Several short weeks ago, Joe Tsujimoto put a late poem by Norman Hindley on his facebook page. The word "late" rang hard, as it was--at least to me--also a death announcement. I had not seen him since the late 90s, around the time of my marriage, but hold to some vivid memories of him.
Here are two:
The early 90s, when slam poetry was just inventing itself, and the local scene was just imagining what it might be. At the Lizard Loft on Kapahulu I went to a competitive reading of page poems, as it would later seem, and witnessed a face-off between Joe and Norman, who both taught at Punahou. Joe read a poem including drunkenness, and Norman an episode of domestic terror where the speaker was hunted down by his wife and shut in a freezer locker. Punahou may mostly be for rich kids, but there's some rawness in the faculty.
Then my friend Diana S., who also taught at Punahou, became Norman's partner for a time. It was her birthday and so Bryant and I (as yet unmarried) went to their townhouse for a party. I was sitting minding my own business when I heard the clarion call of Hindley: "SCHULTZY!!! You MUST try my noodle dish." Like a meek friend who wanted only to please, I began to eat the dish until I started to feel flush, asthmatic, ill. Staring down my boyfriend, I realized I had eaten peanuts (turned out it was Thai noodle with peanut butter, to which I am--literally--deathly allergic). Bryant caught the horrible glare from me and we left. We ended up in the ER that night. "I DIDN'T MEAN TO KILL YOU, SCHULTZY," was the later response.
It seemed at the time that Norman's best poetry was behind him. He had published Winter Eel through Frank Stewart's Petronium Press in 1984. The cover design is by Steve Shrader, whose posthumous work Tinfish published last year. (The image of barbed wire across an ocean vista is appropriate to Hindley's work, as to Shrader's, however different their poetics.) It was perhaps the high water mark of Euro-American poetry on O`ahu, the 1970s and early 1980s. I wasn't to arrive here until 1990, so I can't know for sure. But I edited and published a book of Euro-American poetry from Hawai`i last year because it's considered outsider work; I regret not asking Norman for poems. His poems are not "Tinfish poems," but they are very very good. Apparently there are some four volumes of Norman's poetry yet to be published. Joe said that there was a pile of manuscripts at Norman's house that went up to his waist. The poems that comprise his first book, the one I have on my desk as I write, are few but stern. Solid, sharp objects, like the knives that appear in them, there do not need to be many to reflect the poet's anger, his reticence, and his stark rhetoric.
The poems in Winter Eel are violent and loving in equal measure. What is loved is earth's details, curt words slotted into measured, chiseled lines. Many of the poems are about a family romance gone desperately wrong: a violent father who could not be pleased; a wandering mother who "snapped one day"; a son locked in Oedipal desire (there's a poem about him looking at her looking at herself in the mirror); sexual abuse at the hands of an uncle and of a man of the cloth. As childhood violence abates, another kind of violence erupts. This is the violence of the hunt for muskrat, for fish, for sharks, and an aborted hunt for men who stole from him. A woman is murdered by a stranger and cut into tiny parts. The book itself seems to teeter on that moment when the poet nearly murdered the men who violated him. It is also, as so many poet's first books are, a book about writing, about art, about the way in which art only partially comes to redeem a life. Let me dip into the book, write through some of these poems. (I'm doing some of this after reading the comments sent to an earlier version of the post; so many people knew Norman, yet not perhaps his poems.)
I turn to "You Pour into the Audi like Mud," from the 1984 collection. This poem, like the others in this slim volume, is in free verse, each line commencing with a capital letter, an odd schism between formal verse and informal reportage. Like other poems in this style--why am I thinking James Wright?--the poem tells a straightforward story, though there's a catch at the end. The language is simple, as are the lines, though their simplicity packs a punch. The story is of a man who films his own mother's funeral in ways that are disturbing to the speaker, whose anger against the subject accumulates with the poem's line. Consider the tight, angry language:
The Ford that's been riding my ass
And your body went riding into the furnace
And your tendons tightened like strapping
Making you bend a bit at the waist
As if to rise
As it turns out, the man who filmed his dead mother in near pornographic terms and who has himself died was the poet's uncle. We don't find that out until the end, but we already know that the uncle showed the strange film to anyone who would watch--boys, including the poet--which raises the specter of other kinds of violence, other intimate intrusions.
The uncle is burned, and his urn put "as close to your mother / As allowed." "Dignified."
But what I'll tell you uncle
That left to me
You'd of been thrown down a hole
In a can
No flowers, no mother
No black Fairlane to ride.
I'm not sure where the Audi of the title comes in, as the poem is all black Fairlane, a word that stands in stark contrast to the unfair boundary-less presence of the uncle. But the poem is strong.
Starker yet is "Sinner," addressed to a "Reverend" who abused boys in South America, and then abused the poet as an 11-year old child. "His hand-picked boy." For three years. The poet writing the poem is now 36, and feels himself hardened by the abuse:
It's for the shot of ice you left in me
Which I can and do turn on others,
For the deadlands in my heart
That are windy
Empty as any March.
March may be a poetic month (consider Stevens's and Bishop's poems, just for starters, about that early spring month), but it's crueler than cruel April in this poem. The brash machismo of the poetic surfaces--language hard, unemotional--comes to unveil (as through dense rust) hurt as powerful as the anger that attempts to defeat it.
The betrayals of these poems--son by mother, mother by father, boy by priest--are alchemized later in a poem about sharks, "Sharks in Shapes of 8." In this poem, the poet fills a gallon bottle with bull's blood and goes out onto the reef with a gun. He will attract a shark, kill the shark, then watch the other sharks attack. It's a gruesome act, told in beautiful language:
Converging currents carried the blood in carnations,
It shawled through the coral like dinner bells,
Some would tongue outward,
And I'd stand with the Winchester and wait
For the white tips, the hammerheads, the occasional tiger
To swim in from their blue vaults,
To cruise the reef,
Picturing wounds, fresh meat.
Then, like an abuser of substance or person or other being, the poet announces, "I've quit." Not because he puts himself in danger out on the reef, blooming in the bought blood, but because, "I was ashamed of deceiving, killing / These long swimmers, these survivors / Of ice, of cataclysm." A final stanza to this poem stands in excess, relates his desire to join the sharks, whom he watches on a camping trip. There's a generalization to that last stanza that doesn't bite as hard as what came before. We already recognized that love in his abnegation. He has not given up on violence, but his violence will now be direct, honest. He will not cheat.
There are also poems about poetry, art. The third poem in the book is "Painting by Numbers." The poem tells the first person story of someone who paints by numbers, "stayed inside the borders, / Faithful to paint, the commandment of numbers." He loses that organization, begins to lose control of his paints, gets closer to memory than to schooled artistry. He is taken back to a Massachusetts winter when a young woman plays Mozart on the piano (this takes us outside image, leads us into the porches of the ear):
But there are no numbers for Mozart.
The canvas hangs like ice, violet,
It is the amethyst of winter.
Or the still life with pears.
When first I became obsessed with Wallace Stevens, dog-earing A Palm at the End of the Mind even before its pages turned brown with age and tropical air, there were two poems I most loved. The first was "Mozart, 1935," and the second was "A Study of Two Pears." Hindley's poem weaves on, taking in people enjoying a good meal, a man in Oakland who feeds a toad he never sees, a self-portrait that is nothing but spilled quicksilver, then ends on a note of hidden greyness, not bright paint. Like Stevens, Hindley pares (sic) away summer foliage and ends up with a mind of winter, free of metaphor, free to be, "that wintry sound"
As of the great wind howling,
By which sorrow is released,
In a starry placating.
Another of Hindley's poems about art is "Keyboard," about a young pianist whose mother pushes her, causes her to hate the instrument, "like shit in bed." The girl turns to visual art, frequenting the Boston Museum when she was supposed to be rehearsing. She is poor, knows the poet (and nurses him back from sickness) because they lived "in opposite rat holes." She paints with Dutch Boy until she runs out, then works with any material at hand. She cannot stop making things. As the poem ends, we learn that her mother is still alive--"she's 200 or so"--and trots out the early recital program. She "doesn't know that you've been an instrument / For 50 years, a violin of lines and form, / She doesn't give a goddamn that you will go on always, / Covering canvas after canvas with exquisite women / Alone in powerful, warm rooms."
American poetry, like American culture, so often sets art up against the practical world. "I've got a fight going," a student said to me just yesterday, "between my passions and more practical matters." Less frequently do poets set one art form up against another as a way to explore family conflict, artistic ambivalence. But the woman who becomes the art instrument her mother does not recognize is, in its own way, just as powerful a conceit for the situation of art. Forced to choose between sound and image, this woman ends up destitute in a cold studio, unloved by her sole family member. The poet, who chooses both, knows the anguish of losing one to the other. There's an allegory here that cannot be neatly unpacked; this makes the poem more powerful than it would have been had he chosen one or the other vehicle. But it's about making choices and suffering through the redemption they offer us.
If I needed to categorize Hindley's poetry, I'd put it in the box on which is scrawled "post-Romanticism." Emerson lives in these poems, but he's lost his arms and legs. Thoreau is stationed at an outpost in Hindley's mind, but he's steeped in violence, not peaceful resistance. Dickinson is present, a solitary maker in a cold room with an unsympathetic family, but her transcendent language has been put down for boards and planks and fishing poles and Winchesters. There is desire for heroism, but recognition that heroism isn't what it used to be. In "Water Born," written for his brother, Hindley recounts a near death experience diving in sea, when he thought his brother was drowning. At the last minute, Norman releases himself into the current (becomes an instrument of it) and his brother, too, emerges alive, his catch intact. "We headed back, / Renewed, heroic, or as close as we'd ever get." So much in that or (rhymes with "oar"). Renewal is not heroism, though it is survival. These are the poems of a survivor who knows a kind of heroism that cannot be bruited about. It must remain stoic, because it covers over so many silences: abuse, violence, anti-social desire. The poems, in their honesty, give us access to heroism, even as we recoil from the gunshots.
While most of the poems are set in the New England of the poet's difficult youth, there are Hawai`i poems, poems about fishing, about the natural (if not friendly) world. Hindley lived for many decades on Moloka'i and O'ahu, came slowly--as do many Euro-American poets--to write about it. I hope that that there are many more set here in the poems that remain in manuscript . For one of my purposes in writing this is to acknowledge the contribution of this outsider/insider poet to Hawai`i's literature. A tense departmental meeting in the spring featured a colleague's guffaw at the mention of "white poets in Hawai`i," a laugh I will not long forget. (The laugher was white, which is perhaps not a surprise. My anger is not at the speaker but at the symptom.) In response, I can hear a kind of dark laughter from Norman Hindley, who would have understood the deep ambivalences of his position in this vexed tradition.
Diana sent me a link to a reading Norman gave at Punahou a few years ago. I had forgotten his strong New England accent (he was originally from Pawtucket, RI). And, while the poems remind me more of Wright and Bly perhaps, the accent brings into play the inheritance from Frost, for whom the outside world--whether farming or, in Norman's case, hunting and fishing--was an inevitable allegory for the cruelties of the human heart. Here is the YouTube video from 2008. "A Note for Amy" is worth listening to for the taut "t" sounds alone. Beauty's spit / ting image.
Let me copy the poem I mentioned at the outset, the one posted by Joe Tsujimoto on facebook, and lineate it as best I can, using facebook's lineation and my own guess work. I have Chris Hindley's permission to do so.
a song of heaven
behind the orchard
a pathway winds
enchanted as a wand
rising in graceful increments
toward the balm of proclaimed lands
of vigorous grass effect
a well-abounding yellow-green
they preen and ripple
on a threadbare breeze
an inland sea of radiant hay
to the native ear
its compass points
implied by titanic trees
their august leaves
registered on these are
destinations dates e.t.a.'s
of ships of men of rank and names
stark delphic inklings of solar
winds that scorch the seas auroral
vaults in arctic freeze
scribed by prescient sailors
onto trunks limbs stumps
and skins on concentric rings
of transcendent trees
From "hill Mary" on, this poem brings Hindley's keen eye for the world together with a spiritual impulse that seems absent from the 1984 book. "Hill Mary" may not be hailed, but perhaps offers some grace to the aging poet. He still recognizes the orphic, violated, fragments in his own voice, but ends with "transcendent trees" and no punctuation, rather than with an empty March, and a period. From March to Mary, from blood in the water to "a well-abounding yellow-green" is quite a voyage. I look forward to seeing more of how he got there.