Accommodating the Mess
Andrew Hughes' Sweethearts of the Great Migration
Sweethearts of the Great Migration.|
35 pages, $10 (chapbook).
Buy at Amazon.
Lisa Jarnot compares Andrew Hughes to a kind of postmodern Catullus, describing him as "a young, lyrical, New Englander who crafts the line into a bloom of self-effacing, reflective, and always funny-sad passages." While Sweethearts of the Great Migration is decidedly not as acerbic as the work of Catullus, Jarnot is right to make the comparison.
Akin to Catullus, Hughes plays with the cathartic function of the lyric form through the exploration of intensely personal subjects, but the interesting thing about his first chapbook is that these various subjects—music, nature, sex, alcohol, and so forth—consistently change with the evocation of dizzyingly various places: New York, Antwerp, Winnipeg, Bavaria, Kansas, Brussels, and Dallas to name only a few.
If Sweethearts of the Great Migration offers us a poetry of wanderlust, then its evocative changes in subjects and places also offer a poetry of liberation from an "overwhelming solitude amidst creation." Impressively, the collection does so in measured ways, while at the same time discarding the convention of tidy coherence, as with the exemplary poem "The Drinker's Symmetry":
Enjoy the messy larkless sky
over Lake Myron.
Jerky, my lame ass jokered on Jameson.
My lyre, my elm, my sloe army on a loamy mesa yearning
for ale and melons.
Lemony, joyslayed and leaky.
Major keys and noels.
Mary, meet me at the rye sea.
Some years reek of Makers, others of eels
Many with the lore
Lank and sleek your Keno élan ran amok.
A yokel, we'll christen you Karl
and mayor you
into spotting us jars of rock-n-rye.
Name this messy reel. We've been trying all night.
The final line suggests that the act of accurately naming—not only naming the poem, but anything else—oftentimes proves problematic or "messy." When Hughes eases off the figurative gas and gives us proper names, we still encounter representational messiness. "Makers" indicates not only the bourbon, Maker's Mark, for instance, but also recalls George Puttenham's sixteenth-century insistence that the poet "is as much to say as a maker." More than a celebration of inebriation, "The Drinker's Symmetry" is typical of this collection because it questions the character and function of its language and, in doing so, frees the lyric form from the insular "solitude" of coherence.
In a rare 1960s interview, Samuel Beckett said: "To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now." Hughes finds forms that accommodate, rather than forms that attempt to tidy. Throughout Sweethearts of the Great Migration, he celebrates the inevitability that real "reels" are "messy," and he does so with his own charming élan. My only wish is that this chapbook, comprised of fifteen poems, was instead a full-length undertaking.