(Never) Out of the Past: Film Noir and the Poetry of Lynda Hull




MID-CENTURY — the 20th — poet Weldon Kees drew upon the visual and tonal qualities of another medium, film noir, with its interest in fate, human fallibility and mortality, and its sense of social order undercut by a substratum of delirious disorder. To that mix he added a murder, or, at any rate, a body, and his own icy black irony — and that became the first modern poem noir, “Crime Club.”[1]

Ironic Lynda Hull is not, but among poets of our own time none has employed noir’s signature motifs and captured in language its pervasive atmosphere more strikingly and persistently. One poem in particular stands as such a singular achievement that it deserves notice from readers — all readers — whether or not they like the noir sensibility, whether or not they like poetry.

But first, what is noir? The term gets blithely tossed about (well, maybe not all that blithely) as if everyone knows, everyone agrees on its meaning. Everyone does not.

Noir, as a genre term, has roots in print. It began with Série Noire, a French press founded in the 1940s that published hard-boiled American detective novels in translation, particularly Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain. In 1946, when American films became, rather suddenly, available again in France following the Allied forces’ defeat of the Nazis, critic Nino Frank, perhaps taking a cue from Série Noire, employed the term “film noir” to describe a number of startling new releases that seemed to mark a departure from the earlier police procedure movies. He noted that these plots did not focus on “who did it,” with the assumption that the culprit would eventually be revealed and the murder solved through the investigations of flat, thinly drawn, law-enforcing protagonists. Instead they fixed upon the psychology and behavior of the central figure, be it the detective or criminal. He cited the example of Double Indemnity — a tale of adultery and murder daring for its times — and praised its “precise script which deftly details the motives and reactions of its characters.”[2]

Whether they knew it or not, he said, Americans were producing film noir. (Decidedly, Americans had not known it, at least not just then. They thought they were making, in most such cases, low-budget black-and-white crime stories to fill the “B” spots in America’s double-bill movie houses.)

Following this, numerous film scholars and critics added to the evolving understanding of the newly defined art form. Noir observed a pervasive mood — an atmosphere, ominous and strangely erotic — and was so stylistically distinct that it shaped upon the screen a vision of an alternate world. It did and did not resemble ours, this other world, all crazy-tilty and sharply etched.

Paul Schrader’s classic “Notes on Film Noir” (1972), drawing upon a couple decades of previous scholarship, analyzed the visual motifs that brilliant cinematographers such as John Alton and the German Expressionist directors had perfected. The low-key lighting favored in such productions was designed to cast hard, high-contrast patterns of light and shadow — those vertical blind shadows slicing the walls, for example, which remain a film noir signature. For Schrader, these effects conjured the sense of an uneasy, morally ambiguous realm, and he shrewdly identified the relationship between the visual and psychological landscapes: “No character can speak authoritatively from a space which is being continually cut into ribbons of light.”[3]

There’s more to be said on noir, its variations and defining characteristics, but much can be gleaned directly from the poems of Lynda Hull, poems powered by her intense absorption with a past both shady and shadowy. Through rented rooms, nocturnal cityscapes, and among figures who persevere on the edges of sanctioned society, this past both haunts and eludes her:

The river knows the story. The get-out-of-town-fast story.
A dizzy trip through the ripped underside of things —
that rough fugitive coinage, begged rides,
begged meals. Somebody fed us. Somebody said
get out of town.
          (“River Bridge”)

 And later in the same poem:

No bus fare,
and where to go
in this steaming plenty, the lit kitchens
& parlors glimpsed from the street washed
citron by lamplight. Is it the stolen car
again in this version, or the abandoned movie palace?

Neon, streets gleaming with rain, the demimonde and its demi-denizens all coalesce to create an archetypal film noir setting delivered into poetry:

… the flush of a motel sign the instant
it signals No Vacancy …
          (“Utsuroi”) 

where the standard naked lightbulb offers its crude flower
of electricity to blue the dark abundant hair a woman
I could have been is brushing, a torn shade rolled up …
          (“Cubism, Barcelona”)

I watched you rise again, and again from the dead:
that night at the dealer’s on Orange Street, stripping
you down, overdosed and blanched against the green linoleum,
ice and saline …
In those years I thought death was a long blue hallway

you carried inside …
          (“Hospice”)

In some contexts, referencing a poet’s personal circumstances might be a cheap move, a promoting of the dramatic aspects of a writer’s life over the writing itself, but not here, not now, not when the topic is noir, and the life — as if wielding an indomitable will of its own — insists on following the script.

The biographical details do not much resemble the career paths of most who settle — as Hull finally did — into an English Department and MFA program, first as student, then teacher.[4] At 16, she forfeited a scholarship to Princeton and ran away from home, lived on the streets for a time, then married an immigrant from Shanghai (elsewhere described less cautiously, more vividly, as “a Chinese gambler, an illegal alien”).[5] They moved frequently, often residing in the cities’ Chinatown districts. If noir poets bragged about their street cred as rappers do, Lynda Hull’s bragging rights would have been unassailable.

I see you clearly now, the way you’d wait

for me, flashy beneath the Orpheum’s
rococo marquee in your Hong Kong hoodlum’s
suit …

                I could find again our room
above the Lucky Life Café, the cast-iron district
of sweatshop lofts.
          (“Counting in Chinese”)

Sometimes just by chance, the little rolling balls fall into their designated pockets. The sense of rootlessness, the fugitive life, addiction, the hallucinatory quality of the 20th-century city at night … These cinematic elements have played across dozens of noir films over the decades, from the seminal to the neo, and likewise they flourish in the poetry of Lynda Hull. But “Counting in Chinese” also recalls — and already noir aficionados, if they’re out there and reading this, are thinking, and maybe I know what they’re thinking: Polanski — one of the most enduring psychic and emotional touchstones bequeathed to us by the movies, in fact, by that greatest of the highly self-aware neo-noirs. For Jake Gittes, it was the one place on earth where he could never win. And the one place to which he could not stop returning. Chinatown. (Even as I type it, the word strikes through me.)

But call it Chinatown, or call it Lodi, Wichita, Little Armenia, or Durango — many of us know that place. Or maybe it’s less a place than a realm in the imagination, a psychic terrain. Whatever. If a man goes back there it will take him down. If a woman goes back there it will take her down. And if one happens to be a character in a noir story, one will go back there. A line from her “Fiat Lux” echoes through her work: “One’s never done with the past.”

Unlike the earliest artisans of that mood, that sensibility, plugging along in relative innocence back before the term “film noir” entered the lexicon, just trying to produce the best crime movie they could on not much dough, Lynda Hull seems conscious of the tradition; her poems suggest not only a love of the movies but a savvy awareness of the noir genre.[6] Her epigraph for “At the Wetland” quotes Sam Fuller: “Life is in color, but black and white is more real.” Fuller directed the delectably witty and razor-edged noir Pickup on South Street, with Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, and Thelma Ritter, and the cult classic The Crimson Kimono, one of the few noirs that engaged Asian-American actors in principal roles and dared (in its day) to show an interracial love affair.

                           Little Chinatown,
& there’s that window, peeling frame, screen split

to rippling rain gusts … 

Soon, soon, I’ll stop here, the window’s pull

irresistible as the force of a star collapsed
to black gravity. I’ll step through the window,
take up again the key for the one room to which

I keep returning.
          (“The Window”)

There’s a movie with Kirk Douglas, Jane Greer, and Robert Mitchum as Jeff, a man who manages briefly to re-establish a conventional life after he’s extracted himself from a past loaded with danger — and, of course, a woman — but it comes after him. It’s called Out of the Past. Consistently listed in the top 10 films noir, it conveys a theme that will prevail through subsequent noirs: the past as a realm that is not passive and is not over. It stalks. Out of the Past might’ve made a suitable title for Lynda Hull’s collected works. So would Into the Past, because Hull is not passive either. She stalks her own body of memories. These writings circle back, question and insist, beckon and appeal, comprising something of a tug of war between the poet and a past life. Another self. It is as if she must pull that other self into the present, or it will pull her into its ethers. Like she is casting a spell. Like she wants to be spellbound.

[I]t’s as if I’m swimming in a theater’s musk of plush,
watching myself drunk again on blanched sunlight, the lethal

hum of oleander, whatever ravening thing we want that’s
so illusory. Los Angeles.
          (“The Real Movie, with Stars”)

 The movies. Of all the arts, they are the most immersive. They contain everything. Among writers, was there ever a movie lover who was not also a great sensualist?

Then let it happen, the desire to be out

in the world, more than in it, wholly of it,
trammeled, broken to neoned figments.
          (“The Window”) 

Not all her pursuits make for entirely effective poetry. Occasionally, the time- honored romantic code is too baldly stated: “Better this immersion / than to live untouched. I wanted to be the cup & flame …” (“Frugal Repasts”) Yes, yes, of course, few want to live untouched, and it’d be great to be the cup and the flame, but one isn’t supposed to say that flat out. It’s kinda corny. Sometimes she slips into melodrama. “I remember this the way I’d remember a knife / against my throat …” (“Counting in Chinese”) That, as actors would say, feels a bit “pushed.” And certain ruminations resemble wandering journal entries: “Who’s walking tonight? / Who’s hungry? The story I keep returning to / is the one about walking hungry over/that St. Louis railroad bridge. Why that one? …” (“River Bridge”)

But it’s no great matter, for it’s through such excursions she arrives upon a poem, the poem — the poem that just says it. It happens sometimes for writers, if they’re fortunate, a sudden synthesis of craft, meaning, and sensation that gives perfect expression to some concern — some obsession, perhaps — they’d been circling, maybe for years. For Lynda Hull it is “Black Mare,” a tour de force of searing efficiency and speed:

It snakes behind me, this invisible chain gang —
the aliases, your many faces peopling

that vast hotel, the past. What did we learn?
Every twenty minutes the elevated train,

the world shuddering beyond
the pane. It was never warm enough in winter.

The walls peeled, the color of corsages
ruined in the air. Sweeping the floor, 

my black wig on the chair.

The piece draws together objects and environmental elements that had appeared elsewhere in her work, along with certain favored techniques — the juxtaposition of questions and assertions — but with a striking, synapsing voltage that leaps from one couplet to the next:

                                    Downstairs
the clerk who read our palms broke the seal
on another deck of cards. She said you’re my fate,

my sweet annihilating angel, every naked hotel room
I’ve ever checked out of. There’s nothing

left of that, but even now when night pulls up
like a limousine, sea-blue, and I’m climbing the stairs,

keys in hand, I’ll reach the landing and
you’re there — the one lesson I never get right.

The poem will close with “I never meant/to leave you there by the pane, that/terminal hotel, the world shuddering with trains.” It is as perfect a noir poem as I’ve ever come across — it slashes across the page like venetian-blind shadows — and one of the best contemporary poems I know. When I say “best,” I am, to be sure, evoking criteria, my own, which in this case considers the switchblade precision, velocity, exhilarating, unpredictable turns, and the calling forth of an atmosphere, mood, a time and place, a cast of sensations so heady as to produce an almost narcotic effect on the reader. This reader, certainly.

One is never done with the past.

And what a past it was. It’s fortunate for us, for readers, that Lynda Hull was not done with it, not done with her past, not done with her poetry. Until, of course, the very end, which, yes, involved rain, the night … Or, to be factual — if it’s a fact one’s after — it was “a sleet-slick highway” her car careened off. [7] But who knows, maybe it was a rainy sleet. Maybe it was night. Those best-informed on this matter have revealed that something had lately emerged from her past, not a femme fatale, nor an homme fatale, but one of those drugs she thought she’d kicked.[8]

Call it noir. Or don’t. But since the noir story involves mortality and death, everyone’s end is noir, isn’t it, regardless of the weather, the hour, regardless of whether you even like the noir style, poetry, or the movies.

¤

Notes

  1. Awkward as it is to cite myself — it’s true because I said so elsewhere — my assertion in the following essay has not, so far, been argued against (though I’m open to alternative views!). Suzanne Lummis, “The Poem Noir — Too Dark to be Depressed,” Malpais Review (Winter 2012–’13), 235.
  2. He is often credited with coining “film noir,” and just as often divested of that distinction. Evidently, the term had appeared in print previously — somewhere. In any case, Frank’s essay seems to have brought it to the forefront. (Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton also deserve much credit for “Towards a Definition of Film Noir,” 1955. Nino Frank, “A New Kind of Police Drama” first published August 1946 in L’écran français (republished in Film Noir Reader 2, eds. Alain Silver & James Ursini (Limelight Editions, 1999), 18.
  3. Paul Schrader, “Notes on Film Noir” first published in Film Comment (Spring 1972); republished in Film Noir Reader 1, eds. Alain Silver & James Ursini (Limelight Editions, 1996), 57.
  4. David Wojahn, “Afterword, Lynda Hull: The Collected Poems (Graywolf Press, 2006).
  5. Sean Singer, “Making History Bearable: Lynda Hull and Reading Newark,” Cerise Press: A
    Journal of Literature, Arts and Culture
    (Fall/Winter 2011–2012) cerisepress.com.
  6. Ah, if it is a genre. Some suggest it is, Foster Hirsh, for example, in “The Noir
    Actor” (Film Noir: The Dark Side of the Screen, De Capo Press, 1981), 145–6. But Alain Silver and James Ursini acknowledge disagreement among film critics and theorists, who variously call it a movement, a genre, a style, or a cycle, and are not always tolerant of each other’s nomenclature.
  7. An account less speculative than mine can be found here: David Wojahn, “Can Poetry Save Your Life? A Brief Investigation,” Blackbird (Spring 2015). www.blackbird.vcu.edu/
  8. Susan Aizenberg, “Remembering Lynda Hull: A Woman of Genius,” Blackbird (Spring 2008).

¤

Suzanne Lummis has published three poetry collections, Open 24 Hours(Lynx House Press), In Danger (California Poetry Series/Heyday Books), Idiosyncrasies (Illuminati) and individual poems have appeared in The Antioch Review, The Hudson Review, Ploughshares, The New Yorker, and Plume, among others.


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