Reviewed by Luke Stark
Phil Hall; introduction by rob mclennan
Guthrie Clothing: The Poetry of Phil Hall, a Selected Collage. Laurier Poetry Series, 2015.
Guthrie Clothing: The Poetry of Phil, Hall, a Selected Collage is a mouthful, a purposefully broken maw that says something important about poetry. Hall’s large body of writing has been remixed here into a collection that serves, as rob mclennan’s introduction suggests, almost as one long “essay-poem” of moments and fragments culled from across Hall’s forty-year career. Many of the images and themes that appear in this bricolage concern the body, broadly conceived: the flanks of rural Ontario landscape, “up close outcrops do-down pink” layered up against “unclaimed swamps / a broken throttled smock blue” (24); the body of a poem, “a monstrosity like a fire in the hand” (35); and our own bodies, at every point precarious. In and of those bodies, mclennan identifies a “distinct humanism,” an “unabashed sincerity” in Hall’s writing (xv). Hall’s humanism is in a register that emerges out of the body’s flesh: “holy” as “a flower / no I mean one who / unplucked / flows” (41). Hall’s is a visceral humanism, drawing vitality from the efflorescence of bodies he, and we, encounter in our myriad pleasures and pains.
To me, Hall’s work stands as part of a broader poetics of the last quarter-century—at least in the Americas—that gravitates toward what the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño calls “infrarrealismo,” or a “visceral realism.” Hall, like Bolaño, is compelled to a rich originality of imagery and lyrics that cuts across his lived experience, collected and thus united through Guthrie Clothing’s attention to the insistent frailty of meat and bone. “Words have smells / they hit home” (41), Hall declares in one particularly gripping instance: the “home” here is a sense of oneself defined by the poet’s transformation of the violent accretions of sensory experience into words.
Hall’s writing speaks to an alieness produced in the flesh, the poet’s own flesh, “born joined at the head with myself / monstre sacré” (17). For Hall, the exposure of his own pain as language seems necessary, even exculpatory in allowing him to delimit self and agency. There are good reasons for this self-estrangement: Hall’s literary persona is candid regarding childhood abuse at the hands of an older male – “the paedophile / my brother” (3). That abuse is both trauma and tragic liberation:
I wouldn't want to be literary here
but I wasn't awake in my life
not aware of myself as existing
my first me is this breach
the conviction that I am dirty
Here is the crux of Hall’s “visceral” humanism: a sensibility that seeks to turn this pain against itself, a “shame honed to defiant beauty,” turned into poetry with a guttural, palpable heft. “We had to tell,” Hall says, “our lettered halves long sunk deep into the red cork of the page” (43). This poetry takes the gory veracity of human suffering and uses it as evidence of an emergence: “the idea dies / then the animal inside the idea / crawls out & clings” (25). Hall hardly applauds suffering, but he does acknowledge it: “I have lived in my body like a drifter,” he writes, a figure suffering, “on fire” (49). Pain is part of the geography of the human landscape, a segment that must be traversed as certainly as the Pre-Cambrian rock exposures of Hall’s native Ontario.
In the book’s afterward, the essay-poem “To See It All and Not Be Weary,” Hall explicitly positions his work as “counter to irony / Against the merely weird / opposite to fake feeling / Creatured” (58). In doing so, Hall finds a common cause with other poets in the visceral mode: a need to reject the knowingness of fashion, to work instead on “choking on / & coughing up” (59) the “owl pellet of self” (58), that examination of the “blood orange / thrown half-eaten to the gravel from a car ages away now” (24). Hall has much in common with the cascading evocations of sensation deployed by the hip-hop inflected work of contemporary American “BreakBeat poets,” or, as mclennan observes, by the original Beats. Hall’s lived experience, and the lyricism he draws from it, seeks to gain a kind of universal underdog resonance, a communion of the body in “wet turmoil pidgin’d & the fresh refrain-smell of sawdust” (48) which might recognize the shared quality of another’s pain and expulsion. Hall does not always succeed – at points his sincerity lapses into didacticism – but the power of his bricolage is to sweep these moments along.
By his own account “lonely as erosion-dirt / teeming-common” (67), Hall is in fact in good company. Implicitly a rebuke against contemporary trends in “conceptual poetry” and “uncreative writing” that make a virtue of ironic performance over lyric content, Hall’s work can be positioned alongside poets working with more explicitly political themes to resist “the instant absorption of strangeness into the Norm” (65). Phil Hall’s poetry is a reminder that to be Ontarian can also mean to be radical: this volume should bring the visceral realism, and humanism, of Hall to a deservedly wider audience.
Luke Stark was born and raised in Toronto, and has written for publications including The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, and The LA Review of Books. He holds a doctorate in Media, Culture, and Communication from New York University, and is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at Dartmouth College. He tweets @luke_stark, blogs at http://starkcontrast.co, and lives in Norwich, Vermont.
Click here to return to the current issue