by Keith Taylor
Christine Hume, a fairly recent addition to the EMU creative writing faculty and an active member of the local writing community, is one of the leading younger American poets exploring the intersection of various kinds of language. For instance, her first book, a winner of the Barnard New Women Poets Prize, is called Musca Domestica. Yes, that is indeed the scientific name of the common housefly.
And there is a lot we can learn from that alone. This poet is comfortable with the Latin words and all the scientific weight they carry. I suspect she enjoys any possible play on the word "domestic" in there, and I think I can detect a couple of other puns lurking in those two words. In the very first poem she gives us a lengthy series of definitions and dictionary attributions for the word fly: "Do what we can, summer will have its flies"; "He grasps the wand that causes sleep to fly"; "the high arc of a ball that has been struck" and many more. All of these things are fun, but also, by their very diversity, they call into question our understanding of what we might have thought at first was a very simple, mundane word, even a domesticated word.
These considerations make Hume's work sound difficult, and on first look it might seem so. She is constantly pushing and probing at the words we use, putting them in new contexts, applying their scientific or other specialized usages, so that we have to imagine them differently. But if we are willing to follow her flights, we find elaborate and beautiful structures that help us to see things in a new way.
Hume has been called a "poet of the new surrealism," and I suppose she can be read that way, although I think that that designation might encourage readers to take an easy out and not follow her language into the places it can take us. For
instance, in a more recent poem, "Night Sentence," one I found in the on-line chapbook Fata Morgana Alaska, Hume writes these lines, which can be read quite directly and can be quite moving, even as they are a bit funny:
| The window is mine and all the sky within it is mine |
feathery in the corner strikes three times the fox
circulates snow hurried over white fur and I am
almost dreaming about a man in a boat if my teeth stay perfectly still. . . .
Okay, I'm not completely sure what this "means," but put within the context of the title, of being sentenced to the night, things start coming together for me. In a review of another poet, Christine Hume wrote that his poems "accrue resonance by drawing us into dialogue with that which we do not understand." Her own poems often do exactly the same thing.
Christine Hume reads for the U-M's Visiting Writers series at Davidson Hall on Thursday, March 6.
[Originally published in March, 2003.]