Tuesday, May 06, 2003

After seeing a good notice in Boston Review, I picked up a copy of Nick Flynn's Blind Huber over the weekend. (There's also a review in Rain Taxi.) Remarkably enough, I read it all in one sitting, which is pretty unusual for me (my apartment's usually littered with half-read books), which is a testament not only to its length (80 pp.) but to its coherence. It's certainly not uncommon for a poetry book to have a (often gimmicky) theme or ostensible subject, but what this usually means is that there's a scattering of poems here or there that, say, allude to some classical figure, providing a vague scaffolding for the poet to hang whatever poems she or he's written over the past five years on.

But Flynn stays on message. The cover shows the business end of a bee, and famed 18th-century beekeeper Francois Huber is our (blind) guide. Huber gets no fewer than 14 poems to himself, and many of the other poems catalog various roles taken on by bees in the hive, from "Workers (guards)" to "Queen (failed)." It almost wouldn't be a bad textbook for a kid wanting to learn about bees--it has that kind of matter-of-fact clarity and vividness--although the creepy eroticism of the depictions of the queen(s) might give one pause.

This was my first encounter with Flynn's work, and at times the spareness of his lines and his limited verbal palette (and the insistent use of "&") put me in mind of Creeley--the reduction isn't quite as relentless, but there's often the same sense of becoming syntatically disoriented in a very simple sentence through repetition and pressure:

our bodies

powder, our bodies

the vessel & the vessel

I'm particularly struck by the way the division of labor in the hive maps onto the division of human functions we see in Huber; there's an extremely self-conscious and even stilted quality to the way Huber is aware of and articulates each element of an action, from thought to speech to execution:

I sit in a body & think of a body, I picture

Burnens' hands, my words

make them move. I say, *plunge them into the hive,*

& his hands go in. If I said

*put your head inside,*

he would wear it.

At first I thought "Burnens" was a kind of alter ego (a la Berryman) but it turns out he's Huber's assistant (and gets at least two poems of his own); but there's a strange continuity between the two here, as if Burnens were merely an extension of Huber, a prosthesis whose movement requires an intense act of will, of speaking.

Of course, the fact that the book's so relentlessly "about" bees suggests that it's really "about" something else; allegory's always raising its head. The hive metaphor's extended outward to religion and to war, but most viscerally to work and love, which seem to be the bees' two poles of existence. It's interesting, in this respect, that the customer reviewers on Amazon were generally unhappy with this book in comparsion to Flynn's apparently more autobiographical first book (which I haven't read), with its (in one reader's words) "honest personal emotion." This book, they say, is too focused on "language" and on impersonal trivia. My feeling, though, is that allegorical distance--having to ask the question of how the often grotesque details of bee life correspond to a poet we think of as "personal" or "autobiographical"--gives a bigger frisson than anything else could:

Even a daisy,

wretched housefly food, reeking
of rotting flesh--

I would wrap myself in it.

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