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Donald Hall introduces Cynthia Huntington
In 1986 Cynthia Huntington published her first book of poems, The Fish-Wife. Like most first books, it was the product and residue of many years, of eclectic habits of language, of several poets learning to become one poet. The poems printed in this Sampler come from a subsequent, unpublished collection, We Have Gone to the Beach. Some poets write by the word, some by image or phrase, many by the line; Cynthia Huntington writes poems by the sentence, punctuated by the line, and by a vocabulary of nice distinctions. Hers is a poetry of wit, surprise, observation, and exemplary intelligence. She holds, as she tells us, "in one hand/a wish, in the other a turd" (talk about nice distinctions) and asks: "What if you died without books or children,/like Jesus, or Buddha, or Amelia Earhart, died/intact and singular, a genius of self-respect?" Reading her sentences, the leap from word to word provides a distance like turning the page: What will she think of next? Surfeited by a poetry of sensitive recollection, I welcome and admire Cynthia Huntington's poetry of the intellect laid out in a brawny unpredictable style.
Like a black car going off the road,
turning into weeds, nudging under the bridge
into high weeds, its fins black ears
pointing backwards to hear what was said
before going past. Like a low blue
Thunderbird black in the night
glistening, like the midnight whisper
of the engine running low, and the radio
whispering, whimpering, whispering,
whimpering, the ears laid back stroked
by down-hanging branches of willow. Soft,
like the first taste of beer, half-warm
from the can, sweet, skunky taste of it,
burning, bitter, in back of the throat.
Summer night in the front seat, three
of them there and the girl, seventeen,
downing Colts; he warns and she
faster boldly swallows
while her friend sips cautiously
lapping the egde of can, tasting foam,
aluminum, lipstick, smelling it. Stale.
How the sweat seeps out of you,
pink checked shorts, backs of thighs
sticky on the plastic seatcovers
and he drops his arm across the seat back
behind his girlfriend and his hand
almost to the window caresses the knob
of the girlfriend's friend's bare shoulder.
And talking the whole while, then get out
to piss behind the car, a hand steadying
against the hot black of the bumper.
Soon they've wandered, fumbling, soft,
into weeds by the creekside; seventeen
feels sick, groans and says leave me
alone, goes into the tall grass moving
like china, and sixteen in the lock
of darkness silently opens like a cloth unfolding
there in the grass, in the invisible dark,
simply falls beneath the boy and takes him in
-- like that, completely that -- it will never
be like that again, it is all lost
for good, in the invisible dark.
THE PLACE OF BEAUTIFUL TREES
Under their silence I think of squandered time.
How they grow tall in constancy,
taller than women or horses,
uninterrupted by news.
The trees are slender and speechless;
narrow leaves drop from the green
branches ... one there ... one there ... slowly
falling through the dust motes, in daily sun.
These are the trees of hell, graciously risen,
ascended by will through chaos, to be made here.
Those are the serpent's twistings that turn them
downward as they rise, rising with everything
they are, carrying that conflict into light.
I lie here or walk beneath them on the grass;
the traffic passes spewing noise and they are
waving in the quietest, highest sky,
like nothing ever waved, like original breath.
To see them I must almost fall backward.
How can I stop saying this?
Why is it necessary to stop saying it?
Because I cannot listen.
It is not possible to hate what is created.
Here it is no longer possible.
Those noisy ones, the mind's accusations,
years of anger at nothing. All those years
the trees were growing,
rising, being lifted. So they chose
to grow. And here I am suffered to return
and here remain. Lord, we love you,
we see your face in the water fountain,
in reflections of leaves. Your face is dirty, Lord.
So many touching you. But it's your dirt.
When the water is dirty, water washes it.
Lord of shiny bottlecaps, snails and dead cigarettes,
god of flies, there's a shadow on the ground.
Under the shadow, a shadow.
Beat it with a shoe
because it can't talk, because it won't shut up,
because it makes those noises about its loneliness
endlessly. Beat it with a shoe
over and over, beside the door, on the balcony,
back into the room. Beat it
because you've had enough. Beat that shoe
your foot's orphan, like a leather club
against its side, around its head, with short sharp blows.
Beat it to make it stop crying.
Show you mean business.
Because it's dumb, because you told it once
or a thousand times; beat it because it ought to know
better by now. Beat it with a shoe
because it feels good --
beat it until it feels good.
Beat the crap out of it. Beat it senseless. Beat it
within an inch. Because it's worthless and dumb,
shitty, and loud, and dirty.
Beat it because there is pain in the world.
Beat it because it's yours.
PASSING THROUGH HOMETOWN
The discount drugstore, the last place,
is closing in ten minutes.
There's just me over here by the paperbacks,
and three teenage boys
analyzing rock magazines,
and the cashier getting ready to go home.
Next door the jeweler's window
lights up green velvet cases,
empty, with dents in them. A white plaster
hand has taken off its rings
and bracelets for the night.
Stage lights in Woolworth's windows
glow up against packages and kitchen ware;
the travel agency sulks behind paper blinds.
Drinking coffee after supper
at six I was almost the last to leave,
watching the waitress pile up dishes, people
pick up their coats and put down change.
The cashier holds a big ring of keys,
standing looking hopeful. I'm going.
On the street it's quiet, not too cold.
I'm out of it when the movie window shuts,
lowering a little board over the glass mousehole
where you reach in with money
and the light cuts your arm at the wrist.
Now the crowd is locked in for the show.
The manager who sells tickets
has gone inside to be with them.
The Lamplighter Bar
has two orange-pineapple lights over the door
and on the back wall the stuffed
head of a deer, antlers five points,
wears an Easter lily up his nose.
The traffic light
directs a single car to stop, then go.
This is the republic at peace, this is what
all the fuss was about, to make the world safe
for; now nothing is happening, you can relax.
Far from oceans, from cities,
far from any border, nothing can touch it.
Beyond this street the streets do not have lights.
They know their way.
Is shut out on a balcony above the street.
He is a prisoner among us, crying
The awful boredom of observation, the unending
Hours of afternoon empty to a creature
Of smell and chase. His poor eyes see shadows
Pass below; they are unsatisfactory.
Voices come from nowhere. They do not hear him.
Why does he live? He tries to howl but sound
Flattens in a bred-thin throat. Whoever owns him
Consigns him to nothing when they go away.
Across the street, I hear the constant sound of nothing
Lashing him. He gives up, and then gives up
Giving up, and cries again. Desire
Won't let him alone: to be with the world
Beyond him, to move among things and creatures,
To be where we are passing and meeting. But he is not
One of us; it is not his world. He wears a collar
And prances unnaturally along a fence, pressing
The edge, walking upright begging, and is refused,
Put out, tied up, and kept.
"The Place of Beautiful Trees" first appeared in AGNI
and "Passing Through Hometown" first appeared in
The Kenyon Review.
Originally published in the January-February 1993 issue of Boston Review