Online Edition: Fall 2004

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Alaskaphrenia

Christine Hume

New Issues Poetry and Prose ($14)

by Sun Yung Shin

The thesis of Alaskaphrenia, Christine Hume's second volume of poetry, is cleverly captured in its title, phrenia being a suffix from the Greek meaning mind that also connotes phrenology, the skull's peculiar tectonics and hidden topographies. Hume never lets her readers forget their mortality, the retractable scale of the human consciousness in a land that speaks an entirely different, indifferent language. Hers is an Alaska of the mind, an internalized landscape that invites a kind of submission to the contradictions of a state formed by irreconcilable psychological and psychic extremes: "If you sew yourself in, point toward a negative sublime. /…If you fear possession, try it on." This is the kind of dare that adventurous poetry readers admire.

Hume's poems have cerebral and ironic titles such as "Insert Your Eyes Here. Contemplate the Enchantment of Your View and Pleasurably Serve Your Mind." Like a good post-post modernist, she seems to know that "the subject wakes to discover that you cannot die in a portrait; you have to die in your body"; there is no one perspective attempting to approach something as vast as Alaska, with its multiple histories, languages, and geographies. And although this book has plenty of surface glitter and language play, most of Hume's lines are not mere showpieces for her virtuosity. The book as a whole is almost relentlessly severe, lonesome, and flavored throughout with pitiless admonitions such as, "Bears in spy skins approach. Never let what you think fool you."

The language of Alaskaphrenia is highly controlled, and often pleasingly estranged from its own bodily sources—the throat, the tongue, the mouth. Hume relentlessly brings the body, especially the mouth, into the harsh, alien, almost apocalyptic outer world:

—then we mayde use
from corpse-smell
strong as if it were insyde
my own mouthe
thus deprivation coaxed
the God lying unclaymed
to spake like a lunge on a Coast

Her Alaska is a place of telepathic isolation and shifting scales where the body and its breath, its own rhythms of sense, are always at risk, as in the imagistic poem "Night Sentence," in which "a candle eats air from my mouth." In the fragmented question that is the title of "What'd You Come to Alaska for If you Don't Want?" Hume draws the mouth—like a lung—as a chamber, a channel:

When your rivermutter comes through
Pushing what's went out
Where is its source its mouth
The metal flavor of mouth

The plural and the singular collide in "Gargle Anthem for Get-of Sire and the Like":

Took so many mouths to discover
That song buried its notes in an owl jar
Said it was agony to speak
By not recognizing itself, escaped death
Switching places made it plural

These are poems obsessed how the body's own vocalizations may violently consume a person:

Rhymed with whatever
Painted his esophagus white
Woke up his blood and sent it loinwards
He cast it off
That song was contraband
.................................................................
His chin was a plastic bag of sermon inhaling him

Ultimately, Alaskaphrenia is a book of abandonment, of lucid deprivations. Unnamed persons are often stricken and doomed, as in "The Sickness & the Magnet": "Birds went in & out of his mouth /…Then everything wanted to be / Killed at the rural spot." This morbid "living dead" theme is carried further in "Sampler City," which deftly paints a female site of slow-motion disaster, where "Girls resembled the state hospital, / and a plague slept between them." But take heart: though its "winter hunger weirds your mind-wires" and it's filled with fog, ice, hibernation, and suffocating terrors, Hume's Alaskaphrenia is a place of the hardiest imagination, where "Shut inside a cranium dark / Everything goes to prospect."

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Fall 2004 Table of Contents