Rose Hunter: Anchorage

[np]UK: HVTN Press, [2020], 113pp.

Rose Hunter’s first full length collection (I haven’t read earlier chapbooks) appeared in 2017 and announced a distinctive voice that it took a while to accustom oneself to. The poems seemed to be wrestled out of personal experiences which were themselves a continuous wrestling with relationships, dislocation, addiction and illness. The wrestling here is the key I think and it prevented the book being either a conventional diary of misery or a confident mining of experience. To add to the mix is the fact that almost all of the poems of Glass derived from experiences in the thoroughly alien culture of Mexico where external reality often isn’t as stable as it seems and the borders between the ordinary and the fantastic seem remarkably porous. Again part of the attraction of the book was that it was not a canny and professional exploitation of the foreignness of Mexico (with inevitable cameos of the famous “Dia de los Muertos” – the “Day of the Dead”); if anything life in Mexico City and later in Puerto Vallata seems experienced in a comparatively unexceptionable, almost suburban, way.

We usually say that a book rewards careful reading but Glass actually requires really careful reading to feel any sort of confidence about the goings-on inside it. A friend dies in a car accident on the road into Vallata from a tourist site called El Eden (in a place like Mexico almost any innocent place name seems right for extended metaphoric exploitation); there are other male characters (the macaw man, the sky-teller, the character of the “Yellow” series) some of whom seem versions of the dead friend but an innocent reader is never entirely sure. Then there are the five title poems that are really about alcoholism, or at least an alcoholic episode, and other poems dealing with the experience of “dead legs”, a temporary paralysis. (It’s no accident that Lowry’s Under the Volcano, surely one of the definitive literary representations of alcoholism, takes place in Mexico City on the day of the dead.) All told, Glass is a complex mix, a challenge to the reader who needs both to try to make sense of the experiences out of which these poems are wrestled while at the same time reassuring his- or herself that this is not just a prurient interest in someone else’s troubles but is genuinely required by the poems themselves.

Two of the poems from Glass make a good introduction to Hunter’s poetry and set the scene for a look at her new book, Anchorage. The first of these is “Pretas”:

and not merely something blurry between spikes. vallarta
was a city of ghosts i had to leave in the walking past: hidalgo

      up that alleyway (for you kid, I don’t inhale)   or
flailing down stairs forty-five degrees, langostinos where you yelled
      at plankton                  madero jacarandas aguacate where
we yelled at each other, insurgents and cárdenas where you dropped

milk thankfully not vodka, phew!       villa not much by the sea
where we lay, how to forget what we’ve done to each other
      but open the window          no way

basilio badillo where we smoked          olas altas
who fell in the plant box who picked each other up          alley
unnamed, where I fell, alone        gutters and red
running, your warm hand on my back, drug sick heart sick
      rise and fall          iturbide          cuauhtémoc

      skipping down stairs to meet you a smile to break a face
to meet you or further down     guerrero, couldn’t wait! malecón
how could I get to you fast enough thinking of things I had to
      tell you and what you would say and how you would laugh

your gravelly delight          in the salsa isle in the toothpaste aisle
on the telephone on the way to cinco de diciembre in the R04 in the
R08, couldn’t wait!          on carranza your greeting smile
      through the bars back when you had flesh back
      when we could smile at each other back then.

The title is an obstacle at first because, drenched in Spanish as Glass inevitably is, one assumes it to be a Spanish word but its true origin (if I speak knowledgeably here it’s thanks to Wikipedia) is Hindi where a preta is a wandering ghost driven by hunger to make contact with humans. So the poem is a kind of compendium or collection of remembered moments, rather like a set of mental snapshots. And the method of construction of this virtual album is to locate each memory in the street in which it occurred. The rather marvellous interpretive experience for a reader is the way in which what appears on the first couple of readings as a weirdly surrealist piece, almost like a poem made up by interweaving a Spanish text with an English one, quickly comes into focus once we realise that the Spanish words are all street names. The fragmented and disjointed quality – which is a feature of other poems and perhaps reflects the desire honestly to represent the fact that the poet is not so on top of these experiences that they can be distilled into shapely aesthetic objects – is mimetically justified in this poem since the images are incomplete flashes. Also mimetically justified is the surreal effect of “Alebrijes” – “the dragon head on your chicken back / turkey feet and cowrie legs, wattle dewlap quill cuttle / ventricular” – in that the poem describes a bizarre papier-mache carnival procession. This seems a demonstration of Garcia Marquez’ comment about his “magical-realist” style: the style is realistic, it’s the reality it describes that is magical. My point here is that Hunter looks for ways in which to make poems uniquely conceived and structured. She seems, at her best, to be searching for moulds for experience that will be both standalone and interesting in themselves. “Pretas” might have been titled trendily something like “Images of Loss on Fifteen Streets” to draw attention to it’s structural way of dealing with experience though I’m rather glad it wasn’t.

The second way in which Glass makes a kind of useful prologue to Anchorage is thematic. There is a lot in it, for example, about place, about moving and leaving. In keeping with this is the whole issue of the temporarily paralysed legs since that prevents movement. Most of the unequivocal assertions – “make sure it’s the right house you’re jumping out of”, “we don’t like to admit that we could have just left anytime” – are about leaving and there is a memorable passage in “Central Camionera”:

. . . . . 
                           you become irrelevant
to the place you’re leaving right before you leave it.

their concerns look strange to you, the leaving one.
also their jealousy, forgetting you have often been jealous of

leaving people who are always on their way somewhere
better than we are now, regardless of where they are going . . .

Significantly, Anchorage begins with a poem about leaving – or at least fantasies about leaving – but one in which a good deal of attention is paid to the way the issue is framed and presented. It’s a four part poem and the final part is most like a conventional poem detailing a trip to the north – presumably, in the light of what the first three parts deal with, to watch the salmon spawning run. As with the poems of Glass there is a partner and half the energies of the poem (half the energies of many of the poems in these two books) come from frustrated interactions with this partner:

. . . . .
                         Where are we going
and for how much longer, your answers are vague
and you ignore all demands to stop. Ready to leap
out of the window hitch back where I didn’t

come from, preventing it, the distance
travelled (the way the already ventured

serves to cement the presently occurring)
and curiosity . . .

This seems a rendition of a post-war Existentialist’s position: thrown into life, a situation without logic apart from that which is established by previous events, the “already ventured”. But the first section of the poem, narrated from the point of view of a reluctant and rebellious salmon – “I’m // not going to dump all that turned up / in my body in some backwater then / hang around waiting to die” – sees the desire to jump ship as being the rejection of the deepest possible instincts. Interestingly the salmons’ drive is towards the site of their spawning, their “home” in the most compelling sense of the word, whereas the poet of the final section knows that flight, jumping out of the “right house”, will not lead to a return home but simply to yet another place which is not a real home.

The rest of the poems that make up the first part of Anchorage are a kind of album of animal metaphors for the protagonists, and their abrasive relationship, laid out in the first poem. The second poem is about being “out of place” in a town where they have (perhaps) come to see caribou. It begins with a lovely description of cross-purposes and non-sequiturs:

a screwdriver when you needed a rice
cooker, an armadillo when you
needed rain, a carjacking at a picnic
and again (because no one answered the
first time) why did you bring her here? . . .

The partner appears as a jellyfish in “Medusozoa” and the poet as both puffer fish and puffin in two of the other poems. As well as these animal incarnations there are poems which focus on being somewhere strange. “What is Costco” opens with the memorable line – “This is not my familiar so it is not my strange” – and the second-last poem of the section, “The Incomplete Truth” (probably also set in Costco) contains all of the elements of irrationality involved in staying/going, loving/hating, understanding/incomprehension that run through the poems:

How many ruptures take place just like this
the matchstruck sun leaping, the squander
of beating wings on tire & curb
painterly dreams & batshit crazy

to be somewhere else: I gaze
at your knuckles, petals on a trolley
thinking of you under a life raft

of toilet paper (your
muffled voice), or neck deep in drums
of tuna (I had never seen you so happy)

The second section of Anchorage is devoted to a place – Las Vegas – at least as exotic as Mexico City. And, as in almost all of Hunter’s poems, it deals with a relationship bubbling away within that place. Just as the first section began with a poem dependent for its success on an unusual concept and structure, so this section begins with a poem, “[Anchorage] or [Las Vegas]” built around the idea of allowing the reader to insert either the main city of the desert state of Nevada or the main city of the snow state of Alaska into a gap in the text. It’s a structure that recalls the final section of the book which is made up of multiple choice questions about different bird species. The fun, but also the driving power behind this as a structure that can be exploited poetically, is the interaction between the wildly different possibilities which usually derive from totally different ways of conceiving the bird. So one stanza from the poem devoted to the Turkey vulture offers, as answers to the question of what the vulture uses to stay soaring, “the hob-heeled fist of chance”, “thermals & updrafts” and “various bribes & official oversight”. In the case of “[Anchorage] or [Las Vegas]”, the two cities represent not only environmental opposites but also emotional opposites between which a host of possibilities for living can be strung: Anchorage probably being there for the notions of emotional stability implied in its name.

At any rate, in keeping with places that seem exotic and create a single iconic image in the mind of the reader, Las Vegas is a lot more than its gambling strip. The second section of Anchorage produces poems rather more challenging for an innocent reader than those of the first part of the book. Its conception of Las Vegas is complex, too, and the notes reference a number of works about understanding its strange environment. There are two poles to the place: the well-known hotel/casino strip and the atomic testing grounds to the north-west. The former is the basis of poems like “Paris to Flamingo”, “High Roller” and “Flamingos” while the latter appears in a poem like “Desert View Outlook”. These are structured as impressionist pieces in which an observer progresses through the environment. In “Paris to Flamingo”, for example, whose title refers to hotels but has dim reverberations of origins in a city and a bird, the catalogue slowly unrolls:

. . . . . 
the Montgolfier Balloon: a lone castanet
or snazzy pyjama-striped doorknob teetering
over the Arc de Triomphe
& La Fontaine de Mers (girls girls girls
holding fish) the Eiffel corporate duck
the background ph, an angel trumpeting
the black beehives of traffic lights
& bare asses of Bally’s yeah girls girls . . .

while “Desert View Outlook”, although set in a visit taking place in the present, wants also to catalogue the iconic images and comments made about the explosions in the 1950s with the bizarre – and to a poet, intriguing – names given to their operations: “Buster-Jangle, Tumbler-Snapper, Plumbbob / Ranger, Latchkey, Sunbeam, Tinderbox”. The temptation to allegorise a toxic environment must be very strong for a poet like Hunter and I think she does well to resist it although in “I Get These Messages All the Time” she does allow herself to do it for a brief moment: “I radiated / a destructive centre . . .”.

But what happens in the poems of this section is a lot more complex and challenging than a response to a striking physical and cultural environment. For one thing the response is very sophisticated, thanks, as the notes show, to her reading. “On Fremont” finishes up being fascinated by the “open air mall” with its roof which is simultaneously enclosing and open:

. . . . .
      let’s love this aviary topiary butterfly house crystal
palace Quonset hut nut loaf cake tin canopy

& take pleasure in the sadness it brings
a curved space of strength we can’t reach

the horizon does not appear & perspective
is always about to arrive . . .

And “What is a Canopy” is a kind of gloss on its epigraph that “The interior spaces of Las Vegas . . . are arboreal: they evoke the lost forest environment that the desert has taken away”. And there is also the issue of water, far more a matter of the interaction of business, politics and law than in most places, explored in “Water”.

But to see this section as being a place-oriented poetic exploration misses the point a little. In Hunter’s poetry the self is never a solitary observing thing but is always wrestling with a partner. So a poem looking at the suburb of Summerlin and giving a very precise rendition of an artificial environment (reminiscent, at least for an elderly generation such as my own, of the desert development at the end of Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point) begins with her partner telling a lie: “(Which is where you tell them we live, I’ve heard it / bald-faced with my eyes)”. “Flotsam/Jetsam/Wreckage” is, I think, an attempt at a summing up of an emotional situation using the multiple choice structure of the bird poems although in this instance all answers can be correct. And a group of four poems, beginning with “A Story”, while alluding to life in Las Vegas, are really about the relationship and the writer’s situation.

Both Anchorage and its predecessor present fascinating challenges and introduce a voice and an approach (or set of approaches) that I haven’t seen in Australian poetry. The sense of the poetic self as always part of a struggling couple is most unusual and the fact that the poems never become mawkish is quite an achievement. It’s a self that seems trapped and anxious to escape but isn’t confident that there is a self and a place that can be escaped to – hence the symbolic potency of the “dead legs” in Glass.