IN THE LIGHTS OF A MIDNIGHT PLOW
By David Hickey
In years gone by there used to be a lot of debate over what properly constituted poetic language. This could play out on the most basic level of the use of vocabulary or “poetic diction” – certain words, and even the spelling of certain words, being deemed either more or less poetic at various times – though it was also a matter of fitting style to form (both terms involving rules of technique). In his famous and highly influential “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads Wordsworth might have thought he was officially closing the debate, warning readers that they would find “little of what is usually called poetic diction” in the present volume, and trying to collapse any distinction between poetic and non-poetic language (or the language of poetry and the language of prose) by making poetry out of “a selection of language really used by men.”
But what men were these? Not professional or scientific men – since their language was apt to be as specialized and obscure as that found in the most decorous volume of verse – but primarily rural folk. “Low and rustic life was generally chosen” for his subject, and
[t]he language, too, of these men is adopted (purified indeed from what appear to be its real defects, from all lasting and rational causes of dislike or disgust) because such men hourly communicate with the best objects from which the best part of language is originally derived; and because, from their rank in society and the sameness and narrow circle of their intercourse, being less under the influence of social vanity they convey their feelings and notions in simple and unelaborated expressions. Accordingly, such a language, arising out of repeated experience and regular feelings, is a more permanent, and a far more philosophical language, than that which is frequently substituted for it by Poets, who think that they are conferring honour upon themselves and their art, in proportion as they separate themselves from the sympathies of men, and indulge in arbitrary and capricious habits of expression, in order to furnish food for fickle tastes, and fickle appetites, of their own creation.
But that was 200 years ago. Is any reminder of Wordsworth’s rural universal – its natural imagery, folk rhythms, and colloquial expressiveness – still with us?
There are certainly moments in this strong new collection from David Hickey that suggest the spirit of those “simple and unelaborated expressions” has found fresh woods and pastures new.
Not that it would
happen now, a tractor would scare us off a dozen acres before
it reached us, but a horse drawn blade has a way with
a pasture, and it came like a breeze to her ankle.
It’s a hard cut,
he says, going from days to nights,
the body stretches out like a field losing
its sun, a landscape tired of its own, sad twilight.
Or even just:
seasonal as the boys
who appear on the step, covered in field . . .
These are all great rural images, but the essence of it is the language. The images are not abstract but terse and evocative, with a verbal polish like that of wooden farm implements long used by hand (Wordsworth’s words of “repeated experience and regular feelings”). The blade that “has a way with a pasture,” the “field losing its sun,” the boys “covered in field.” This is what first catches your eye and ear, before you even get to the operation of the similes, the blade coming “like a breeze” and the body stretching out “like a field.” And it’s what makes me think that some part of Wordsworth’s natural language of men still remains, even in something akin to its original context.
Not that rural poetry is what Hickey is all about. This is a book that also has poems about phoning the Weather Hotline, the cloned children of Ted Williams, and the glass desert of Los Alamos. That voice of “simple and unelaborated expressions” is only part of it. The passages quoted show off certain elements of Hickey’s style, but his voice as a poet is something different. “It’s a hard cut,” is what “he says,” but the rest of the lines quoted are interpretation, evocation. The language is the same, but it’s not the direct speech of “It’s a hard cut.” The poetry here isn’t a poetry of speech, but measured observation. The relation of sounds becomes something almost tactile, like the changing of gears in a passing bicycle race:
wag through the street, when a chain
slips into the last gear and the sound repeats
like a dozen mouth guards clicking,
then dances down the line: the pitch
almost as if a boy held a stick
on the side of the road, and for the first
time, the fence went travelling by.
Or take the short gem of an ode to silence, “Conception.” Here the poet’s parents are imagined as enjoying an utterly serendipitous moment of passion between the periods of a televised hockey game. The sense of quiet is wonderfully evoked, becoming something you can almost feel. Everything is so layered: from the sweatered hockey players almost lost in static, to the snow “porcelain thick” drifting outdoors, to the very ambiguity of what “maybe” happened, the vague annunciation of the poet coming “like the onset of thirst.” There’s no talking in this poem, simply a warm drawing together followed by a silent drifting apart. But if the rural language of pasture and field has an equivalent in household items and domestic gestures surely it is something like this:
my father looking for a glass
and finding one in my mother’s hand,
the warmth from a lifted plate
spreading across their faces, the reflection
above the sink reminding them they’re alone
This is Hickey playing to his strength. Note how many active verbs are in the passage just quoted (looking, finding, spreading, reminding), and yet the dramatic action is something inexpressible, the recognition of a submerged shared awareness, a soundless kitchen-sink epiphany. In the real world there is a poetry of silence too.
The only thing I missed here was the rhythm (as opposed to what I’ve already noted as the units) of conversational speech, a stronger sense of the flow and forward energy of the line that comes with direct address. I’ve found the artificial strictures of free verse can restrain, and sometimes even pervert, this energy. But there is definitely an interest in more continuous forms – and a corresponding relaxation, I think, in the line – evident in some of the poems here, and especially throughout the accomplished and provocative sonnet sequence “River Liberties.” In fact the formal constraints in “River Liberties” are magnified as it nearly follows the strictures of the corona or “crown of sonnets” (a seven-poem sequence where the last line of each poem becomes the first of the next). The tone, however, is so placid and unassuming that these constraints are hardly noticed, and the repetition of language and image gives the series a quietly cumulative rhetorical surge.
For a first collection, In the Lights of a Midnight Plow makes for a very impressive calling card. As with any young poet, we can expect a rush of invention and exploration to follow. I’m confident the results will be worth attending.
Review first published online December 22, 2006. David Hickey’s next book, Open Air Bindery, was indeed worth attending.