Christine Hume’s Musca Domestica, winner of the 1999 Barnard New Women Poets Prize, is an intricately made and richly decorated book, well researched, well documented, and surreal. Tessa Rumsey’s Assembling the Shepherd, selected last year for the University of Georgia Press Contemporary Poetry Series (they publish one first book of poetry each year), is also a multi-layered, carefully worked book. Both poets write allusive and ambiguous poems, the kind often referred to as "postmodern." They reorder reliable and unreliable information using a variety of poetic tools to provide readers with contemporary interactive poetry. By reading, interpreting, and experiencing these written objects, readers discover allusions–reveal these poets–and complete their fascinating, pleasurable work.
On the surface, Rumsey and Hume and their poems share ideals, practices, and images. They both develop decorative styles after modernism: "above our big rig // the baroque sky" (Rumsey), "The locomotive’s baroque locutions" (Rumsey), "this place, / more baroque by the hour" (Hume). They both create figures using artifacts of the industrial revolution, such as the trains in de Chirico’s paintings and flattened coins: "I lay a nickel face-up on tracks" (Rumsey), "you defaced pennies on the rails" (Hume). Hume quotes Marinetti, impresario of Futurism, in the epigraph of "Interview" ("This is a beautiful world, it means what I say"), and Rumsey paraphrases him at length in "Man-Torpedo-Boat." They both compare technology to poetics, and both use analogy to dislocate objects and alter their traditional function. While Rumsey embraces machine-like nonce forms, repeating and varying nouns, phrases, and sentences within poems and from poem to poem (for instance, a sunflower is a satellite dish, then the "eye" of a gun), Hume tightly links her poems so that they echo each other, repeating nouns or larger images poem-to-poem to develop or comment on them. Whereas Rumsey uses sickness, evolution, and a popular commercial in "The War," Hume’s poem "Sick" follows her meditation on virus, illness, and evolution in "Ladder." The medicine bottle in "Sick" becomes the bottle in Steve McCaffrey’s well-known Wittgenstein explication, quoted in Hume’s notes, which features a fly: "If the aim of philosophy is, as Wittgenstein claims, to show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle, then the aim of poetry is to convince the bottle that there is no fly."
Like many recent first books, Musca Domestica and Assembling the Shepherd invoke Ludwig Wittgenstein, the philosopher of language, and Walter Benjamin, the cultural critic. Hume and Rumsey are philosophical poets who are also very much writers of this place and time: like many other well published and educated young poets now, they have found it necessary to reach philosophical decisions regarding narrative and narrator, voice and text. Hume appropriately chose the common housefly (musca domestica in Latin) as governing motif. The fly, with its complex eye, centers the poems outside fragmentation, offering a sophisticated approach to multiple points of view. The writer is a spider writing in "spidery script." Hume uses italics to spin a web of carefully selected and unobtrusively noted quotes and her own writing, which has various tones. While surrealists used found text to explore automatism and psychology, Hume reduces the five page OED definition of fly to a meditation on the line and line break in lyric free verse that opens and structures her book, "True and Obscure Definitions of Fly, Domestic and Otherwise." (Yes, there is a flyleaf poem.) She returns to the fly list with "Mimicry," approximately halfway through the book, to turn from sense information to recognition as poem inspiration. The fly that unifies her poetry’s content is food to the writer. She ends the book with: "If you cannot say it, / how else will you know that you see? / Even flies come to the eyeball for food."
Assembling the Shepherd joins an array of relatively new books by female poets combining formal experimentation with religious subject matter, including Brenda Hillman’s Loose Sugar, Kathleen Peirce’s The Oval Hour, and ’Annah Sobelman’s The Tulip Sacrament. Rumsey assembles quotes and voices into a shepherd, sometimes with a flock of one, the writer, sometimes with flocks of peacocks, parrots, and birds as symbols of spirit. Post- romantically, she recasts the relationship in her poems to compare a relationship to God with a failed affair. In "The Conference of Birds, or Adornment," which jumbles quote and truism, a Fermat paraphrase and her own voices, Rumsey provides God’s garbled instructions and recalls Chaucer’s love vision, "Parliament of Fowls," together with the Sufi journey text, "The Conference of the Birds." Rumsey looks for messages rather than signs; she avoids the Proustian operation of memory and religious belief. "Who are you / inside the music of another’s suffering?" and "Where are the messengers?" she asks. She seeks to practice diagesis to create a "planet on the table" narrating "the case" at the limit of language: religious truth. Rumsey raises the decorum of her writing from experience ("after the gun was held to my head") through religion. Her deserts of recent wars, Morocco, and the Mojave ("Nothing points to the Imperishable Star transfixing the Luxor in Las Vegas") become the deserts of the mystics. Her several cities become the ideal city: "The disassembled walls of the rising / metropolis are the end of this century." Time, turn of year, century, and millennium, artificially divided and ritually divided time as well as "end time" are among Rumsey’s recurring subjects.
Throughout Assembling the Shepherd, technology (and imaginary technology) in poetry and modern life renders memory and experience surreal. Rumsey divides many of her poems into series of three poems, where each part of the trinity has the same or similar title and manipulates similar words or events. Repetition and variation of sentences, internal rhyme, and iambic meter mimic memory’s action but can’t convert language into a mnemonic device such as the "mnemonoscope," a word coined by a friend of Rumsey’s, Edward Schindler, for an installation called "Arc Projection and Mnemonoscope III." This installation is the source of the titles of the book’s last three poems. Some details in these poems refer to the installation; the idea of building tools to examine memory and self permeates the book. The journey is away from description toward an unknown case. The "Mnemonoscope" poems, and the book, end:
An alien thing landed on our shore, making us mute,
making us more.
Endless and afraid: arc projection between the barn and
Connecting "my snow mnemonic field" with "your blue
Butterfly fold unfurling to infinity–Go on your strange
Rise up out of the old beast, launching arrows into the
In Musca Domestica, Hume’s lexicographer’s lyricism complements her multivalent meditation on information and form. The book’s name classifies the work as domestic surrealism; she engages the act of naming. In "The Mistaken," she combines Prometheus’s punishment, a circus, Noah’s ark, and Adam: "when all the Latin names come to them, / when they blame the standing animals / and secure them to rocks." Hume has an unusual poetic "ear" which is not as melodious as Rumsey’s, although it is playful, as in "A Million Futures of Late":
I’ll have my lapses into slapsticks
of accent and stutter, girl and mother.
Today flies will spin crowns of woozy cartoon stars for
I’ll roll my eyes back thinking;
I’ll be the picture of flightiness today.
Assumptions will spill from my ears–
a brain storming out in furious herds;
all summer my brain will be a pasture
of tall, hissing grass, a sibilance intent on rising to
The book is rich in puns, such as this one on phoneme in "Various Readings of an Illegible Postcard": "honey / or homey or phone me, money?" Hume employs surrealist maneuvers other than finding, such as sounding out (also popular on Sesame Street): "I was trying to learn the language of languishing / Put your ear to it" and writing out (also a common writing-workshop recommendation): "You follow the sky’s lines in your hand // Paper draws the water out of your skin as you scrawl." With these techniques, Hume writes about reality, not dream–about experience, not thought. She transforms the methodical disarray of sense information into the methodical disarray of information in the Information Age. In "The Hummed Space between Marooned and Migration," she writes, "I swallow information the way I do not understand." She reorders news, trivia, and quotes with accomplishment.
In the center of Musca Domestica, in homage to Emily Dickinson, is a variorum: six poems in triplets with variants printed at the foot of the page. The variants themselves are part of the poems. "Foghorns," an ekphrastic poem in this section, shares a title with a painting by Arthur Dove. "291" in the poem alludes to Steiglitz’s 291 Gallery; this allusion was not "revised." The poem has parentheses around certain words in addition to the bracketed variants below the poem, so that the reader may read the lines many times, with and without the parenthetical words as well as with and without the variants. One of the best and most apropos revisions is the addition of the word "Revolving" at the fulcrum of the poem "Evolving Laws"; another of Hume’s recurring motifs is rotation, first appearing in "Helicopter on a Wrecked Hill," where the machine’s "sophisticated blades" "divide our view into slices / while wheeling it all together / with addition and multiplication crosses, / carrying all we believe." The centerpiece of this revolution and involution is the poem "Ladder," which layers the double helix with virus shapes. It is a magnificent poem, moving through the inevitability of evolution to domestic surrealism’s result: "You forge a road to your house in your eyes. That is, you try / to remember what became you." Hume’s allusive echoes turn into a continued consideration of trope (from the Greek tropos, meaning both "turn" and "figure of speech"), which adds another layer to the poems. "Idea for an Echo" and "Echolocation," as well as other divided poems in the collection, can be understood as unrhymed echo verse, where a two-part image or rhetorical shape forms a "question" and "comment."
Decorative language combined with contemporary slang and references to other literary and philosophical works challenge, but together they offer opportunities for readers to enjoy the traditional pleasures of reading poetry: music, meaning, and memory. Although there is grammatical ambiguity in these poems, variation and other games allow readers to have their way with words. But most important to the interactive poetry of Hume and Rumsey, their poetic language requires engaged reading and rewards it. Rumsey’s world of jumbled sound bites and art contains luminous fragments of truth and beauty, but which ones are which? Rumsey assembles them beyond language, and so must the reader. Hume’s sophisticated pen turns reading into re-wording. She creates not only poetry about making poetry, but poetry that allows her audience to participate in its naming, that invites readers into her world.