- Collected Poems
Lynda Hull's Collected Poems arrives as the first volume in Graywolf's new Poetry Re/View Series, which aims to bring "essential books of contemporary American poetry back into print." It remains to be seen how essential every volume in this series will turn out to be, but Hull's work strikes me as indispensable and alone makes the series a credible venture. In a time when so many books of American poetry, even the much larger collected works of more famous poets, seem disposable, the urgency behind this publication—which rescues Hull's three out-of-print collections into one volume—is a welcome change.
Indeed, it is difficult not to get swept up in the rhetoric of rescue that accompanies this kind of publication. Hull died early, at thirty-nine, in an auto accident, before she could secure the wider reputation her talent deserved; so her editors, friend Mark Doty and husband David Wojahn, do all they can to help secure this reputation for her. The Collected Poems comes packaged with an introduction by Yusef Komunyakaa and an afterword by Wojahn as well as an opening blurb by Doty, who touts Hull as "perhaps the most intensely lyrical poet of her generation." One feels inclined to love amidst so much love; conversely, one feels almost disrespectful to venture any criticisms. As Komunyakaa points out, there's always a mystique about artists who die young, and I would add that there's also a tendency to project their ongoing greatness far into the future, even though brilliant early work by a poet is by no means a guarantee of later achievement.
In Hull's case, the close of her career is particularly impressive, giving fuel to the idea that had she lived she would have written even greater poems than she left behind. Her second collection, Star Ledger (1990), is an unquestionably great book and represents a major leap forward from her first, Ghost Money (1986), [End Page 148] in stylistic assurance, lyrical intensity and narrative breadth. Like her favorite poet and model, Hart Crane, Hull debuts as a poet already largely formed: the major elements in her stylistic arsenal are there. There's a graceful effortlessness to her handling of narrative and image in Ghost Money that Hull easily could have been content with and that many poets spend their whole careers trying to attain. But Star Ledger unveils a new majesty of tone and a darker psychological edge that show the maturing poet working against the ease of her own style. "Love Song During Riot with Many Voices," the first real breakthrough in the collection, features a density of language and image that recalls Crane's intense crowding of the lyrical frame:
The bridge's iron mesh chases pockets of shadow and pale through blinds shuttering the corner window
to mark this man, this woman, the young eclipse their naked bodies make—black, white, white, black, the dying fall of light rendering bare walls
incarnadine, color of flesh and blood occluded
in voices rippling from the radio: Saigon besieged, Hanoi, snipers and the riot news helicoptered from blocks away.
Hull is at her most thrilling when this kind of apocalyptic fire breaks out against the easy elegance of her lines. In "Frugal Repasts," another poem from Star Ledger, she rhapsodizes, "Better this immersion//than to live untouched. I wanted to be the cup & flame,/I wanted to be the cure, the hand that held the river back/that would break us, as in time, we broke each other."
The Only World, Hull's third collection, published posthumously in 1995, lacks the breadth and balance that make Star Ledger such a thoroughgoing delight (which probably has something to do with the fact that Hull herself did not arrange its contents), but it features the most visionary passages in all her body of work. Hull's masterpiece, "Suite for Emily," a long, seven-part elegy for a friend and fellow heroin addict who died of AIDS, centers the book and provides Hull's most complex meditations on the delirium and devastation of...