Saturday, September 12, 2009
The Us, by Joan Houlihan
Tupelo Press. $16.95
Review by Kirk Etherton
Writing in the September, 2006 issue of “Poetry,” John Barr declared that “...American poetry is ready for something new because our poets have been writing in the same way for a long time now...the art form is no longer equal to the reality surrounding it.” He goes on to point out the lack of modern poetry in any number of important areas, from high school classrooms to the mainstream media. Barr points to careerism—poets writing primarily in order to impress other poets, and not necessarily anyone else—as one of the main problems.
Joan Houlihan’s new book The Us is truly Something New, in all the best ways: it is completely original, thought-provoking, timeless, and written in a way such that any intelligent reader—from the pre-undergraduate to the most jaded professional poet—will quickly be captivated and intrigued.
The Us is a novel-like sequence of poems spoken in a collective voice. “Us” is identified at the outset as a “group of primitive people who speak as one.” Us is comprised of six individuals, including “father” (leader of the us), “ay” (oldest son of father), “brae” (the second son) and “g’wen” (the wife and mother). What follows is a description of everyday life, travels, pivotal events, successes and setbacks faced by this tribe of hunter-gatherers as they make their way in the world—a world which includes a stronger, more advanced group (“Thems”), with whom they can exist only as slaves.
Houlihan has achieved something remarkable in the way the Us speak to us: you may feel as though you’ve stumbled across something written thousands of years ago in an unknown language—something almost pre-literate you can, for some reason, understand without difficulty. The writing manages to be simultaneously primitive and poetic. (The last place I encountered language this unexpected was in the beginning of The Sound and the Fury. )
In a time when many poets choose to write in a manner that is either gratuitously self-involved or densely overwrought to the point of near opacity, Houlihan comes as a hurricane of fresh air, followed by the calm after the storm. By stripping away all that is pretentious, predictable or simply unnecessary, this poet has opened the way for all sorts of essential human predicaments to be spoken of in a radically simple and memorable way. Here, the poem “Had labor and more,” describes the experience of ay (the oldest son) as a slave of thems:
Had labor and more: gnarl and beard, close to the sun and shiver.
Had dirt and hole, hand-hurt and plow, cut, bend and dig.
Had days and no end.
Had kneel. Had burn. Had sore and stings and many.
Had keep of the tongue, no kin.
Had stone-mouth, suffer and weather.
Had ay, and ay alone.
One of the great things about The Us is how it opens the way for reflection and discussion on any number of topics—from language and ritual to violence, empathy, grief, human rights and cultural differences. This collection of poems belongs in high school and college classrooms, book groups, and on the shelf alongside the works of Noam Chomsky, Seamus Heaney, Bruce Chatwin, Paul Theroux and Margaret Mead (among others).