Jacob A. Bennett on The Us

A Verse to Self: Joan Houlihan’s The Us

a review by Jacob A. Bennett

The first stanza in the first poem of Joan Houlihan's poem sequence, The Us, tells us, the readers, that we are listening to a voice from outside of time:

Us nest fine a weather long
between the heat of kin
the least of us in huts built round with stones.
A sky-hole takes the cook-smoke through

The speaker records, or recounts, the history of their tribe, one that is at once strange according to the norms of modern society and yet familiar as representative of humanity's not-so-distant past. It is useful to note the use of literal, “primitive” descriptors and hyphenates, rendered by Houlihan into lines of iambs. It is as though a pre-verbal society has come alive in one member's acquired language, speaking the elementalism, struggle and brutality of the hunter-gatherer's nomadic lifestyle. Take, for example, these lines from the poem “Morning, and as sun is born”:

Ours stick sharp for the kill
lifted high, in and in, and from hims throat
a groan went, leg bent,
knelt, then all of him were loosed and spread
in large and steaming breath,
ours stick-holes streaming red.

The peculiar phrasing of this passage is indicative and calls to mind the multi-lingual, mash-up pidgin of Cathy Park Hong's Dance Dance Revolution:

. . . but crowd dim boo me, t'row rocks a'me
rocks intended fo plis boi patois, balfastards,
t'rown a'me!

as well as the speech patterns of the clan of orphaned children in “Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome”:

Still in all, every night we does the tell, so that we 'member who we was and where we came from . . . but most of all we 'members the man that finded us, him that came the salvage.

Houlihan's scrambled English falls somewhere between these two examples; instead of a post-apocalyptic lingo, though, hers is a linguistic exercise in redefining or exploring the subjective vantage of her speaker. The choice of the poet to employ the objective personal pronoun — “us” — instead of the subjective — “we” — is the first of many (mis)appropriations that may sound funny to ears accustomed to standard English, but which signal a significant, deliberate shift away from contemporary idiom. The “I” of so many confessional poems is instead represented as “ay,” the self's capitalized, almost iconic name for itself reduced to mere phonological utterance.

Actually, “ay” (capitalized only to begin a sentence, as with all other proper nouns in the book) is the name of the speaker, who, explains a table at the front of the book called “Kith & Kin” (resembling a play's list of characters), is “son of father,” who in turn is “leader of the us.” By Houlihan's own account, the sequence “dramatizes the coming to self-consciousness of an individual in the group.” Indeed, the first reference to “ay” occurs when the speaker turns back to aid his pregnant mother, “the g'wen,” who mourns father's death and whom the us leave behind in search of a new camp:

In days hers step not strong
made her slow and drag.
The us kept on. Ay went back.

In addition to pinpointing the emergence of an individual consciousness, this poem also introduces, however flatly, the filial, emotional connection between ay and g'wen:

Ay am hers son
and would not leave her colding.

As a result of his devotion to immediate family, ay separates himself from the group and eventually finds himself caring for his infant brother, “brae,” after the death of g'wen. Alone, with a small, hungry child in tow, ay wanders into a strange camp in search of food, only to be yoked and imprisoned by the “thems,” a “group of advanced people who would enslave the us:”

Ay stand in thems town with no want
to go and nowhere are mine kin.
Brae, you are taken for care
and ay belong to thems.

As the first-born son of the father, and as one exposed to the speech and writing of the thems during his captivity (one supposes), the task of telling the story of the group falls to ay. There are questions about how this is possible, as ay spends much of the span of the narrative separated from the larger group, and eventually suffers a wound that renders him mute and paralyzed. The story continues, though, describing the us even when separated from the speaker and even after his injury. Houlihan incorporates aspects of the epic tradition into her book, including a long voyage and a lost hero; it is not a far stretch to assume that the author intends the arc to read as an oral history put to paper. Some hypotheses for the structure: “she,” who is “one of the thems” and who nurses brae during infancy, may be the one who put the story down in written language; or the poems may be the result of multi-generational accretion, repeated over and over until the advent of writing; or perhaps the story does not represent speech or writing at all, but the thoughts of ay inside his head.

Whatever the answer, it becomes less and less clear who is actually passing on this story. This lack of clarity, and the narrational inconsistencies of a tale told alternately in first person plural and singular, ostensibly pulled from the mind of a man gone speechless and mostly immobile, are likely intentional — recall that this is a dramatized process of burgeoning self-consciousness, with all the attendant stumbles that entails. It seems likely, furthermore, that ay's experience stands in for a growing self-consciousness among the us. A relatively minor character, “the sen” is responsible for reading omens and serving as a spiritual guide; despite her lack of presence in most poems, she plays a large part in determining the fate of the us, and in framing ay's legacy:

Sen's scatter-sticks and wobble-stones
gave command to go by boat
and find by water, home.

Late in the book, after ay has lost his speech, his slightest movements take on outsize importance:

And from every show ay made, the us
took a telling —
how mine finger moved to point a snow,
how mine eye blinked rain.
Rubbed and blowed on, covered
with a cloth, and sen made a small of me
from clay, stuck it on a branch to dry.
. . .
And ay heard them whisper mine power
as ay lay in swaddle, alive, unable.

Before coming to a close, let us consider some of the extra-poetic keys Houlihan includes with her poems, somewhat after the fashion of an anthropologist's notes for the layperson. In addition to the “Kith & Kin” table, there are also an “Argument” summarizing the action of the sequence; titles for the five sections of the book (along the lines of: “Wherein the us are portrayed in everyday life”); images on the cover reminiscent of cave paintings; and occasional expository notes in the margins.

Whatever one thinks of the presence of footnotes in poems — imagine a 20th Century survey course in which undergraduates do not hotly debate Eliot's extensive use of such citation in The Waste Land, or Pound's in his Cantos — the notes in this case are not so extensive as to overburden the reader or overshadow the lines themselves. On the other hand, neither do they serve the poems by elucidating abstruse historical information, say, or anything else necessary to full comprehension of the work. As such, these extra-textual devices necessarily raise the question: why not make the action and relationships clearer in the lines of the poems themselves?

Twisting syntax and the abusing grammar are a poet's prerogative, but these techniques are also always a game of roulette: the lines may clunk through such contrivance, or the wonder of novelty fade. Time will tell which fate awaits Houlihan's inventive exploration of subjective consciousness, whether its innovation will cease beguiling — but repeated readings of The Us prove at least the former concern irrelevant. This is a sequence at once playful in its coinage and raw in its imagery, but one that is ultimately graceful and pleasing in its rhythms, imperfections and all.

Jacob A. Bennett earned his BA at Wesleyan University and his MFA at Goddard College. He currently teaches composition at Hudson County Community College in Jersey City, and works as an ESL Specialist Tutor at the New School's University Writing Center in Manhattan.

in this article

The Us
by Joan Houlihan
Softcover, $16.95
Tupelo Press