Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Unbeknownst by Julie Hanson, poetry

Iowa Poetry Prize winner

Is this poetry?  It feels more like a conversation with an intelligent and honest friend.  The thoughts are not high-brow but simple observations of everyday life.  It's the first of Hanson's poetry that I've read, and I'm sold on her style.  It's poetry that doesn't require you to work too hard to understand, but at the same time, it's not simplistic or naive.

Many of the poems feature questions-a deliberate effort to make the reader respond and think.  Her questions put into words ideas that we may only toy with, or wonder about. Hanson puts them out there in print, legitimizing their importance.  One of the most fascinating is "Prayer", in which she analzyes both the input and output of the attempt at spiritual connection.  It's free verse, rambling a bit, yet the direction she leads you to is profound:

"...A friend of my mother's used to pray for parking spaces.

A person could tell a lot about us
by the way we pray.

When someone prays, Help me with this problem,
it might mean Solve it.
Or, show me the way.

A person could tell a lot about God
by the way we pray.

Can our gestures be seen?
Are the hands quieted or are they utilized?
Is there reason to raise the face heavenward?

Is the context provided, or is this
presumed known?

Does the Presence stay with us for the long
weeping part, or are we thought
to be put on hold?

Sometimes we resign ourselves
to another mortal isntead--a stranger
seated next to us, a cat, a dog, a friend-

and what is said has a quality
common in fiction, less so in life.

Short, abrupt sentences trip up,
entangled in the longer ones
that are being thought...."

Another poem uses simple birds to illustrate our own perception of ourselves, and how we may be caught up in the irrelevant.  From "Larger":

"The female cardinal isn't the least bit
disappointed that the shade of red she is is brown.
She looks at him and thinks, Aren't we gorgeous?

Disappointment is a theme too available to me.
Judgment, another.
Would that I were rid of them."

In "Always a Little Something Somewhere in the Purse", Hanson explores the acting and roles that must be played by women on occasion, in order to survive.  She shows that it's the small things "which can't alter reality in the large sense/but might help us along in the small."  The hopeful nature that tries to work past the reality of ourselves is both a gift and a flaw-why can't we just be ourselves?

I marked too many passages in the book to comment on, but she explores adoption, marriage, loyalty, and disappointment with depth and humor.  Somehow she reminded me a bit of Emily Dickinson's line "hope is the thing with feathers", although their styles are entirely different.

Special thanks to the University of Iowa Press for the Review Copy.

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