It is hard to separate Lynda Hull from her fraught biography of addiction and her early death. Her praise is never without darkness, her confusion never without an attempt at clarity, her triumphs of clarity never without a subtext of chaos. The complexity of emotion that congregates in Hull’s images is part of the gift she has left to her readers.
In her poem Utsoroi, originally published in her book Star Ledger, and now in her posthumously collected poems edited by her husband David Wojahn, only the definition of the Japanese word of the title, and the statement “I have always loved these moments of delicate transition” is expository; the essence of the poem resides in its images — as life, in this poem, is lived within its moments. In general, images are used in poetry to create mimesis — they provide the detail that serves as evidence of a believable landscape. They are also used to illuminate an inner world where descriptions give way to amplifications seeded in the mind. (Thus, one may see a cloud as the fist of Mars, or as carnival candy, depending on one’s psyche at the moment.) Arguably, the best images are those that deliver a merging of the two — the representational colliding with the expressive.
Beginning with the “soft tattoo” of newsprint on the commuter’s palm, Hull’s unscrupulously detailed images in this poem are mimetic evidence of the surroundings, born on the representational end of the image spectrum. Empirical detail creates the scene: chambermaid in the window, rain laving the lawn chairs. But her images inevitably endeavor toward the expressive with the least amount of strain. The chambermaid’s unspoken wish is given voice, the chairs are arranged to recall a conversation that took place days ago — an image which provides detail in stasis, but is leveraged for its dramatic effect: people and their conversation once lived here, and they are now lost to the ephemera. A mini-plot surfaces.
The speaker says there is “time enough for a life to change and change utterly.” But in fact, nothing happens in the real time of this poem. Instead, it is a lyric moment with images used to dramatic effect, an effect emphasized by the cinematic unfolding of the couplets. The images are quiet and transitory: a face is backlit, a house is borrowed. The words over, over are whispered as the speaker grants us access to the internal dialogue of her novel’s emploted heroine, making visible what is veiled by the external world. The heroine’s words are described as “that sweet rending” — the familiarity of the article, despite this intensely personal, subjective moment, contributes to the tone of inclusion: this scene exists for the reader as well as the speaker.
If there is beauty here, it is in what unfolds. It does not reside in the thing, but the thing as it is altered, as the title suggests — the perfect context for the aim of Hull’s images. Their transcendent quality is a result of the mimetic image that seems to explode with expressionism, as waiters slip out of their jackets, and around them, leaves cast a “fugitive spell.” In one brush stroke, the image deepens to depict something both earthly and holy.
By Lynda Hull
Of course there’s the rose
tranced across sun-warmed tile,
but also the soft tatto
of newsprint along a commuter’s palm,
the flush of a motel sign the instant
it signals No Vacancy. I have always loved
these moments of delicate transition:
walking alone in a borrowed house
to a slim meridian of dawn barring
the pillow before the cool breeze,
a curtain of rain on the iron steps, rain
laving lawn chairs arranged
for a conversation finished days ago.
The Japanese call this utsuroi,
a way of finding beauty at the point
it is altered, so it is not the beauty
of the rose, but its evanescence
which tenders the greater joy.
Beneath my hands the cat’s thick fur
dapples silver, the slant of afternoon.
How briefly they flourish then turn,
exalted litanies in the rifts
between milliseconds, time enough for a life
to change, and change utterly.
The magnesium flash of headlights
passing backlit the boy’s face
in my novel – the heroine’s epiphany
and she knows she is leaving, a canopy
of foliage surrounds his dark hair
whispering over, over – that sweet rending.
Nothing linear to this plot, simply
the kaleidoscopic click and shift
of variations undone on the instant
evening as it vanishes gilds
the chambermaid’s thin blond hair
in her hotel window and she thinks
I could die now and it would be enough.
Long beyond nightfall, after the café’s closing
the waiters slide from their jackets and set
places for themselves, paper lanterns blowing
in the trees, leaf shapes casting and recasting
their fugitive spell over the tables,
over the traffic’s sleek sussurrus.
Reprinted with permission from Star Ledger by Lynda Hull, published by the University of Iowa Press.