Reviewed by George DrewThere are many things that can attract me to a poet's work. Certainly technical skill is one, especially the ability of the poet to compress language and form to the absolute essential. Steven Huff, in his latest and most realized collection, A Fire in the Hill, demonstrates this:
The blue prayer the preacher offers at the funeral, mourners
flipping coins in the parking lot, the rescuing tavern after internment,
and your mother lying now underground in a strange light
that is blue like the prayer, now you see her breast rise and fall,
seeming about to wake, for the rest of your life.
From its carefully chosen details—blue prayer, coins, tavern, strange light, breast—to its final phrases, "for the rest of your life," which in one quick stroke establishes what the poem's five lines are really about, "All Formulae Absent" compresses method, language, and message. Huff pulls it off in many other poems as well.
Compression, however, does not obviate in the least Huff's other strengths, three of which exert, for me, an irresistible appeal: the use of myth, humor, and surprise, all of which the poems in this collection make ample use of.
What Huff manages to do is secularize biblical myths, making them current and mostly colloquial. In the opening title poem, for example, he expresses envy of Cain, "the first killer," who "also built the first city," wishing he, like Cain, could have been there at the beginning and could have "made the first this, the first that." In other words, he wishes he could have been the first maker, the first creator, the first artist. Essentially, the title poem is an ars poetica, Huff's lyrical longing for a newly excavated sense of wonder.
Job, Moses, Jesus, Adam, saints, preachers, Baptists, God Himself—all of these, and more, are made contemporary flesh in these poems. Often, Huff's thrust is serious, if not always on the surface, but throughout his collection he ameliorates the seriousness with a poet's playful use of humor—sometimes delivered through colloquial expression, sometimes through reversals of the expected, and sometimes through humor inherent to the topic or event.
"The Cold," another five-liner, seems serious for most of the first four lines, a series of declarative sentences that establish why we humans are "furless hides" and naked:
Nature gave us furless hides so we'd huddle in the cold
& reproduce. God also made us naked so that titillation
would work in the warmer climes where He was from. Nature
made us furless to develop our sense of touch. God made us nude
for fear that we'd shit our pants. Go ahead & prove me wrong.
God and Nature made us so. What drives the humor is the motives Huff assigns to God and Nature, which comically undercuts the seriousness of topic, and the final line, in which the speaker turns decidedly not so serious with its colloquial "shit our pants," that shift in language a comical reversal of the discursive lines that precede it, and the tonal shift of "Go ahead & prove me wrong," an aggressively stated dare.
Another poem, "Horses," is one in which the humor is indeed inherent to the topic:
To hell with horses. I always feel second to them, so graciously
muscled and arrogant. Whatever I do, a horse is always besting me.
My ex-wife rode them far and whinnying into the woods
and to the fields beyond, across unmapped roads.
To hell with riding lessons, I'm always thrown and left in the gravel.
Horses don't care that they're still living in some preindustrial age—
a coven of riders come pummeling over the hill, even while
Mars landings and Jupiter probes fill the internet news in tech-logos. But our old root imagination that once made us, and our horses and dogs,
is always under hoof. I mean, my ex is still on a roan
with thunder overhead, bounding up from a glacial valley
on a primal air current that froths at its narrative of mane and loin,
forelock and flank. How in hell are we getting through this life
if we don't ride? And some just can't. I'm sorry.
The speaker establishes his comical relationship with horses right from the get-go, and its concomitant tone of mock rejection and victimhood. The humor accumulates as the speaker specifies the terms of that relationship: his physical diminution when compared to horses' "muscled and arrogant" physicality; his always being "bested" by them; his always "being thrown and left in the gravel"; even his "old root imagination" being always "under hoof." Clearly, the speaker is serious in his condemnation, which itself is generative of the humor. The whole thing is so over the top, his intimidation and consequent resentment so out of proportion that any reader must by virtue of that find it comical.
Humor doesn't, however, really diminish the serious; it burnishes it. The speaker asks, "How in hell are we getting through this life / if we don't ride?"—like his wife, who in stark contrast to him does ride "far and whinnying into the woods," which spurs his resentment even more intensely. "And some just can't," he concludes. "I'm sorry." Well yes, he is, and no, he isn't. His apology is deliciously wry, ironic, and given his forthright stance toward horses as evinced throughout the poem, both synoptic and surprising. Of the three "strengths" demonstrated by the poems in A Fire in the Hill, surprise is absolutely key to Huff's methodology and the reader's pleasure. Often it is a surprise born of a kind of characteristic quirkiness, sometimes generated by usage, a literary quirkiness arising from the nexus of a certain poetic formality and a colloquial expression; sometimes lodged in the event itself.
Consider the Gothic weirdness of "Rolling Away," a poem placed near the end of the book. The poem opens with the speaker stating matter of factly that "Lena's ex-husband came over one night and died on the couch." There is no obvious emotion, even though, as he reveals later, Lena is his lover. Our first reaction might be "Oh, how awful" or "Oh, how ironic," but not necessarily one of surprise. After all, strange things do happen. "Beautiful, right?" the speaker quips, which tells us a lot about his sense of irony. But he immediately qualifies that irony: "Imagine how she felt," he says. So far, as strangely ironic as the situation is, it potentially really is within the realm of possibility. With the next sentence, however, we know we're in the realm of the unexpected: "But he only died from the neck down."
Paralysis might be our first thought, but from this point the poem unfolds with a series of comical Gothic shocks: the burying of the ex-husband standing up with his head above ground; the speaker weeding "around his jowls," shaving him, scrubbing his ears, giving him a haircut. Then, we learn, one night when the speaker and Lena were making love, the head broke off "like a puff ball, rolling over the fields." Clearly, the surprise of this poem is in the unfolding details of the event, lending to it a Poe-like atmosphere of grotesquerie. The poem ends with the speaker chasing the ex-husband's head and wondering what he was "supposed to do when [he] caught him." The speaker of "Rolling Away" is recognizable to just about anyone who has pursued something and after securing it doesn't know what to do with it. That, like the poem itself, is both comical and confounding, surprising us with its, and the character's, unraveling.
Technical skill. The transformative use of myth. The revelations of humor. The element of surprise. Huff's application of these "strengths" elevates A Fire in the Hill to the rarified stratum of the memorable. His language incorporates both the colloquial and the lyrical flights essential to a visionary art. Perhaps most memorable is the gallery of characters he creates, characters both quirky and vividly familiar—characters, that is, who reflect the world we live in. However off-kilter or odd they are, Huff communicates a blend of true affection for them, and gentle skepticism.
In his closing poem, "A Flying Fish," another ars poetica, Huff ends by asking, "Is a poem like a flying fish / in love with the moon? Am I too late in the world to say?" Both are rhetorical questions. Yes, a poem is; no, a poem isn't. Like the flying fish, which must return to its watery nest, so too the poem must return to its earthy nest—to the human world and all its contradictions. So is the speaker too late in the world to say? Is Steven Huff?
A Fire in the Hill answers that definitively: Clearly not. In the penultimate poem, "Sometimes I forget the universe and wander the ocean floor," Huff invokes John Keats, who gave us his "name writ in water." Huff says, "I can give you a map writ in water." What he gives us in this first-rate collection is that map.