Lloyd Wallace
Human Limitations

Public Abstract, by Jane Huffman. American Poetry Review, 196 pp., $16.

Jane Huffman’s Public Abstract, selected by Dana Levin as the winner of the 2023 APR/Honickman Award, begins with two epigraphs on the experience of having a mind yoked to, and limited by, the body and its structures:

But to say, I know — is there any touch in it?
—Jean Valentine

Pain is the ransom of formalism.
—Louise Bourgeois

The human limitations Valentine speaks to—the infinite smallness of knowledge, the isolation of the mind within the wide fields of the body—are one of Huffman’s primary obsessions, crystallized in the poet’s experience with mysterious chronic illness. Throughout the book, we are made to understand that even in the body, the place that one should know most well, there are places the mind cannot reach. There’s always something hidden in the shadows, Huffman tells us, that the body casts within itself.

The second epigraph points to another of the poet’s obsessions: form. And not just poetic form, of course, but also the formal human body, as well as the set of cultural formats one finds oneself inside at birth: the family unit, the odd rules of the American medical establishment, the set of gendered expectations one must put on like an ill-tailored suit. These forms, too, are corporeal, we are made to understand. They too have mouths and bodies. And, if we are talking of ransoms, they, too, have things they ask of us.

Public Abstract is split into five discrete sections, all full of richly intelligent formal projects that take apart, and play with, the aforementioned concerns in various ways. And the book’s first section, titled “A Bout”—which calls to mind both a bout of sickness and a bout with aboutness itself, a sense that one can strike at meaning but be unable to pin it down—is no exception. In the section’s third poem, we find a speaker coming to terms with their own uncertainty:

I thought
That I could love
My fear could
Build with it
A desk and chest
Of drawers
Like fear was
Made of pine
And nails

Like many poems in the collection, this one invokes the general domestic arena. First comes the desk and chest of drawers, places of work, and then places of wakefulness:

And glue could
Sew myself
Into a dress
With it or
Matching set
In shocking blue
Could plait
My hair with it
Could paint
With it could
Thin my paint
With it

Here, we see a speaker hoping to create stability—a set of useful objects, a stable place to set one’s life—from the natural instability of fear. And we see this effort, this unstable footing, mirrored in the poem’s form and meter: the poem begins with three certain, solid iambs (I thought / that I could love) before things slip in the third line when our subject, fear, is introduced: “My fear could”—a soft, unstable, and seemingly unfinished amphibrach.

This metrical unevenness continues throughout the poem: the next line—“Build with it”—is a dactyl, while the two lines after that (“A desk and chest / Of drawers”) are both iambic once again. The sense of instability is perpetuated by the natural slippage of the poem’s tercets, as well: we are swept along the experience of getting to know one’s fear without any handholds, including punctuation, until we reach the end, where the poem settles into iambs for the entirety of the final two stanzas:

Could spread
It like a sheet
Onto my bed
Could slice a loaf
Of bread on fear’s
Serrated edge

An implication of at least partial understanding, or at least solidity, seems to be reached here. Fear cannot be transformed; it’s what does the transforming. It’s a saw that’s all blade, no handle. You are, the poem seems to say, the only thing that your fear cuts.

So far, we have only brushed against one of the collection’s other main obsessions: obsession itself. The book shows in multiple ways how repetition in poetry, i.e. obsession enacted in verse, can grab hold of the reader, dragging them between such seeming opposites as knowledge and nonsense, future and past, beauty and banality. The poems in this collection prefer to hold the reader suspended between two states, just barely keeping them from being able to “scratch / the itch of certainty.” The title of the second section, “Revisions,” confronts this focus on repetition directly. Here, the word “revision” calls up two of repetition’s powers: both the ability to change what has been said, as in the usual sense of the word, but also the term “re-vision,” the ability to see the past—and even to meet yourself—anew.

The poem “Ode,” perhaps this section’s most dizzying experiment with repetition, begins with a set of straightforwardly visible images:

Andrea taught me to ride sidesaddle. I rode
in small and dizzying circles around her.

Immediately, this second image is repeated, with only a slight revision, after which a kind of doubling, this poem’s specialty, begins to take place:

I rode around her in small and dizzying
circles. Past the mirror and past the mirror
where, one summer, she was reared off
by a stallion attacking his own flaring
reflection. One summer, she was reared
off, or almost. I rode into the acres
of our sunflowers. In the acres, the fields,
I rode. Andrea leaned on a rail, her body
a rail. Andrea leaned on the shadow
of a rail. My shadow rode around her,

Any time an image is presented in this poem, that image begins to multiply. It is as if each figure held a mirror up to the one opposite it, the light of the imaged scene bouncing between them, until all one sees when looking at the poem, just as when one looks into two mirrors that have been placed to face each other, is a kind of shrinking endlessness, a never-ending loop of shadows and emblems, faces and facts. And this calls attention, first, to the act of writing a poem as an act of creation. As soon as an image is dragged out of the past, it begins to create its own future—one matrix of language leading always to its twisted duplicate, the poem becoming a realm where nothing is really out of reach of the thing that created it.

And it doesn’t stop there. It could even be said that the poem begins to pick up speed at this half-way point—and grow more dizzying, repeating itself more and more—before coming to rest, briefly, at the only end-stopped line:

the small bells of my intuition. She rang
the small bells of the saddle. I was
small and dizzying. I was dizzy. I rode
in small and dizzying circles. Andrea
taught me to ride, no stirrups. Nothing
suspending my body but my intuition, the small
and dizzying circles of my body.

From there, we slide slowly to a stop, before closing the poem’s loop with a fittingly mirrored conclusion:

My intuition rode around me in small
and dizzying circles, her shadow riding
circles around me. I called her Andrea.

Ending the poem exactly where it began seems to deny the poem completion. The poem, like time, goes on making itself. When one has “finished” it, all that there is left to do is to circle the paddock again.

There is a lingering question, though. What is this poem an “Ode” to? Charles Simic famously said “The secret ambition of all lyric poetry is to stop time.” But that doesn’t tell the whole story, does it? The repetition here doesn’t stop time: it re-makes it. It moves it forward, carrying the poet on its back. And maybe that’s what the poem is ode-ing: the ability of poetry to shrink time, to coil it tightly, to give you something that doesn’t stop, but does, in fact, keep going. Maybe forever—or at least as long as one can stand to look.

The book’s next two sections, “Later Fragments” and “On Invention,” also address futurity from the outset. Though the forms used in each section differ markedly—those in “Later Fragments” are much lighter, more spindly, leaving only tiny footprints on the page, while “On Invention” is a series of numbered paragraphs—the sections are similar in the direction of their gaze, looking toward and taking part in the past, knowing it is the only way to summon the future.

Every poem but the last two in “Later Fragments” is entirely in the past tense, which makes sense given that the title of the section immediately “afters” it, placing it in relation to some whole of which these poems are, perhaps, the leftover fragments. And “On Invention” takes part in similar work. First dipping its toe into the ancient past, the poem’s first section describes Cicero’s ideas in his work De Inventione: namely, that “… the discussion and explanation of things has three parts: fable, history, and argument.” Those three terms, in Cicero’s words, which Huffman quotes in full, are defined as follows:

Fables are “statements that are ‘neither true nor probable’”—e.g. “Huge winged snakes join’d by one common yoke.”

History is “… an account of exploits which have been performed, removed from the recollection of our own age …”—e.g. “Appius declared war against the Carthaginians.”

Argument is “… an imaginary case, which still might have happened.”

The poem then moves into more personal material, with the speaker applying these terms to their own, and their family’s, past. The second section of the poem begins: “In the fable of my life, my brother was born an addict, crested into this world with blue lips, sucking the fentanyl lollipop.”Family history makes up one of this collection’s more powerful through-threads, and all that time and generational hurt comes to a powerful head in this poem: “Our history is that my brother started using young. I became the child sister of a child addict. The argument: teenagers, aging backwards. Huge winged snakes joined by a common yoke.”

We are told that the speaker stumbled upon De Inventione while looking for the transcript of an NPR segment describing “the future of food processing,” in which they heard the following: “The rift between the reinvention camp and the deinvention camp has existed for decades … One side covets the past, the other side covets the future.”And it was while searching for the term “deinvention” that the speaker stumbled across Cicero’s text. What follows in the poem is a chronicling of the speaker’s own attempts at deinvention, i.e. removal from the histories they were yoked to at birth. The fifth section begins: “ My mother was also the child sister of a child addict. Before me, three generations have parented addict sons — Mildred, Ann, and Lynn each spending their lives with their horns locked to their sons’ horns, in love and in agony.” It ends: “In the fable of my family, addiction is passed from hand to hand like a hot coal. My brother holds it, palm open.”

The prose form of this section, a form used sparingly before this point, enables a clear look at the past that lineation might obscure. The paragraphs of this poem, somewhat reminiscent of diary entries, are wide open fields with uninterrupted sightlines where facts can be stated calmly, where history can be reckoned with in silence, without any “loud” line breaks.And the collection’s final section takes part in prose as well, but with a slight twist: once again gesturing toward poetry’s past, the section is titled “Haibun,” denoting a Japanese form made up of a prose paragraph and an ending haiku that is traditionally meant to act as a sort of distillation of what’s just been said. The section is made up of ten haibuns, all titled “On…”—most of which have to do with things pertinent to poem-making, e.g. “On difficulty,” “On influence, “On breath” etc.

In the haibun “On poetry,” we see a speaker once again caught inside of cycles of (de)invention. It begins:

I know a little poetry. It frightens me. The way it breaks, the way experience breaks in. Or it breaks out: like mold on plums, a ring of rash around the mouth, or wilderness — bluestem blanketing the earth, then breaking down to dirt.”

Here, poetry is not just a sign of decay—or, to use a kinder word, transformation—but is actually the decaying agent itself. If poetry “breaks out: like mold on plums,” it is because the act of writing poetry is not an empty one. You have to fill the poem with yourself. The poem takes your life from you, and, in the case of a published manuscript like this one, hands it to other people. And this, the symbiotic relationship between writer and reader, is what the second half of the haibun gestures to:

I know a little poetry. I’ve broken down. I’ve wept into the zenith of a rose. “Each tear [. . .] A globe.” The way John Donne rhymes “wind” and “find” in the final stanza of OF WEEPING. I’ve come that close.

Huffman states it plainly here: the poem breaks down the reader. It lives inside of you, a little wilderness. You become the soil from which it erupts. You break down, and the poem breaks open. It doesn’t matter if centuries have passed since it was written. The poem has lain dormant, waiting for you. It enters the future through your eye. Of course, the haibun doesn’t end there. As the form demands, we are left with a final, broken haiku:

Ars poetica: / Yelling “representative” / into a dead line.

Ars poetica, indeed. With just this kind of wit, a deep knowledge of formal convention, and an almost supernatural sense of when to break down convention for further gains, Huffman brings us closer to those places knowledge cannot reach. These poems make the inaccessible—all the history that lies outside the body, as well as the inner worlds of ours that fear covers—accessible, and not by simplifying them, but by breaking their forms open, and allowing the reader to peer inside. Sure, Huffman may be yelling “representative.” But the line isn’t dead. I’m listening. And I can’t wait to hear what she’ll say next.

Lloyd Wallace is an Assistant Editor of Poetry Daily. His writing appears in the Iowa Review, Poetry Northwest, Washington Square Review, and elsewhere.