Phil Hall. Conjugation. (BookThug 2016).
In his latest, masterful book (although in a sense his whole poetic works against any sense of mastery), Phil Hall continually tests: language, the concept of poetry as such, himself; &, therefore of course, us, his readers. It makes for an exhilarating experience: ‘To not let poetry be furniture // milled from an arbre de la liberté / how every word chosen sets out to save us // from shame & earn us praise // past that the chase of an odd lilt in the vowels / past that Time dies & Colour & all frames . . .’. In a sense all his writing is an attempt to get ‘past that’ & he has discovered/keeps discovering new ways to try to pattern the movements of mind as he does so. Conjugation is an apt title, for the 7 sequences plus opening & closing poems here seek connections among the chaotic collection of fragments that are everyone’s memories & thoughts.
Hall is thinking the writing into being & somehow managing to catch on the wing the difficulties of inscribing that action as it happens. The reader, or at least this reader (for Hall’s work allows for many different ways of reading [into] it), registers how he shows us the ways thinking meanders, no matter how stringently the thinker may try to follow a single line of thought. And here’s another thing about these poems; they invoke their companionate reader, we are assumed on some level to be participating: ‘I send you silence // . . . // I have missed how an empty page // is a sacred space between / / two words that are the same / like us’.
But this thinking, in these poems, returns, always, to the brute fact, the material, of the word. ‘Reading bored out of my tree / I look up the word word // there it is the root of my problem // bored into its tree ignoring its definition / pointing at itself’.
Or: ‘In the morning the poem solve everything // in the afternoon it stinks & I stink too / the little structural satisfactions have to be broken // so the trite suck of my ego at play in a line // is exposed’. Here he makes an interesting play off the traditional lyric, as he so often does. This is ‘the poet’ speaking (writing) but what kind of confession occurs. In fact a lot of ‘I’s speak in these poems, & some, as here, are meant to be read as the poet whose work we are reading, yet the intimately personal stays allusively/illusively just out of sight. We do hear of incidents with friends, many of them poets, & there are allusive comments about his past, but this ‘I’ remembers with a carefully structured distance fragmentation brings And many of the ‘I’s are figures out of history, both known & unknown (again, personal). There are so many entrances to these poems, no single way to read them; each reader will find their own path through.
Though Hall leads his readers into many dark places, he has a sly sense of humour, & it can flash out anywhere, but often targets the act, of writing, by which he defines himself (or he wouldn’t write so many intriguingly complex books). As:
Kinds of poetry:
2 I miss it . . .
3 I’ve had it!
4 Lampoon. Inherit. Bestow.
5 It: big hitching post / little church /
6 eye tea
(1 & 7 are not the same)
So I find one way in via the allusions & references, mostly to other poets (many but not all mentioned in the Notes). Others will find what seem to be personal memories, or the tales of farm life, historical events, a good way in. there’s just so much going on in Conjugation.
I have been quoting from the first sequence, ‘Gap & Hum,’ because it sets up the rest of Conjugation so well, even unto presenting & undoing that confessional ‘I’. the meandering thinking I mentioned as the mode of these poems also sets a temporal pattern: the pieces brought together here in Hall’s specific form (he indents every 2nd line by just one em, but just that small gesture calls attention to the fact that these utterances are made, they are, no matter how much they look like first thoughts thought, his own kind of radical artifice.
Having in the first lengthy poem taken us through a series of grapplings with the action of responding mindfully to a world always in a state of change, in ‘The Chase,’ Hall offers a group of titled & individualized poems that still fall into the development of the whole book (like one of the poets he mentions frequently, bpNichol, Hall constructs books, not mere collections). These ones tend to be memory pieces, of essentially public events or moments (even when wholly invented, as in the comic ‘Festivities,’ with its many new holidays). Hall is a politically aware poet who nevertheless knows Auden’s caveat that ‘poetry makes nothing happen.’ Or, as many have asked, does it? How would a ‘political poem’ act? ‘Poor’ attempts to explore the problem: ‘ under the word reason / you can still make out the word hunger // if you know how to read // (or maybe if you don’t know how to read / the palimpsest is starker’. As the poem demonstrates, at least poetry can witness, in however fractured a way.
And, indeed, this is what Conjugation does throughout, in far too complex a manner to elucidate in a single review. Late in the book, there’s a kind of denied denial of what the poet does: ‘ And to how with / words alone speak letters alone speak // after the anecdotes stop’. But this poet has just said that, nearing the end of a book that invites rereading for, among other things, the ways in which its poetry explores so deeply the world of words & letters, as did his previous volume, The Small Nouns Crying Faith; as does all his work. Conjugation is a major addition to a major oeuvre.