Playing the Instrument of Language
Andrew Hughes' Now Lays the Sunshine By
Andrew Hughes' first full-length collection stands as no exception to the unfortunate rule that difficult poetry often proves difficult to write about in polite prose. In one of the book's blurbs, Anselm Berrigan observes that the poems move "through a range of forms designed to hold together a body angling against unflinching troubles," which wonderfully answers the typical question: what is the book about?
Perhaps a good way to creatively twist this question is to ask it of oneself: what is one's life about? Hughes implicitly asks this question throughout Now Lays the Sunshine By, which makes for a poetry that is as empirically dense, complex, and singularly captivating as anyone's autobiography.
Like many contemporary books of poetry, this collection is organized in three discrete sections framed by an epigraph:
A force gathers that will cry loudlier
than the most metal music, loudlier,
like an instinctive incantation.
On the one hand, these brief lines by Wallace Stevens recall the inaugural poem in Hughes' previous collection, Sweethearts of the Great Migration, entitled "Later Days": "Here come the synthesizers. / Distortion pedals engaged." More than one distortion pedal? No doubt a "loudlier" cry.
More to the point, the epigraph sharply anticipates the first poem of Now Lays the Sunshine By, "The New Wave of American Heavy Metal," which appears outside the three major sections. Hughes sets out to deromanticize "honest songwriting": "& what you thought / were dreams // just rags we used / to stop the bleeding." The poem seems "loudlier / than the most metal music," but without question it is "an instinctive incantation." With a Whitmanic flair for wandering and indirection, Hughes manages to compose poems that both incant and incite with the insight of deromanticized honesty, as in the title piece:
come here to me now
everything must go
the one the other will absorb
living corduroy tattle
sorry to be a prick
we fight because we can
my fucking heartsong
If Whitman's "Song of Myself" is optimistically celebratory, then Hughes' "fucking heartsong" not only incants with a self-reflexive grin, but also disenchants with chagrin. And it does so with wit, imagination, and paratactic grace. The implicit central character of the collection is Hughes himself, neither the reluctant postmodern protagonist who sings dystopia, nor the absent-yet-present author of many Language Poetry projects, but rather an intensively feeling and perceiving individual who plays the instrument of language to explore the meaning of what is given in experience. "Morning Span":
asked to leave the amnesia study
a crash of feedback to end the set
after another failed attempt
to jump through the hoop of flames
my heart healthy enough to fuck
May's clear alarm
wet in yr sparrowgrace
vibrating boundaries may occur when opposing colors are brought together