Eva HD’s first book of poetry, Rotten Perfect Mouth, was published by Mansfield Press in 2015. Shiner followed a year later. A science lecturer and poet friend of mine, who is disdainful of most poetry, introduced me to her. “Now there’s a poet worth reading,” he said. With my expectations set somewhat higher than usual, I dived in.
“Our mouth is open, and what are we expecting?” So begins the first poem in Shiner. A few lines on, the “we” becomes a singular entity, which metamorphoses a couple of lines later into “carp walking on down the street”. In the surreal image, there is, perhaps, a hint of Beckett’s sense of the absurd, and also the state of his existential crisis in The Unnameable: “thirsting away, you don’t know what for”.
As with her debut, the strongest impression in Shiner is of her casual register (she often uses words like “dunno” and “uh”) and her focus on what Heidegger refers to as the thingness of things. While being swept along in a storm of detail, the reader becomes aware of a troubled consciousness, though the occasional indications are wry and anti-sentimental. At a family lunch where her aunt is offering her figs and her nephew “cat’s cradles his / fingers on my tongue”, she writes, “I’m running out of ways to say I’m fine and so I say I’m fine.” But in the very next sentence: “My nephew addresses / the insects personally and individually”. This is her particular talent – deflection.
Why is she not “fine”? The process of revelation is oblique, until “Thirty Eight Michigans” (a poem that won the prestigious Montreal poetry competition, judged by Eavan Boland). But even here, we find the speaker using a tone that elides full-frontal lamentation:
You are thirty-eight Michigans away from me,
thirty-eight wolverine states into your cups
in the sky, because being dead is like being
profoundly tanked, profound as an empty silo,
with your thoughts and your arms and your
credit cards ignoring you, just eyes, eyes, and behind
those eyes nothing, or the sky, or the smell of manure,
or thirty-eight Michigans of black, bloated ice.
With this long single opening sentence and unexpected juxtapositions of images, “we” (to borrow her implied complicity with the reader in her opening line) find ourselves being pulled along on a current, where “thirty-eight Michigans” becomes the impossibility of distance between the living and the dead. And yet it doesn’t stop the speaker from attempting a conversation.
Like Elizabeth Bishop, HD is aware of the power of anaphora: “just eyes, eyes, and behind / those eyes, nothing, or the sky, or the smell of manure”. While there is a flow that sounds spontaneous, the poem is calibrated so that one meaning is offered, and then immediately subverted. Her repetition of “profoundly” and “profound” in the same line is risky but she gets away with it because she links the adverb to “tanked” – implying both “very” and also “in that drunken stupor of deep revelation” – then undercuts it in the next phrase: “profound as an empty silo”. Tone in her work is often layered, and here the line could be seen to contain anger too, as well as a teasing sarcasm that may have gone on between them.
She goes on to loop one thought to the next, so thirty-eight Michigans becomes a unit of measurement: measuring distance in the first line, and depth in the second. The level of drunkenness implied is perhaps a rebellious, wild act, which brings her to “wolverine”, a motif in the collection. Her line ending also deliberate ly manipulates the sense: “into your cups / in the sky”. Where the thirty-eight states earlier implied a stretch of distance between the speaker and “you”, now the notion of death is introduced.
These container words – “cups”, “silo” (as well as the notion of a container in the word “tanked”) –allow for the possibility of the sky being seen as a container too: “and behind / those eyes, nothing, or the sky”. Though they might seem random, “your thoughts and your arms and your / credit cards” all suggest a significant relationship. The “ignoring you” could also be seen to slide in meaning from the “you” addressed to the speaker herself.
In the second stanza, by extending the conceit of the thirty-eight Michigans, a stronger sense of personality is evoked, as well as the closeness of their relationship:
One Michigan is bigger by far than a football field,
and two or ten is one of those I’m a man who needs
no woman type of motorcycle trips and fifteen is all the
old routes of tea or silk or spice or Trans-Siberian
misery rolled; but thirty-eight is the size of the space where Oh,
I need to call you, though laying hands upon
the phone I am repelled by a force field of practicality,
grasping at the incongruities of the calendar year and my
desire and your non-existence.
While her selection of end words in the first stanza appears judicious, as the poem progresses, weak line endings such as “the” and “my” slide into a haphazardness (also seen elsewhere in the collection), but this flaw does little to diminish the power of the poem. Another strangeness is the lack of hyphens in “I’m a man who needs no women type”, but again, this and the unfinished cliché, “rolled”, are part of her idiolect. In spite of the apparent openness, mystery is left intact. A reader might be tempted to guess at the cause of death, but there are so many options here. “Laying hands” affectingly evokes the biblical image of healing (and thus, an illness); the mention of motorbike road trips and black ice hint at an accident.
And then, later in the poem, “balking at being” could imply suicidal thoughts. This is a poet who knows how to hold the interest of her reader. The poignancy of the elegy is all the more powerful for her strenuous avoidance of sentimentality: “I am repelled by a force field of practicality”. Another motif throughout the collection is a notation of time: the day, the month, the season; so here, “the incongruities of the calendar year” suddenly give all those earlier markers an emotional resonance.
HD is an observer who, to paraphrase Eavan Boland, forces the contours of ordinary reference and experience into a new shape. In one poem after the next, unsuspecting couples, old men, family members and even babies come under her scrutiny. The opening prose poem quoted from earlier eavesdrops on voices in a city street: “That one punk chick in the lace corset going I don’t like that guy, I never liked him, with the weird eyebrow? I don’t trust his face” (“Nuestra Boca Abierta”). But while she witnesses those around her with a detached irony, affection, bitterness, or even disgust, as with the opening sentence, she includes herself as well: “All my muscles are / unimpressed: with me, the air / the lovers in the park” (“Baseball On The Radio At Night”). It’s safe to say that she is disillusioned by life – or at least, people – in general. “If Dickens were alive today, he’d / call it Managing Expectations”, she writes in “Bootblack”.
Most of her usually long-lined poems are formed in irregular-sized stanzas, but she is fond of the sestina too, which, in this collection, are easy giveaways. There are no fewer than three, and I would say they are the least effective in the collection – due, perhaps, to some unsubtle end-word choices: “marble”, “ticket”, “birthday” etc. Her sonnets – there are several of these too – are much more successful.
A key concern for her is animal rights. She describes animal experiments and contrasts the restless pacing of creatures in the Detroit zoo with the way free wolverines “run and run, scale / sheer cliffs and sprint the far sides” of mountains. With cutting brevity she highlights the hypocrisy of seemingly caring carnivores and fish eaters: “Was this salmon wild / before it was dead?”
For Eva HD, “our lives are porous, slipping into one another” (“Feidakis’ Birds”) and this seems the overriding theme of the collection. Poems touch on current world affairs, pop culture, history, music, religion. In her “Aubade in Eleven Postcards” she addresses Oppenheimer, Alex Bell, the French painter Albert Marquet, and St Christopher, among others.
Perhaps she sees gender as porous too, often using “you” to avoid gender pronouns. In a hospital visit, only the patient’s age is indicated: “phlegm hides in a crocheted pocket of crinkled neck”. Gender-avoidance, where it occurs, might, of course, be to disguise the person she is writing about. Elsewhere, men are more overtly visible than women. There is a general masculine energy throughout, not least because of casual conversations with a male taxi driver, a crazy character on a bench, old men in the square and fishermen down by the harbour. Scraps of conversation are frequently relayed. “I wonder if something could be done for the pain”, she says to a night nurse, Petros, who replies, “No. It’s important to suffer before you die.”
I owe my scientist/poet friend a pint for introducing this book to me. There is subtlety in the emotional range of Eva HD’s work, and the content conveys a restless, disquieted consciousness. But it is her idiosyncratic personal music in particular that captivates. In Eavan Boland’s words, this is a voice that “is making its own reality with a devil-take-the- hindmost defiance”.
First published in the Dublin Review of Books