An Exhilarant Attentiveness (2)
By Cynthia Hogue.
In the violent first decade of the 21st century, I cannot stop considering ways a complex,
artistic mind approaches the phenomenon of violence. I’ve brought this obsession to class and
workshop discussions of poets like Dickinson and Stevens, for example, poets who aren’t the
first to come to mind when we examine poetic responses to a violent world. I have been thinking
that the abuse of worldly power poisons a nation’s soul. Are we poisoned? I remember the Old
Norse cognate gift, which means poison: the etymological roots of gift as dual and
self-contradictory as that of poison and potion. The one kills and the other, made up of a bit of
the poison itself, heals. If we are poisoned, then poems—with their precise and care-full
attentiveness to how words are circulated, used and misused, in the world—are part of our
purification system. They distill out the impurities through what H.D. thought of as their
linguistic alchemical process. But a poem is not a lecture. A brash poetic observation, report,
and judgment are occasions to think, to feel, but there are no sides in poetry. And that
exhilarates me. That challenge, even that impossibility, to say something that presses on the
world, that, as Stevens put it in The Necessary Angel, writing during WWII, presses back against
the external violence.
Thus, there is in the poetry I seek a determined indeterminacy that sharpens the poem’s
edges, casts them in relief, illuminating them like the halo of sunlight around wet leaves after
rain. The mindful discovery in a poem produces a laughter not so much of mirth but of heady
exhilaration, with its dark, glad lining. Dickinson revised that Emersonian word, exhilaration,
to contemplate the mind’s various trespasses on Infinity: Sunset’s “Amber Revelation” which will
“Exhilarate – Debase” (J 552). The sudden awareness of the paradoxical gift a poem makes lies
in the oppositions occurring simultaneously, arrestingly, which is the argument of the poem. The
mind of the poem I seek trespasses variously on what can and should be expressed, and I find in
that open-mindedness an attentiveness that exhilarates me. I am hooked if the poet’s all in.
I am thinking about the humane in spiritual terms these days. It is the lack of the humane
that obsesses me in my work at the moment. A poem can powerfully convey a view inflected by
the humane and ethical, not as definitive but as indefinable, thoughtful process. Poetry-as-
consciousness, an approach to the world that questions the pat, official, or orthodox meanings
imposed on horrific violence. Horrors follow unquestioned beliefs, as artists know. I am
become something of a wayward citizen-poet, as Alberto Ríos calls an engaged poet (himself the
best of examples). The poem I seek is in high pressure dialogue with the larger culture, may
address urgent issues of our times in language that opens up rather than shuts out in its all-
attentive amplitude: a poem of time and place that is timeless, and that displaces us out of
ourselves into a more spacious and ample awareness because of its care-full attentiveness. With
exhilaration, I imagine it urgently matters.
Cynthia Hogue has published twelve books, including When the Water Came: Evacuees of Hurricane Katrina (interview-poems with photographs),and the co-translated Fortino Sámano (The overflowing of the poem), by Virginie Lalucq and Jean-Luc Nancy (Omnidawn 2012), winner of the 2013 Harold Morton Landon Translation Award from the Academy of American Poets. Among her honors are fellowships from the NEA, the Fulbright Foundation, and the MacDowell Colony. Her eighth collection of poems is entitled Revenance (2014). She teaches in the MFA program at Arizona State University.