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Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, November 5, 2006

Lynda Hull in her short life (1954-1994) wrote memorable poems, distinctive for their flamboyant shadows, a created world where pathos always has some swagger of the doomed: a quality that you might call (depending on your decade) Goth, punk, noir or maudit. In an afterword to a new Collected Poems by Hull, David Wojahn speaks of a "combination of elegance and danger, of lyric acuity and peril." In his introduction, Yusef Komunyakaa makes the comparison to "a desperate screech through a jazz musician's trumpet or sax." In a review quoted on the new book, Robert Polito says Hull's work suggests "a fantasy coupling of Elizabeth Bishop and Lou Reed."

Hull understood the way our idea of glamour can be informed by the music and manners of our parents' generation. The sounds, sights and paraphernalia of adult life exert an endless allure, the charm of sexuality before it can be quite apprehended:

THE CHARMED HOUR

for my mother

On the radio, gypsy jazz. Django Reinhardt

puts a slow fire to Ellington's Solitude

while ice cubes pop in your martini. The sting

of lime on my palm. By the sink you lean,

twisting your rings. Turn to the window.

In shadow you could be sixteen

again, in your mother's kitchen

above Cleveland, the cafes of Warsaw still

smoky in your mind with talk and cigarettes,

English still a raw mystery of verbs.

Windows brighten across the city at the hour

when voices steam from the street

like some sadness -- the charmed hour

when, smooth as brilliantine, Phil Verona

with his Magic Violin slides from the radio.

Ice-blue in silk, his All-Girl Orchestra sways

through the parlor. You let yourself

step with them, let a gardenia release

its vanilla scent in your hair.

Over terraces, you dance above vapor-lights,

Gold Coast streets where club doors swing

like the doors of banks that never fail.

In back rooms men and women spend themselves

over green baize tables, the ivory poker chips.

In their chests wings beat, steady

as the longing wakened to from every dream

of flying. We could shut the door

on this vertigo, but Mother when we

come to ourselves our feet skim the tiles.

Spoons shine on the table, and Mother,

we're dancing. I'm mouthing the words

to a song I never knew, singing when

evening arrives and flattens the sky

to a last yellow crease of light,

thin as a knife, as a wish.

Yearning of this kind, bathed in atmosphere, expresses an affection toward the past, as well as a distance from it, celebration as well as loss. Reaching back through the maze of generations, as far back as "the cafes of Warsaw," the poet takes as her guide the ephemeral thread of desire, suggested by details such as "ivory poker chips" and "Phil Verona with his Magic Violin." Hull blends the elegiac and the sensuous into a proxy nostalgia so stylized it becomes ironic. The memory of listening to this music with her mother, dancing to it, becomes a valued, even totemic memory of memory. The child is entranced by the music partly because it comes from the mother's life before the child was born. That imagined past, made of family stories and old music, movies and anecdotes becomes a vital focus for the poet's imagination. The poem, alert to its own straining for recall, becomes a poignant way of "mouthing the words/ of a song I never knew."

(Lynda Hull's poem "The Charmed Hour" can be found in "Collected Poems," edited by David Wojahn and Mark Doty. Graywolf. Copyright © 2006 by the Estate of Lynda Hull.)

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