hinge: a BOAS anthology. 2002, 109 pages, $8
Review by Rebecca Gopoian
"I don't think of BOAS, I think of eight separate women." So writes Erin Wilson, a member of the Bay Area writing collective that created the anthology, hinge. In the anthology each poet presents ten to fifteen pages of poetry, followed by brief working notes, which explain how the writer thinks of her work and the collective. Like Wilson, I read hinge as a collection of eight distinct poetic projects. But I also see that all the contributors to hinge are engaged in a search. "This book is not a document", writes Myung Mi Kim in her introduction. "Rather, it documents with ardor". hinge feels like a live current, not a journey that's been concluded. The writers in hinge are active observers. They prefer to circle meaning rather than pin it down imprecisely. They allow silence and emptiness into their poems, preferring to acknowledge the limits of speech, vision, and memory.
Searching while writing
In hinge, the act of circling an idea, of searching and finding, or searching and not finding, is not edited out. In an excerpt from The Grove, Jean Lieske writes, "place can teeter, fall / on one moment / then place, or its heft I must mean, / had settled me among the roots" The line itself asserts the impossibility of stable knowledge, and the poet, by openly questioning her word choice, shows that this writing is an ongoing process.
In an excerpt from her poem Manta Ray, Nicole Stefanko continues this sense of gentle yet insistent searching: "It was as if they had followed a horse through the plain many days and nights until it turned and walked toward them. No one acquiesced. They arrived, rather." The poet does not demand an answer, but accepts what finds her. In her working notes, Stefanko describes the subject of her poem (a type of fish) as "a beautiful thing that is able to cover wide expanses and appears directionless, frightening/playful, openmouthed, filtering." In a way this describes hinge in general. These writers are not interested in finding answers so much as circling a question and getting close to what feels real.
"Yet there was such a marvelous, such an extraordinary circumference around what I might or might not tell." Jean Lieske cites this quote by Barbara Guest in her working notes and in her excerpted poem. Images of horizons, frames and circles are frequent in hinge, indicating to me an interest in the limits of what can be seen or known. Guest's mention of circumference also brings to mind Emily Dickinson, for whom the best way to try to answer a singular question was to create a great circle around it. Going straight for the answer, or "knock[ing] too heavily on the door," as Elise Ficarra writes in her working notes, will only "hammer it shut."
hinge teaches us that at times precision requires a willingness to say nothing, or to acknowledge that what is presented is only a guess. As Tsering Wangmo Dhompa writes in her poem, "Irrevocably so a poem beginning with k", "I am writing around you, because I am afraid of declaring too much."
Not all the work in hinge is fragmented and full of pauses. Some of it comes in a rush, such as Sarah Rosenthal's boxed prose pieces. But these pieces also deal with the periphery, fascinated as they are with traffic circles and the chaos of the city, getting close to something that can't be expressed. "We are standing off to the side looking at traffic. We are looking at one of those traffic circles. I'm not sure exactly what they're called, spaghetti circle, I think that's what my mother called them." As Rosenthal says in her working notes, the boxes pretend to contain the text, making it seem final and complete. But in fact the dark lines only enhance the chaotic feeling of what's inside them.
Each of Rosenthal's boxed pieces begins with a subject-verb action in bold type: "We are standing", "I am staring", "I am standing or sitting", "I am sitting", "I am talking". The poet is in the center looking out, observing, seeing circles. The phrases move from an outside observer, "staring", to a speaker who is acting or "talking".
Erin Wilson's poems also move between action and observation. In the poem "if this were simply a field", she writes, "as the hero I purchased a train ticket / trailing fields and backyards / in Sandusky the wide arched windows, double arched doors / the station stood above tracks / I looked down onto the movement". The poet observes from above, not herself but an actress playing herself, standing on the elevated train track. From this removed position, she observes the majestic doors and windows of the town, sees the activity from far away. The experience of removed attention returns in another of Wilson's poems: "When I am paying bills I turn on the light. It makes the room very bright. Then I think, I am doing this, this is being done. Look at the way I pay bills" Another of Wilson's poems describes an art piece that involves translating brain waves into music. The idea of such a direct translation of human thought is comical next to Wilson's questioning of her ability to even experience a singular moment. How could a thought be experienced, observed and translated, all at once? Something must be lost in the process.
Silence, emptiness, invisibility
"the sun rose on the far side / only one palm holding open my eyes / like listening which is filling / no fingering of small emptiness". In this poem, Wilson compares the horizon line to the frame of the eye. The image somehow brings a sensation of darkness; maybe it's the possibility of the eye shutting permanently if the hand lets go. This looking is "like listening," and listening "is filling". Silence is active. It participates in the conversation and fills space. In hinge, there's the sense of silence not only in the white spaces, but also between the words and lines. As Wilson says, this emptiness can't be touched, but the reader can fill it. Dhompa writes, "Spoken to, there is a listener."
In "arrival", Stefani Barber writes, "moving among these bodies was like being invisible but it fit, a comfortable less-weight." As in Wilson's poem, Barber or her narrator experiences the world from a removed position. Being invisible is comfortable because there is less pressure to know. To some degree, the poet's perception depends on not being seen, or on not feeling pressured to find answers. Elise Ficarra, in an excerpt from the dog letters, seems to remind the reader not to take these words as fact: "(don't mistake this noise for something solid / stocking up on soup cans)".
The writers in hinge are interested in precision, and this means examining experience and the blur that is memory. Wilson writes, "forgotten, then the day comes, I forget again / somehow without remembering". Here she gets at the constant tug of memory, the feeling of something always slipping through our fingers. Is it the past? This moment that has just ended? Is it lost? Memory may be slippery, Wilson seems to say, but it is strong: "He's forever part of your life now, having driven out of sight."
In her working notes, Sarah Rosenthal calls memory "an act of creation." hinge questions our ability to know anything for sure, at the same time demonstrating a great belief in writing's usefulness in the search for meaning. Perhaps writing can never truly hold the chaos of the mind, or make sense of the thousand memories and sensations that shake us each moment. But as Lauren Schiffman writes in Mirror Mirror: The Cock Poems, writing can be a bridge. It can provide a path for searching, a way to navigate between shifting unknowns and between past and present: "The words we toss between us / become a net, a web, / a womb. I'm suspended here, / lying back cushioned by this space / between us, where little I-girl / and I both live, where we're on / our own."