Hopper, Ailish. Dark~Sky Society. Kalamazoo, MI: New Issues, 2014. 97 pp. $15.00 (paper).
Reviewed by Ellen Hagan
“The flash-/ bulb pops; the splash/ kerosene/ [door behind]/and then the flint/ the arcing match—/ flame” ends Ailish Hopper’s opening poem: “Self Portrait as Smoke,” in her first full-length collection, Dark~Sky Society (12). As a reader, I was immediately pulled into the heat of this moment, pushed in an instant towards facing it—a larger society and the speaker’s place within it, violence, the body: “Terrible,/ I say, & change/ the subject, as if my body were/ diffused” (11). Hopper is relentless in her language—experimental, eccentric at times, cocky even as it bumps up against different expectations of what a poem should do. This collection often feels like a tight wire, so taut with a collective and personal grief and so weighed down by our shared and revolting history of race in America. Dark~Sky Society weaves back and forth between an often times uncomfortable identity and the unending desire to make sense of a father’s illness. The collection unfolds with language-based poems, intricate and nontraditional takes on text and a handful of narrative poems that, for me, hold the book together in a real way—pushing past the play on words, and getting right at the tenderness of humanity, straight towards the gut of what it means to tackle racial injustice, whiteness, and the loss of a parent in the way this speaker once knew him.
Let’s first consider the father, always present throughout the collection, and the way he appears vulnerable and confused. He anchors the book for me, and each time it seems to travel away from him, we get pulled back in. We see him first in the third section of “View of the Capital from St. Elizabeth’s” with this introduction: “When the bus/ doors open,/ my father climbs/ then someone pushes, yes:/ Hey/ somethin’ wrong?! As the bus driver/ explains,/ to my dad, again, what coins/ go where/ There is/ Its lessons written/ everywhere” (21 – 22). There is a quiet heaviness to the poems—“And my father’s: a page/ that flutters/ blank. Once, there was/ they say/ beautiful ink laid there” (22). It’s the father we come back to, the father we study, the father we yearn to make better, to get better. There is such a tenderness in Hopper’s writing about her father—a generosity of understanding and wanting desperately to know more. He is portrayed with such clear imagery in “Something that Isn’t Real,” and again in “Post-”: “He is focused, forehead wrinkled,/ lips tentative with the sandwich/ of salty, marbled ham,/ a fallen frond of hair/ over the biopsy’s indentation/ from thirty years ago,/ today” (87). And again, it’s the body—his body and brain specifically—that gets such intricate attention in Hopper’s poems: “Brain damage/ is like water seepage/ through computer circuits/ where the water goes/ information/ disappears (38). Her sparse language erupts here, and each line break feels like a cliff, her words inching towards one another. She is carefully crafting what comes next and how to handle it—and in her economy there is such affection and patience. This is where her poems ache for me, where the language marries the complex and the familiar.
A large portion of the poems in Dark~Sky Society is centered around and deals specifically with race. These poems forced many pauses and re-reads. This could very well be the intention, but the work left me desperate to know more and made me hungry for the chaos language can create. In “Honk Not (A Patdown)” there is an intricate play on words: “Forgive all behonk,/ tonky. Behonk or begive./ & Tonk-a-tat not,/ little Dixie-tat,/ Topple crats” (94). While I appreciated the music of her words, there was an unease in the poem as a whole. I wanted Hopper to do away with her experimental language and tell it straight. The poem “The Good Caucasian” left me feeling confused and lost. I wanted the depth that a poem with that title requires—not a solution, but more stake in the game, more of that tempered vulnerability and revelation rather than performance on the page. Too often the poems dealing specifically with race fell deeply short for me and tended to rely heavily on formal/formatting experimentation. In the section-long poem “In the Hospital for the Negro Insane,” the parts felt like a puzzle I couldn’t quite piece together, though there were again stunning images throughout—“____The shimmer peeled from a feather/ _____From a hollow-bodied guitar/ An abyss” (57). The sections v. Emancipation Test #54 and ix. Emancipation Test #78 felt overly clever in their attempt to start a discussion on race. And while it’s clear Hopper is intensely engaged with the theme, the bulk of these poems did not exhibit the same truth telling quality as her poems about the father.
Finally in “15 ½” we see some of the foundational narrative providing insight. The book again starts to dig a bit deeper here: “My aunt, old-school,/ Alabaman, jokes and laughs,/ offers the man sweet tea/ granules, soft now, melted away. A-blur, a blur/ of Ours/ were well treated, and/ Blessed/ to die/ before his son” (82). The poem offers a look inside what makes Hopper want to write about race, and I wanted more. In the poem “To Ignorance,” she writes, “Today/ someone asks/ why I am writing/ about race” (89), and I keep wondering, but are you writing about race? Hopper writes, “the time I called/ by his first name, my professor/ who was black/ or when someone asked/ about my poems, if I would do/ the dialect/ He chooses/ tough. And I say, Actually, that one/ you have to learn/ for yourself” (90). Though we are given even more insight here, we are still left needing more. Writing about race is political. For me, the most effective political writing requires something personal—having some skin in the game. I am thinking of Nikky Finney, whose collections delve deeply into the politics of race, especially in The World is Round and Head Off & Split, with poems such as “Dancing with Strom,” and “Brown Country.” Other poets, such as Patricia Smith, whose persona poems, especially Skinhead, reveal such powerful emotions and begin a dialogue, and Claudia Rankine’s: Citizen: An American Lyric, where the poems explore micro and macro aggressions and confront issues of racism in clear ways, and for me—with such direct language. I also think of the poems from Fanny Says, by Nickole Brown, who talks openly about her own grandmother’s racism and her connections to her family and a past she cannot escape—also centered on her whiteness. These poets and these poems feel like there is more at stake, and more of the personal tying the work together. It is clear Hopper is capable of this, and I am curious to see how she continues to explore this subject, and I truly hope that she does.
This collection is both sparse and intense. Upon a second reading, poems that initially struck me as quieter made a much deeper impression on me. There were also several times that Hopper managed to comment on the world around her in very clear and powerful ways. In the poem “Four at 0:0,” with its epigraph, “Welcome to the Nation’s Capital,” she explores D.C.’s landscape in the lines, “At the corner, boys play/ buckets, beats/ soldiers, sleeping/ footprints/ while on them drips/ the rain/ in the phosphorous/ present/ shared seam/ I ride, knees against/ a motorbike’s/ cool steel” (69 – 70). Riding through the hilltops, Hopper manages to capture how place divides. Here, we see Washington D.C., we see her curious to know more. And she is strongest too in “The Crooked Hour,” combining the complexity of race and her visits to the hospital: “when a friend’s/ five-year old brother/ gets toy handcuffs/ for his birthday/ older boys show how/ cocoa arms, stretched/ behind him/ cheek, pressed to wall/ —while everyone, but me,/ laughs” (92 – 93). These poems are Hopper at her strongest—still experimenting with language, still pushing its boundaries, still engaged in the conversation on race and pushing to explore further, dive deeper. Dark~Sky Society is a collection that negotiates, battles and confronts race, society, family and place—sometimes with halting success—but these poems leave me more than curious about Hopper’s continued crafting of what matters most to her. I will end with lines from what I felt to be the heart-center of the book, the poem “Something that Isn’t Real,”
father, now in
the room with us
when not one thing
Feathers of hair
is brought forth
as if lifting
In the like wind. (66)
ELLEN HAGAN is a writer, performer, and educator. Her latest collection of poetry Hemisphere, was published by Northwestern University Press, Spring 2015. Ellen’s poems and essays can be found in the pages of Creative Nonfiction, Underwired Magazine, She Walks in Beauty (edited by Caroline Kennedy), Huizache, Small Batch, and Southern Sin. Her first collection of poetry, Crowned was published by Sawyer House Press in 2010. She is the director of the poetry and theatre programs at The DreamYard Project in the Bronx. She lives with her husband and daughters in New York City.