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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Book Review: The Imagined Field by Sean Patrick Hill

Review of The Imagined Field by Sean Patrick Hill, Paper Kite Press, 2010. Review by Bryan Tso Jones, author of Raking the Hollow Bones, Bedbug Press, 2009.
Sean Patrick Hill's first collection, The Imagined Field, asks us to turn our gaze outward as travelers to a wide sprung geography, to see what can be found to root in ourselves. Spanning locations in Ireland, through Andalusia, to a long journey across the United States, this field is one that reveals itself gradually. From a distance, we might see wheat or cleared out scrub, marked by defined borders both physical and otherwise, like in “Exact Change”: “I write poem about crickets in the field, / then get up from the chair / and walk out the motel door to the field.” At closer inspection, we discover this field littered with holes that tunnel the reader into dirty motels, broken neon signs in small towns, filled with people who are in a sense rooting through the underbrush to sieve what is left.

The narrators in this collection are always questioning, always searching, either for a sense of self, or of the place they inhabit. Poems like “Rearview Mirror” for example, use objects like “an abandoned wreck” left on the side of a road as extended metaphor to represent the sometimes unacknowledged struggle human beings have with resolving their past experiences: “You can drive off into the fragrant sagebrush and never turn your head. / The only thing that wreck recedes from is from the rearview mirror. / It never really goes anywhere does it?”

Another example of how The Imagined Field attempts to root experience to place is in the elegiac “Inland Among Stones,” dedicated to the poet's father. In this poem, the speaker journeys from the United States to Ireland with his father, to see “the plot / You bought for yourself on a hill top.” What's interesting here is that instead of tying this solemn, bonding experience between father and son explicitly to the locations named in each of the poem's six sections – The Bells of St. Mary's, The Tower on the Cliffs of Moher, and so on – the poem frequently utilizes local legend from these places to help ground the reader in a geographic terrain. In the St. Bridgit's Well section, the reader learns “how they say / An eel lives in the water and brings luck / If you're lucky enough to see.” It is local legends like this that the speaker then juxtaposes with what happens inexorably, that places and the meanings tied to them change despite the persistence of such stories. In the same section, the speaker's father attempts to gather water from this well in a vial but the speaker mentions later the water “spilled in your suitcase.” Dramatic turns like this occur in poems such as “No Country I Know,” “Coin-Op Binoculars” and “The pond that wouldn't freeze in winter”; they speak powerfully to one of the themes of the collection, which is how an individual – whether they are homebound or homeless – maintains their sense of identity in a world where places they have come to know change or disappear entirely. In “The pond that wouldn't freeze in winter,” the speaker mentions the cultural loss that occurs when relief money for a flood in Elmira, New York is spent on dikes, and the city decides to tear down the Langdon House where Mark Twain lived to build “a shopping plaza.” Everywhere there are the brutal signs of fading, of places plowed over by concrete, signs on cliffs being changed. Even the speaker acknowledges the power of human recollection as fallible in maintaining the personal ties an individual has to a town, such as when trying to recall the location of a foundry in Elmira that manufactured fire hydrants and later, when the speaker recounts doing stone rubbings in grade school: “I remember laying the butcher paper / over the letters. I used charcoal, maybe.” The childhood experience itself is qualified.

The language in The Imagined Field, like the wide geographic terrain it canvasses, runs a gamut, but remains colloquial in tone. This is not to say the poetry in this collection lacks power or muscularity. With lines like, “Patience is the longest shadow on the face of the earth. And yours” from “Rearview Mirror” and “Mine is a Midwest winter, / a crease in an empty sleeve / of snow,” in “No Country I Know,” Sean Patrick Hill subtly reveals his skill as a wordsmith without pressuring the language into artifice. As a whole, the collection reminds us of the importance of place and though our struggles are wide ranging in scope, in the end, like a river stone in the current, we “turn over once...and come to rest.”

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