Amorak Huey’s Ars Poetica Disguised as a Love Poem Disguised as a Commemoration of the 166th Anniversary of the Rescue of the Donner Party
Amorak Huey’s poem in the first issue of TahomaLiterary Review is a masterful example of how to create a poem that creates an echo of itself in the mind. I think I recently read somewhere that poems teach us how to read poetry and this poem does an extraordinary job of teaching us how to read and to read variously. The poem also teaches us about the multiplicity of ourselves.
The poem, in the form of couplets, begins with a declarative sentence that feels axiomatic: “This is life: a series of difficult choices ending in death.” Here we have no persona yet, no character involved in an action. The second line creates a plea but still in command form: “Along the way, try not to judge too harshly.” The command form continues into the next stanza and with the title in mind, the reader starts to pause and reread the lines washed through the various disguises from the title. Each line then is creating three separate accounts of itself. “Share what you have, but not all of it.”
So far, each sentence has had no line breaks and no figurative language. What is remarkable, however, is that each sentence takes on the weight and scope of the three possibilities created in the title: the experience of making a poem, of making love, and of making the choices of each individual in the Donner party. The second line of the second stanza reads, “Also, avoid shortcuts during winter months, or late fall” and this axiomatic language continues, this how-to language that could seem trite but for that title. The sentence continues into the third stanza: “lest your own late fall yield a new way of tasting the world—“ and here we have an utterly devastating line encompassing beauty, ugliness, and brute survival as each layer creates a different flavor in the mouth of the reader.
The second line of the third stanza continues the previous thought: “limb and root, outcome and inspiration—“ and here we the sensuous details of limb and root with the word “limb” creating various images in our minds: the limb of a tree, the limb of a lover, the limb of a dead body in the snow. Limb also carrying the word and work of being in limbo at this point in the poem.
The fourth stanza: “the height of the stumps reveals the depth of the snow” again that logical language full of various possibilities of disquieting interpretation. The second line, “as the brightness now is equal to the blindness later.” How our changing perception through time and experience blots out the intensity of the moment. I love how the echoing b sounds in brightness and blindness creates an intimacy between the words. The sentence continues into the fifth stanza: “as today will be rewritten tomorrow.” Such poignancy when experienced through the title. How memory works on us and we work on it to create a narrative that is never true to the situation as it occurred, in creating a poem, in creating a lover, in creating and recreating the monster inside us as we made/make the choice to eat or not. Huey ends that stanza with the line, “Its why we must keep moving.” And here we have the use of the word “we” for the first time and our involvement in all these possible actions deepens.
The poems shifts perspective in the sixth stanza or gains a perspective. We become placed, grounded with the simple first word of the line, “Somewhere.” Here is the entire stanza:
Somewhere in the middle distance, an ocean
rises like a great column of light,
I wondered why the choice of the word “middle” here, in the middle of the line. I think this is important for perspective, sort of a groping around for familiarity or security. And also, I like how the m sound echoes the m sounds in the previous line of the words must and moving. And of course you have the echo of the word “muddle” included in the word. In this stanza we have so many visual images as well that adds to the grounding of ourselves, of where we actually are. The light is different here as well, did you notice? The blue bright light of the ocean versus the white blinding of the snow earlier in the poem. Color now, albeit subtle and unspoken, but here.
The seventh stanza:
beckons like the salt and sweat of a first kiss.
This is why we carry on so. Knowing hunger
I just have to pause here and revel in how that line breaks after those two works, “knowing hunger.” That is an impeccable line break and teaches us what a line break can do, with such simple language. We all know hunger of various kinds and coupled with that sweaty and salty first kiss from the line above, we discover what the metaphoric possibilities of those kisses might be: the kiss of a successful poem, the first kiss of the lover, and the first kiss of a body entering ours we never thought to taste. How that line break makes us linger for a second and feel the hunger after that kiss. Isn’t there always a hunger after a kiss?
The poem takes a turn in the eighth stanza. Having known hunger “is but the first test. Like this. Only faster.” How can this be? What this is Huey creating? This moment. We are all involved here in this moment, sharing it but it moves and the poem spins. Notice that all the words here are single syllabic words, simple words moving us forward and quickening the action. How single moments can spin us dizzy us.
The poem continues:
The season turns. The wind’s slow sway
the frostbite and flame, the infection creeping—
I thought myself too tired to go on.
Here we have an actor a someone having the immediate sensation of experiencing all of these situations at once. Our sympathy, our empathy is heightened now having moved slowly with the speaker to this point this exhaustion of possibilities of exploration. How the I creates meaning.
But the poem continues:
Then you appeared, as if from California
or heaven, and held out your hand.
My ghost bones stirred.
I let you in. You carried me out.
I love how the mythos of California and the Donner Party all convenes in that line and then deepens with the mention of heaven. And that last line, such simplistic language, such simplistic action and we enter into a relationship with language, with each other, and with the experience of salvation.
This is a poem about how a poem after that first reading continues to create waves of memory, of emotion, and of empathy. How someone you meet can utterly shatter you. How a situation and the choices we make constantly creates a different person from who we thought we were at the outset. Through the layers and disguises we meet ourselves many times over, and each time we are changed.