’s success at interrogating abstract ideas and actual images, how it determines possible uses and limits of each expressive approach in poetry. The overall effect is an undoing of ideas, of language, of poems, and of ourselves. Sometimes elegant, sometimes brutal, this elusive aura gestures toward the sublime.
Time’s puzzling insolubility is not lost on our three-year-old narrator. When asked if he remembers what things were like before the Civil War, Remus replies: “Before? Why, ain’t there always a before? Is not right now a before? Ain’t it the same as now? Is not time indifferent to us as men are?” So time is something to cope with “as men are,” not just bodily but intellectually. Soon after, on opposing pages, two poems face each other like the two aspects of our universal condition—an endless becoming of the organism set against our yearning to transcend this constant metamorphosis of decay, pain, and regeneration. In “&blood” we read:
is beautiful and stupid and unresolved.
& blood always runs like
when flotsam’d and jarred.
Our shared condition is an ongoing tension of possibility contained in each of us. That said, the poem “Sameness” talks about our common potential for salvation, to be acted on as beneficiaries of God’s grace:
their own thing, it turns
Cardinals n squirrels who feed at the same
store, I don’t wanna go there, where the workers
sing a song
your birthday. Like everyone they love pointing a camera in
your face. I don’t wish to comment on that at this time, though
we’re all on the same slop, like we’re both saved.
Sameness be my grace, be our grace,
The “for once” is loaded with time’s implications, as if all human difference up to this imagined point was concentrated in the desire to escape chronological existence, somewhere singular and eternal, with God. Remus’ “before” is now and always and never was. A birthday that is yours and everyone else’s and everyone they love’s. A shared fact of life that makes us out of them and you out of me. With this in mind, “everyone they love pointing a camera in your face” looks like a shared unspoken language.
If time is speaking to us through memory, then part of this vocabulary is our remembered pain. “Jackson Country War” ends with the narrator recalling his brother William’s abduction and murder by the Great Possums: “me and William used to play jacks with Remus out by the pig pen but we can’t no more.” William’s fishing pole was found thirty feed downriver from his mutilated body. Malice is possible in each individual, the same can be visited upon us, and these tendencies feed an ongoing discursive trauma. In the collection’s final text, “There will be a time when you are all alone and there will be nothing you can do about it,” the speaker concludes:
It is me mostly after all who does the dying in my dreams. But no
one will listen to me about memories of men with nightmares of
doing terrible and hateful things to women and children in the
jungle and in the desert. Know not if they were real or not. I will
reassure myself. Must get rid of. But won’t. Truth is: everything is
real — a terrible thought.
All these “terrible and hateful things” are real in dreamt form or realized in the heinous act. Accepting this as inevitable, we might ask if our suffering and the causing of it can be redeemed. In “Jackson County War 2” Church deepens this question and clarifies its terms but does not offer a solution, probably because there isn’t one:
the of of beatings Art
and no mercy. And all is indebted.
violence: it is a god.
and art redeems all
violence (oh does it?) but this
is on our necks syphilis against love
this is we must bear, for now, Satan,
devil of our violence memory fading.
The “of of beatings” speaks to context, what surrounds an act of violence, the historical circumstances in all their intractable complexity. Could the obverse of this be art? Our creative urge, the will to reconfigure and explain, to search for beauty that might “redeem all violence.” Or is it just “syphilis against love,” an ironical threat against more harm? What is left but to project violence onto Satan, the most vile personage we know? Even then, it is still our violence. Perhaps a metaphor puts distance between us and these horrors of the self, making them more bearable.
Further probing ideas of self, So What? treats selfhood and self-representation as collaborative ideas. They are similar concepts but not quite the same, like conjoined twins looking at each other from opposite shoulders. In “Jackson County War” we read about Gabby-Dear, a household friend of the narrator who would take the children to look at their reflections in the water: “she’d say, ‘Cain’t you see yo’self in there? It ain’t you but issa a reflection of you.’” This notion is examined in “Eau de Parfum,” too, as an airline passenger anally scrutinizes their neighbor’s sense of space. It is a petty and profound representation of the self as physical and moral entity:
I judge it that your breath is too close to mine and your sweater is
touching the space where I could be. Other people’s eau de par-
fum. I see you have dropped the small packet of peanuts onto the
floor of this airplane. You are not picking it up and your shoes
are not laced the same way. I wonder how you could not care in
the way that I do that you don’t. I figure that the flight I am on
will probably experience turbulence, at which point we will jiggle
like ballistic dummies who would not survive the crash anyway.
Someone taking up a bit too much space, apathetic maybe, lacking in conscientiousness. Yet the speaker defines themself in relation to their neighbor: “I wonder how you could not care in the way that I do that you don’t.” The speaker does not truly wonder about the person’s mind. This general thought is about the awareness of a body in time and space and the behavior that ought to follow from this fact. We carry our bodies around and this bone and meat freight is a representation of our sensibilities and values.
Poetry’s material—time, pain, love, death, the universal human condition—all of this is salient in So What? But to me it is just as much a critical work, suspicious of the approaches and possibilities of expression. It is a book that interrogates the respective fidelities of abstraction and actuality, registering tensions between concept and image, the cerebral and the tactile. For example, to understand Possums’ anger at the abolition of slavery, the narrator of “Jackson County War” consults nationally syndicated newspapers and determines that it is “a matter of policy.” His brother William is killed by the Possums because their father “was a friend of Mr. Fleischman, a Jewish one who sold to Negroes.” Policy is immaterial and abstract and cannot be struck at. On the other hand, the people these policies benefit and their sympathizers are actual. They can be physically confronted. In “Afterdeath,” preference is shown for the actual image, the rose, rather than the abstract concept of virtue; but even then, the image of the rose is short of life:
You can’t say much about “virtue.”
It doesn’t stir anyone’s soul.
In the following verse Church combines the abstract and actual:
The importance of trash
its ability to forgo the grave
Why trash cans are
gray like the sky
I can’t say
Discarded junk, the profane and useless, becomes transcendental, and Church provides another image too, but not only. He asks why the simile is, why trash cans are gray like the sky; he wonders at the reason for this equivocation; he can’t say. There is no reason, maybe, and if enigmas like this could be explained, a cliché would not suffice.
The poem “One thing” alludes to the classic image of time as a river that is now a cliché. Once these lines are read, Remus’ theory of “before” begins to echo Heraclitus’ river image, famously paraphrased by Plutarch: “It is not possible to step twice into the same river according to Heraclitus, or to come into contact twice with a mortal being in the same state” (Graham, “Heraclitus,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). This connection reminds me of William’s fishing pole carried downriver from his body, time speaking through trauma. Be that as it may, the ancient image of Heraclitian flux is taken to task and amended by Church:
of memories Being
a great mistake if we had dreamt it
here dreams go / we go unbounded in
that night of objects
human and not
where space is another big thing
among other things
It’s “an error” to analogize our presence in time as a river—consciousness flowing through sieves of memory amid the transit of the spheres. In this poem we exist in an expanse of cosmic relativity. The nature of that which correlates is uncertain. Space is not a container but another coordinate. A “night of objects” conceals the what of things and their relation to each other. Time is left out. Unwieldly, abstract, it is.
So What?, by Hayden Church. Maximus Press, November 2022.
Dustin Cole is the author of the novel Notice (Nightwood Editions) and the poetry chapbook Dream Peripheries (General Delivery). He has also contributed writing to Apocalypse Confidential, Maximus Magazine, The Crank, Rango Tango, Safety Propaganda, BC BookWorld, Heavy Feather Review, and the British Columbia Review.
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