Green Squall [Smith Review]
- by Jay Hopler
In his first full-length collection, Green Squall, Jay Hopler invites his readers into a Florida teeming with the light of a lush world where “the grass was lizarding,” (“In the Garden” 5), while mindful of the places where that light dims in “the stump-holes where the palm / Trees used to be” (“The Conjugal Bed” 8-9). The first third embraces the electric rush of open spaces and new life, seen here in the opening poem “In the Garden”: “This noon— / Skyed, blue and full of hum, full of bloom.” (7-8) The second, emerging from the dominant long poem, “Of Hunger and Human Freedom,” dwells on the tension between the need to belong and the need for solitude, exemplified by the fifth section “The Courtyard”: “that’s what I / Long for. To live in the midst of the physical, the visceral, / Untroubled by the crush / Of want—” (9-12).
The final third, and the strongest section in the sequence, combines these motivations and expands on both. The poems in this section are more philosophically-minded, but cultivate that mind out of a lyrical playfulness explored in the first two parts. Here, Hopler’s poems wriggle into tired understandings of aesthetics and reevaluate their values without losing that lyric immediacy. Here is an example from “Feast of the Ascension, 2004. Planting Hibiscus”: “the garden: dew-swooned and with fat blossoms swollen / With shade leaf-laced beneath the lemon trees— / It is hard to believe beauty is the new ugliness” (2-4).
One of the strengths of Hopler’s poems is the ability to temper exuberance with a mocking cynicism. Take the following lines from “Out of These Wounds, the Moon Will Rise”:
Too bad that slow,
Wet scorch of orange blossoms floating towards
The storm drain is not a vein of stars…we could
Make a wish on one of them, not that we would
Wish for anything but the impossible. (10-14)
And again in “Méditation Malheureuse,” quoted in full:
The rain stops
Just long enough to make you think
Of the day in your whole rotten
Childhood you were happy.
Then, it starts to rain again.
This futility, highlighted in the poem “Because the Past Is Never in the Past and Because It Is My Birthday,” will be a mainstay throughout the collection, “like the gray and faded pages of a primer in which every lesson / Begins with ‘give’ and ends with ‘up’” (3-4). However, by embracing futility, Hopler is able to do more than merely supplant it, as he allows it to meld with a more realistic promise of growth, seen in “Little Mirrors of Despair”:
Is it really so bad, this garden with its koi fish ponded. . . its birds seed-fed . . . my mother
Her voice so soft . . . , so far-off-hearted,
Like the sound of the grass lying down.
Couldn’t we be happy
The lyrical ease in which Hopler posits these questions is comfortable, even familiar. Louise Glück’s introduction recognizes Wallace Stevens as “the presiding influence,” and it is difficult not to hear him breathing over the speaker’s shoulder in a poem like “With Both Eyes Closing”: Are there daffodils
In that vase . . .
In that blue
Vase? Are there spiders
In the corners,
In the corn-
The eaves? (7-15)
Despite this potential crutch of influence, Hopler embraces this inevitable comparison to Stevens, going so far as to make sure in the poem “Academic Discourse at Miami: Wallace Stevens and the Domestication of Light” that the reader is aware that his speaker has “no beef with Wallace Stevens / Even if some of his poems do feel like so much tropical slumming” (1-2). But much like his navigation of beauty and ugliness, futility and optimism, the inclusion of these poems’ logical grandfather is not a dismissal of him as “somehow, inessential” (6). Notice how he embraces his influence in that same poem: “I only wish he could have lived here, in Florida, instead of simply / Visiting once in a while” (3-4). Hopler appeals to the similarity of their respective “Academic Discourses,” and the poetics that inform them, in an attempt to lyrically create a space that is more than a dismissal of either, and much closer to being a home for both.
And how could Stevens not appreciate, and see himself a part of, the aural acrobatics of the poems “Green Squall,” or “Of Passion and Seductive Trees,” or the lovely found poem “Firecracker Catalogue”? Any aesthetic appropriation in these poems is an attempt to enliven the inevitable connection between these two poets. In “The Wildflower Field,” Hoper riffs on a line from “The Man on the Dump” in order to bring Stevens more wholly into Hopler’s Florida:
Like fireworks, those wildflowers.
Fireflowers. Wildfires. The light
Shining out like heat
From their yellow heads--, mind-
Blowing! Their petals, like sparks, falling (1-5)
With that said, there are a few missteps in this appropriation. The philosophical introspection Stevens handles so delicately in his own poems is a hard tool to wield in this garden, and the self-referential “The Frustrated Angel,” tries to pull off lines like “Hopler, I’ve had it with all your crying and complaining. If I wanted to hear whining, I’d kick a dog” (17). This line and others like it often sound too glib, and the colloquial expressions are less interesting primarily because they lack the attention to music that is so prevalent elsewhere in the collection. Similar gropes for significance occur in the long poem “Of Hunger and Human Freedom,” specifically the fifth section “The Courtyard”: “It would be a relief; no, it would be / A release— / Not just from something, but into something” (4-6). The use of italics to direct intention and meaning is sloppy, and indicates a speaker not willing to interrogate that “something” lyrically or imagistically, and defaulting to this rhetorical distinction that rings hollow on the page, if it rings at all.
Despite its occasional shortcomings, the collection’s attempt to disrupt this thinking about influence is worth acknowledging. Hopler seems less interested, poetically, about making claims for (or against) the world or its inhabitants. Instead, the collection draws its strength and its freshness from the vibrancy it sees in its surroundings, and in doing so, involves the reader in that celebration of growth. Despite the places visited and the faces peering out from this collection, what is more at stake is the response of those who peer in. By opening the door to these experiences, we too, as readers, are more likely to rethink our relationship to our past, and the places we’ve planted ourselves. In “Feast of the Ascension, 2004. Planting Hibiscus”,
The shade grows long. The shade grows long
Upon the lawns and the fat green leaves of these lemon trees
Are still in the early evening.
I could be buried here. That is,
I am –, I am buried.
What Hopler’s speaker knows best is himself, and the final realization that this speaker makes, concerning self and solitude, is a crucial one for himself and for his readers. And while the speaker finds, in “Aubade,” that “I cannot conceive a more genuine, / More merciful, form of happiness / Than solitude” (16-18), in the end, solitude is not the tired cliché of a tortured artist’s anti-social muttering, nor is it worn as a badge of self-flagellant honor. Instead, solitude, for this speaker, offers space enough for a careful meditation on what it means to not only be alone, but also belong to a place—to be, as in “Of Hunger and Human Freedom,” “in the midst of the physical, the visceral” (10), and know, finally, what one is a part of.