The Age of Huts
by Ron Silliman
University of California Press, $21.95 (paper)
Like many of America’s most influential poetic works—Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, William Carlos Williams’s Kora In Hell, and John Ashbery’s Three Poems, to name a few—Ron Silliman’s The Age of Huts does not delimit, define, or otherwise provide an easy context for our relationship with language, logic, and the world. Instead the writing makes us acutely aware of how the three influence one another: “A hill with two peaks, or two hills. If . . . language alters one’s perception, and . . . depending on which perception one ‘chooses,’ one acts differently, becomes used to different paths, thinks of certain people as neighbors and others not, and that such acts collectively will alter the hill . . . is not the landscape itself a consequence of language?” Silliman’s sentences reinforce the idea that good poems begin when we have finished reading them, but also that the language of the poem, when divorced from conventional referentiality (associated with capitalist culture), sensitizes the reader to the making of meaning in the absence of the signified: “Do and made are not voices. The language is never genuine choices.” Just as one might adopt an accent after months in a foreign region, one’s ability to generate cohesive sentences without effort is challenged by reading this work. Among the book’s distinctive features is the practice of recycling lines with slight modifications, and these in-text allusions (e.g., “The wax of Mexico is dimly made” and “Wax matches made in Mexico” ten pages later) begin to kindle our expectations the way a narrative might. But in lieu of conventional narrative structure, The Age of Huts is composed of texts attentive to syntactic patterns, sentence- and paragraph-length, unlikely music, and rhizomatic progression. In Silliman’s hands, language—so often manipulated for political coercion and economic gain—is restored to its most mechanical, primal functions, upending our ideas of the poem and of the sentence, and reawakening us to what it is we’re doing when we’re reading, writing, thinking.