Beacon Press, $15 (paper)
University of Georgia
Press, $15.95 (paper)
by Catherine Daly
Christine Humes Musca Domestica, winner of the 1999 Barnard
New Women Poets Prize, is an intricately made and richly decorated book,
well researched, well documented, and surreal. Tessa Rumseys Assembling
the Shepherd, selected last year for the University of Georgia Press
Contemporary Poetry Series (they publish one first book of poetry each
year), is also a multi-layered, carefully worked book. Both poets write
allusive and ambiguous poems, the kind often referred to as "postmodern."
They reorder reliable and unreliable information using a variety of
poetic tools to provide readers with contemporary interactive poetry.
By reading, interpreting, and experiencing these written objects, readers
discover allusionsreveal these poetsand complete their fascinating,
On the surface, Rumsey and Hume and their poems share ideals, practices,
and images. They both develop decorative styles after modernism: "above
our big rig // the baroque sky" (Rumsey), "The locomotives
baroque locutions" (Rumsey), "this place, / more baroque by
the hour" (Hume). They both create figures using artifacts of the
industrial revolution, such as the trains in de Chiricos paintings
and flattened coins: "I lay a nickel face-up on tracks" (Rumsey),
"you defaced pennies on the rails" (Hume). Hume quotes Marinetti,
impresario of Futurism, in the epigraph of "Interview" ("This
is a beautiful world, it means what I say"), and Rumsey paraphrases
him at length in "Man-Torpedo-Boat." They both compare technology
to poetics, and both use analogy to dislocate objects and alter their
traditional function. While Rumsey embraces machine-like nonce forms,
repeating and varying nouns, phrases, and sentences within poems and
from poem to poem (for instance, a sunflower is a satellite dish, then
the "eye" of a gun), Hume tightly links her poems so that
they echo each other, repeating nouns or larger images poem-to-poem
to develop or comment on them. Whereas Rumsey uses sickness, evolution,
and a popular commercial in "The War," Humes poem "Sick"
follows her meditation on virus, illness, and evolution in "Ladder."
The medicine bottle in "Sick" becomes the bottle in Steve
McCaffreys well-known Wittgenstein explication, quoted in Humes
notes, which features a fly: "If the aim of philosophy is, as Wittgenstein
claims, to show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle, then the aim
of poetry is to convince the bottle that there is no fly."
Like many recent first books, Musca Domestica and Assembling
the Shepherd invoke Ludwig Wittgenstein, the philosopher of language,
and Walter Benjamin, the cultural critic. Hume and Rumsey are philosophical
poets who are also very much writers of this place and time: like many
other well published and educated young poets now, they have found it
necessary to reach philosophical decisions regarding narrative and narrator,
voice and text. Hume appropriately chose the common housefly (musca
domestica in Latin) as governing motif. The fly, with its complex
eye, centers the poems outside fragmentation, offering a sophisticated
approach to multiple points of view. The writer is a spider writing
in "spidery script." Hume uses italics to spin a web of carefully
selected and unobtrusively noted quotes and her own writing, which has
various tones. While surrealists used found text to explore automatism
and psychology, Hume reduces the five page OED definition of fly to
a meditation on the line and line break in lyric free verse that opens
and structures her book, "True and Obscure Definitions of Fly,
Domestic and Otherwise." (Yes, there is a flyleaf poem.) She returns
to the fly list with "Mimicry," approximately halfway through
the book, to turn from sense information to recognition as poem inspiration.
The fly that unifies her poetrys content is food to the writer.
She ends the book with: "If you cannot say it, / how else will
you know that you see? / Even flies come to the eyeball for food."
Assembling the Shepherd joins an array of relatively new books
by female poets combining formal experimentation with religious subject
matter, including Brenda Hillmans Loose Sugar, Kathleen
Peirces The Oval Hour, and Annah Sobelmans
The Tulip Sacrament. Rumsey assembles quotes and voices into
a shepherd, sometimes with a flock of one, the writer, sometimes with
flocks of peacocks, parrots, and birds as symbols of spirit. Post- romantically,
she recasts the relationship in her poems to compare a relationship
to God with a failed affair. In "The Conference of Birds, or Adornment,"
which jumbles quote and truism, a Fermat paraphrase and her own voices,
Rumsey provides Gods garbled instructions and recalls Chaucers
love vision, "Parliament of Fowls," together with the Sufi
journey text, "The Conference of the Birds." Rumsey looks
for messages rather than signs; she avoids the Proustian operation of
memory and religious belief. "Who are you / inside the music of
anothers suffering?" and "Where are the messengers?"
she asks. She seeks to practice diagesis to create a "planet on
the table" narrating "the case" at the limit of language:
religious truth. Rumsey raises the decorum of her writing from experience
("after the gun was held to my head") through religion. Her
deserts of recent wars, Morocco, and the Mojave ("Nothing points
to the Imperishable Star transfixing the Luxor in Las Vegas") become
the deserts of the mystics. Her several cities become the ideal city:
"The disassembled walls of the rising / metropolis are the end
of this century." Time, turn of year, century, and millennium,
artificially divided and ritually divided time as well as "end
time" are among Rumseys recurring subjects.
Throughout Assembling the Shepherd, technology (and imaginary
technology) in poetry and modern life renders memory and experience
surreal. Rumsey divides many of her poems into series of three poems,
where each part of the trinity has the same or similar title and manipulates
similar words or events. Repetition and variation of sentences, internal
rhyme, and iambic meter mimic memorys action but cant convert
language into a mnemonic device such as the "mnemonoscope,"
a word coined by a friend of Rumseys, Edward Schindler, for an
installation called "Arc Projection and Mnemonoscope III."
This installation is the source of the titles of the books last
three poems. Some details in these poems refer to the installation;
the idea of building tools to examine memory and self permeates the
book. The journey is away from description toward an unknown case. The
"Mnemonoscope" poems, and the book, end:
An alien thing landed on our shore, making us mute, making us more.
Endless and afraid: arc projection between the barn and the astrolabe.
Connecting "my snow mnemonic field" with "your blue
Butterfly fold unfurling to infinityGo on your strange journey.
Rise up out of the old beast, launching arrows into the riddled
In Musca Domestica, Humes lexicographers lyricism
complements her multivalent meditation on information and form. The
books name classifies the work as domestic surrealism; she engages
the act of naming. In "The Mistaken," she combines Prometheuss
punishment, a circus, Noahs ark, and Adam: "when all the
Latin names come to them, / when they blame the standing animals / and
secure them to rocks." Hume has an unusual poetic "ear"
which is not as melodious as Rumseys, although it is playful,
as in "A Million Futures of Late":
Ill have my lapses into slapsticks
of accent and stutter, girl and mother.
Today flies will spin crowns of woozy cartoon stars for me.
Ill roll my eyes back thinking;
Ill be the picture of flightiness today.
Assumptions will spill from my ears
a brain storming out in furious herds;
all summer my brain will be a pasture
of tall, hissing grass, a sibilance intent on rising to character
The book is rich in puns, such as this one on phoneme in "Various
Readings of an Illegible Postcard": "honey / or homey or phone
me, money?" Hume employs surrealist maneuvers other than finding,
such as sounding out (also popular on Sesame Street): "I
was trying to learn the language of languishing / Put your ear to it"
and writing out (also a common writing-workshop recommendation): "You
follow the skys lines in your hand // Paper draws the water out
of your skin as you scrawl." With these techniques, Hume writes
about reality, not dreamabout experience, not thought. She transforms
the methodical disarray of sense information into the methodical disarray
of information in the Information Age. In "The Hummed Space between
Marooned and Migration," she writes, "I swallow information
the way I do not understand." She reorders news, trivia, and quotes
In the center of Musca Domestica, in homage to Emily Dickinson,
is a variorum: six poems in triplets with variants printed at the foot
of the page. The variants themselves are part of the poems. "Foghorns,"
an ekphrastic poem in this section, shares a title with a painting by
Arthur Dove. "291" in the poem alludes to Steiglitzs
291 Gallery; this allusion was not "revised." The poem has
parentheses around certain words in addition to the bracketed variants
below the poem, so that the reader may read the lines many times, with
and without the parenthetical words as well as with and without the
variants. One of the best and most apropos revisions is the addition
of the word "Revolving" at the fulcrum of the poem "Evolving
Laws"; another of Humes recurring motifs is rotation, first
appearing in "Helicopter on a Wrecked Hill," where the machines
"sophisticated blades" "divide our view into slices /
while wheeling it all together / with addition and multiplication crosses,
/ carrying all we believe." The centerpiece of this revolution
and involution is the poem "Ladder," which layers the double
helix with virus shapes. It is a magnificent poem, moving through the
inevitability of evolution to domestic surrealisms result: "You
forge a road to your house in your eyes. That is, you try / to remember
what became you." Humes allusive echoes turn into a continued
consideration of trope (from the Greek tropos, meaning both "turn"
and "figure of speech"), which adds another layer to the poems.
"Idea for an Echo" and "Echolocation," as well as
other divided poems in the collection, can be understood as unrhymed
echo verse, where a two-part image or rhetorical shape forms a "question"
Decorative language combined with contemporary slang and references
to other literary and philosophical works challenge, but together they
offer opportunities for readers to enjoy the traditional pleasures of
reading poetry: music, meaning, and memory. Although there is grammatical
ambiguity in these poems, variation and other games allow readers to
have their way with words. But most important to the interactive poetry
of Hume and Rumsey, their poetic language requires engaged reading and
rewards it. Rumseys world of jumbled sound bites and art contains
luminous fragments of truth and beauty, but which ones are which? Rumsey
assembles them beyond language, and so must the reader. Humes
sophisticated pen turns reading into re-wording. She creates not only
poetry about making poetry, but poetry that allows her audience to participate
in its naming, that invites readers into her world.
teaches an online poetry workshop through UCLA.
Originally published in the October/
November 2000 issue of Boston Review