Beacon Press ($15)
by Laura Solomon
Christine Hume's first book, Musca Domestica, introduces a fresh voice of ironic reason and billowing verse. The book's Latin title evokes a multiplicity of interpretations, mimicking the myriad of styles and flies that one will find inside. Entomologists will immediately identify "musca domestica" as the genus species for house fly, while the less scientifically inclined may focus first on the title's homonymic hint of domesticity. Furthermore, "musca," being one letter short of "musica," suggests a certain lyricism, an intrinsic musicality that Hume rarely neglects. Indeed, her poetry teems with lush language, provocative word-play and an essential music, creating lyrical landscapes of the imaginative world.
Hume's choice of the fly as her thematic porter proves an adroit move. The word "fly" may be defined in so many ways, used in so many connotations, that its constant repetition never equates to redundancy. To illustrate this, the first poem entitled, "True and Obscure Definitions of Fly, Domestic and Otherwise," presents a baffling abundance of fly imagery, all pulled from the Oxford English Dictionary and assembled with finesse. The poem, "Mimicry," appearing at the end of the first section, reprises the fly theme as an ode to versatility and the multi-faceted poetic eye. In the final notes ("Fly Paper Palimpsest"), Hume addresses this theme, pointing out the fly's utilization of the mundane; they "filter opportunity out of offal, carrion, and rot." She then proceeds to credit borrowed "ge(r)ms" appearing in the book, ending with this quotation from Steve McCaffery: "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."
Hume opens her book with scientific terminology and ends with an implied aesthetic philosophy. Indeed the start and finish lines indicate what may be found between. She employs technical language in new ways that are both reader friendly and thought provoking. Her use of this linguistic mode saturates her poetry with revelation, rather than desiccating it with the flat drone of science. At the same time, she never backs away from slang when she needs it. Clearly a bibliophile, Hume indiscriminately pulls from her various pools of knowledge and language, synthesizing clever observations in an engaging style. Such convivial marriages take place in "Interview" and "Ladder," where she achieves a balance of intellectualism and colloquialism, tempered with a self-reflexive humor. Both pedestal the irony of posing questions and finding answers—the first in the format of an interview gone awry, the second through an instance of bizarre multiple choice:
What could be done with enough grant money:
a. The flesh of victims buried in Siberian permafrost
could be tested for viral life
b. Dues to wonderment shooed.
c. A painter paints your sketch of DNA
d. All the things would become people.
By posing answers, Hume exposes questions. Her poetry does not attempt to instruct in a pedantic fashion, but instead asks us to use our imagination, to find meaning wherever it may lie.
Besides offering intellectual verve, the poems in Musca Domestica sensually please. Hume's images, while often unrealistic, still court the eyes. While we may have never seen a "baton girl . . . twirling her first rib," it is doubtful that the mind will resist such a powerful image. (This phrase from "Helicopter Wrecked on a Hill" concludes a vigorous amalgam of horizontally spinning images which leaves us both dizzy and delighted.) In "Thin Pissing Sound," Hume again asserts her sense-oriented style. The words are literally all over the page, strewn with purpose and intent. We zigzag through the poem, becoming acutely aware of the "pissing" (recurring "s") sounds. One of the finest in the book, this poem flounces poetic rules regarding line and structure and instead finds its own scaffolding for sense and sound.
Indeed, the inherent musicality of Hume's work seems its defining element. She firmly grasps the implicit power of cadence and line, exploiting a keen ear to her poems' best advantage. Her poetry speaks to an innate musical self: the breath, the pulse, the heartbeat. Such intrinsic rhythm pulls the reader down the page and on to the next. One can feel the language as much as one can taste the vowels and consonants. In "Articulate Initials," after four anaphoric lines, the poem begins to move in mimesis to the train it describes:
Because I know his name well enough to forget it.
Because he will author the action.
Because he has something of the wink and flirt in him.
Because he is pretending to be reduced or rushed.
He signs the letter CH as in chew, as in chant, champ, chump—
the sound of a train's effortful start . . .
While clearly brimming with alliteration, this passage, like so many others, also rides on more subtle rhymes, assonance, and consonance. Particularly, "er" and "shwa" vowels reoccur, resonating at the ends of the first three lines, only to reappear and provide closure in the last. It is within these more elusive effects that Hume demonstrates considerable talent and sophistication.
However seldom, Hume is capable of overextending, the result a rather clanky discordance. In "Town Legend: Keeping Well," the overt alliteration, rhymes and excessive wordplay may distract, rather than produce the comic effect the poem seeks. Along the same line, some poems rely too heavily on gimmick. "Articulate Initials," while internally successful, may draw a smirk at the title's expense, as the initials engaged in articulation appear predictably in the poem. Similarly, the middle section consists entirely of footnoted poems with alternate readings. While one is delightful—an impressive feat for any poet—six seem too many. Read individually, these clever poems earn acquittal; in concurrence they lose their pizzazz.
That said, Hume's Musca Domestica proves extremely smart, zesty, whimsical, fluid, symphonic and resonant. Hume seldom disappoints and consistently dazzles. Like witty, perplexing riddles, her poems ignite the mind. She challenges us, and then ups the ante. We must rise to the occasion or miss out on the "happy fecundity." This phrase (from "Licked: A Domestic Tale") serves, perhaps, as apt description of the book itself. Like the versatile fly, Hume's poems create prolific abundance stemming from an organic logic, and do so in a style sure to captivate.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001