Monday, May 10, 2010

The Post National Poetry Month Bold Projects Post: Joan Houlihan's The Us

Us nest fine a weather long
between the heat of kin
the least of us in huts built round with stones.
A sky-hole takes the cook-smoke through

That's the opening stanza from the opening poem in Joan Houlihan's wild new book of poems, The Us, which tells the story of a nomadic group of hunter-gatherers (the Us) who are at odds with the hegemonic band of hunter-gatherers (Thems).  The Us narrate the poems in a kind of collective voice; it's never clear who the individual "speaker" is to us (either us for that matter).  The Us seem both to know English and not to know it, to live within it and to be strangers to its diction.  With its ritualistic rhythms and gestures and its Yoda-like syntax, it is one bold book.  I've never encountered anything quite like it.

But, and this is a fair question to pose, does it work?  

Well, that depends on who you ask.  The Us garnered some love from The Boston Review, and Lucie Brock-Broido has good things to say about it, but for Fiona Simpson, the book is far from Us-tastic.  In a harsh review in the February 2010 issue of Poetry, Simpson writes: "Any idea that this is a bold linguistic experiment crumbles before its lack of thoroughgoing-ness."  However, in an equally impassioned letter to the editor in the April issue, Steven Cramer takes Simpson to task for what he calls her "bias against the unlovely."  Comments on the Poetry website are all pro-Houlihan and anti Simpson. 

It's great when people get worked up over poetry, and to be sure, The Us is a polarizing book.
And, this is why The Us deserves attention.  In a recent poem-slash-blog post on the Best American Poetry Blog, Nin Andrews Andrewses eloquently about the love of and disdain for "the MFA poem."  One of the charges against the MFA poem is its self-referentiality, and by that, one might also imply its safeness--its closeness to home.  Suffice it to say that there is really no home in The Us--either literally or metaphorically.  Mythologically perhaps, one finds a provenance, but that's about it.  The willingness to give up positionality, to risk groundnedness, to embrace the nomadic is spooky but rewarding.

One key reward is invention.  A recent episode of 30 Rock lamented the death of invention, and to a certain degree, mainstream academic poetry can, at times, feel a bit like network programming.  In this sense, The Us is the Twin Peaks of American poetry.  It weaves in and out of reality, it plays with perspective, it sets up a moral dichotomy, and it splits its audience into camps that think it's genius and those that think it's gibberish.  

Perhaps the riskiest move of all is Houlihan's decision to play with vocabulary.  Like Twin Peaks, there are experiments with language, word order, and plurals.  It recalls novels like A Clockwork Orange or those Hobbit movies where people speak a funked up English.  This move is probably both the strength and the weakness of the collection.  I thought most of the attempts worked; some did not.  But, I was always amazed by how brave the project is.

In short, it comes down to this--you either buy it or you don't.  You're either willing to go along with the project, to suspend disbelief and be invited into the wacky world of The Us, or you're not.  But, the problem is, if you side with the latter, then you're not an us anymore . . . you're a them.  And, I think they all watch Fox.

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