Monday, July 25, 2011

Good Report on David Hickey's Open Air Bindery

Available online here.

I'm always interested to see particular images recurring in a poet's work. Not in a signature, grand thematic flourish, like with Yeats's gyres, but in subtle, leitmotif fashion, in ways that the author may not even be conscious of. In a novel such repeatedly struck notes are easier to spot, and usually they appear for a more obvious purpose - often, for example, being used as shorthand to represent a character's habit of mind. But in a collection of poems, especially of the contemporary, confessional lyric sort, one can't help feeling a bit like a Freudian analyst, taking notes on a symbolism that the poet chatters at his fingertips.

I don't want to throw David Hickey on the couch, and in any event his new book, Open Air Bindery, doesn't have a hidden agenda. The title itself alerts us to what will be the dominant pattern of imagery: one associated with inner and outer states, the open and the bound. The first poem, "Open Voyage," is one of the most inviting introductions to a book of poetry you'll read and immediately establishes the ruling conceit of systole and diastole, with a painting of a boat on the Nile magically expanding outward - "the figure living within its framed wooden borders" pushing herself beyond the picture frame and cruising around the poet's room - and then receding inward ("her small ship gliding into the painting's / canvas, into its beginnings").

We might flag those two words "living within." The next poem sets before us another picture, an x-ray, which reveals the author's inner being or "essential self" nestled within "the wetsuit of my body." The poem after that, "The Garden Shed," begins with the poet asking of the title structure "Could I live in this / thing?" But while both of these poems evoke the notion of containment, neither expresses feelings of confinement. Indeed quite the opposite; the effect is expansive. Every work of art is concerned with getting things in - not just employing techniques and devices, but putting the universal in the particular, somehow containing life itself. There is the canvas, the unexposed film, the blank, white page. Now: how do I live, put life, in this thing?

And so all art is a sort of life within, one that, like the boat on the Nile, takes on a life of its own. The concluding series of poems, "Snowflake Photography," plays with the question of what the world looks like inside of a snowflake: a "short lifetime / framed in a frozen / ecology." Within that single crystalline particular may in fact reside a world, "the universe's tidy / store of time tucked inside":

it's without
pictures or words; just pages

and pages of white,
which is what the world

looks like where
you're sitting: pages

pages and pages of white,
the work of some careful

pressman minding
his craft

as he lays
out the fields below.

This Unwritten Book of Snowflakes is a fascinating meditation on art. Of course it is written, snowflakes are something made, but like the book of moonlight (subject of another poem), whose pressman also works in "an open air bindery," the life within has no fixed meaning and no frame. No two editions of it are alike.

All of this could get to be a bit metaphysical if it weren't grounded in Hickey's grasp of the particular, the feel of kitchen tiles under bare feet and the familiar squeak of floorboards. Expanding that notion of domestic ground just a bit one might even see in the leitmotif I've been focusing on an island aesthetic. Hickey is a native of Prince Edward Island, and when he writes about how "blue edges a map of land" he we see him imagining another fluid frame around a life within. Those blue edges are like the incongruously watery shores of suburbia in another poem, or even the "rivered grain" and "wooden channels" of a tabletop that the poet's books seem to float upon. This is the poetry of endlessly rocking tides: lapping up the land, and then retreating to borderless geographies.

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