To read Judith Hall over nearly three decades is to witness the evolution of a genuine poetic innovator less interested in self-promotion, publication, and awards (although she’s won a significant number of major prizes) than in formal enactments of difficult truths — often painful truths about girlhood, beauty, violence, illness, and the limits of language itself, which she wields with the precise daring of Dickinson’s pretty “blades.” As Jerome McGann writes of another true poetic experimenter, Gertrude Stein, in Black Riders: The Visible Language of Modernism, “This is not a ‘poetry of meditation.’ [The] text is imagined as having a life of its own, indeed of having many lives of its own [and the] ‘language’ […] is immediate usage, equal to nothing but itself.” Like Stein’s theater of “verbal and literal figures,” which make her work feel “nervous and alive,” Hall’s poems, early and late, shimmer and swerve with a linguistic torque that is at once eerily dissociated from the ego and at the same time viscerally engaged in psychic impressions and experiences.
The central tensions in Anatomy, Errata arise from unstable conditions of the female body — specifically the erratic power play between the beautiful and opulent trappings of safety on the one hand and the ravages of unreliability and vulnerability on the other. “Whatever reaches out could be rejected,” writes the speaker in “A Little April”: “He was kind that one minute. I remember one, / Instinctively accounting to protect myself, / As if protection were some last word in love.” These tensions are often played out between undependable, self-absorbed mothers and the daughters who pay the price for that narcissism. Here is “The Monarch Birthmark,” which opens the collection:
Eyelash kisses: “Moth goodnight.” Her lashes tickle:
Monarchs kiss me
Off to sleep. And “Meadow Copper,” “Sleepy Orange”
Butterfly goodnight. The fluttered kisses quiver
Cheek and chin. And silver checker-
Spots on nose; the calicoes; a “Luna”
Laughing: kiss me
Here and here. Goodnight, the swarming
Silverspots; the lips of clicking
Wings. Again she says goodnight. And
Are there moths of caraway
And moths of Switzerland and swallowtails,
“Alfalfa,” “Western Sister”?
Feed on baby’s breath
Sycamore and ash, and drink the puddled mud and
Sage. The green-dust kisses brush; ask her anything
To stay. She moves across me; slower, blue-black robe,
Voluminous with butterflies,
Gauloise-perfumed; the pearly-eyes,
Their eye-spots, knots,
Drop; open downy orange ears,
And tickle here.
Hug another minute; other
Lullabies of butterflies; kiss
The zebras, banded purples,
Pygmies. “Are you sleeping?” Blink below her
Reading voice, a whisper-watch;
Slower, lower stirs
Breaks, waving clouds good-bye and branches, blankets, leaves,
“I said it’s time.”
Another minute — “Monarch” clouds of kisses; quick;
Lift among the giddy, amber rabble, rising
Up to covering evergreens. Caress
The trees in Mexico they choose
For sleep. And sleep,
Their wings up; lacy underthings —
“But why?” She stays
Another minute; “Monarch” kisses.
Lashes tickle. Now a chilly
Juice: A sleepy orange with
Her cigarette and remnants of Chanel.
She hovers by the bed, not
Sitting, standing now,
Robe of “Admiral,” Diana”; shivers pour her
Sleeves across her
Chest, dark as every hall behind her. She would dart
Away at any minute; any, anything
To stop her, like a funny song:
“Tick tock / Tickle talk / Tickle you!”
“Now that’s enough.”
Down comes baby, the hand falling
Hard on her face,
Hit. She had to hit me, had, to,
She explained, as lips, a scarlet
Wave, recede. The dolls, awake
On pillows, stiffen, watching the whole sky.
Our nature secret. We are
Strange enough to keep,
A “relaxing jar”: My specimens of silence
Pinned. Skin accepts
And adopts the pin. The pleasure waking hurt,
A secret song.
In phrases as abbreviated and fleet as the movements of winged insects or eyelashes fluttering against skin, Hall conjures a mother-daughter bedtime ritual. At first we see neither mother nor daughter, but are drawn into this half-lit private moment through synecdochic gestures, scraps of dialogue, and a seemingly playful naming of various butterflies and moths that we later learn adorn the “blue-black robe, / Voluminous with butterflies,” worn by the mother. That bruised (“blue-black”) moment marks a turn from playful game toward something else. “She moves across me” not only introduces bodies, but casts a shadow over the scene.
From here the tone subtly becomes more ominous. Mother grows impatient, her “good-nights” more frequent. When, smelling of the adult world of expensive cigarettes, Chanel, and oranges, she abruptly says, “It’s time,” the daughter turns all the more desperate: “But why?” and “ask her anything / To stay.” Tension mounts as the mother lingers for yet another pled-for “minute,” during which — in a kind of magical thinking — the poem lifts the reader cloud-ward, as though tracking the monarchs to far-off “trees in Mexico they choose / For sleep.” The lines “a vowel / Breaks, waving clouds good-bye and branches, blankets, leaves,” with their echo of the lullaby’s “When the bough breaks, the baby will fall,” offer another clue that any sense of security for the child sleeping in those treetops, or in the grounded bed, is fickle, precarious.
At this point, Hall creates a frisson of real terror when the mother abruptly rises, monstrous, mythic, “enormous / Robe of ‘Admiral,’ ‘Diana’; shivers pour[ing] her / Sleeves across her / Chest, dark as every hall behind her.” Her daughter’s piteously desperate attempts to woo and distract her with a tick-tock rhyme only heighten the suspense until the aforementioned bough breaks, baby falls, and the mother’s hand lands “[h]ard on her face.”
In the silent aftermath of this moment, Hall evokes without hysteria but with unflinching psychological clarity the ways in which children process cruelty and violence: “She had to hit me, had to, / She explained.” Like the sentinel of dolls, awake but stiffened and mute, the daughter is numb. She identifies with captured butterfly specimens, her only hope to be “strange enough to keep,” sealed like a dead insect in some human equivalent of a relaxing jar and then pinned in place. “Skin accepts / And then adopts the pin,” Hall writes, and of course we’re meant to hear “pain” here, “the pleasure waking hurt, / A secret song” out of which much poetry is born.
I have spent so much time with this marvelous and terrifying poem because it is emblematic of Hall’s ability to create texts, to quote McGann, that are equal to nothing but themselves. Anatomy, Errata brims with such creations, each unique to its subject matter — anorexia, mastectomy, cancer — and each alive with puns, cultural allusions (I Love Lucy, meet St. Peregrinus), and a dark intelligence commensurate with the animal stamina of the bodies the book explores.
If Hall’s second book concerned itself with the female experience and its vicissitudes, her most recent collection, Prospects, confronts more directly what it means to try to remain human, let alone humane, at a time warped by the consequences of commodification, capitalism, and empire. One way to think about the spirit of these poems is to imagine the survivors in Anatomy, Errata living long enough to apprehend the travesties of the first decades of the 21st century: the greedy years of tech start-ups, the economic crisis of 2008, the tragedy of war, the advent of Trumpism, the accelerating demise of the planet.
The backbone of the book is a series of short poems in all-caps that take as their titles lines from Stephen Crane’s “I saw a man pursuing the horizon.” The antic protagonist in these pieces embodies the desperate “pursuit of happiness” that is the engine of so much unhappiness in American life (“FAILING JUST IN TIME TO BEGIN / AGAIN, BREATHLESS”). Other poems are in conversation with literary “adventurers” like Huck Finn, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, and Lolita. Another poem spins off of Sylvia Plath’s “The Applicant,” and two ambitious long poems, “American Labor Poetry” and “Fracking Leaves of Grass,” show Hall to be as astute a reader of our sociopolitical moment as she is of intimate tragedies and of the literary tradition.
Balancing the often bleak vision of Prospects is Hall’s mordant wit and, of course, her formal agility. Hall is also careful to avoid histrionics, and to call them out if a text veers in that direction. The poems resist the Jeremiadic impulse at every turn. Witness the indictment of extremism in the sonnet-haunted “Night Heart,” which feels very much like a companion to “The Monarch Birthmark”:
Awake. Hurt. Hate you
When you lie in bed, hating the day that hurt.
And turning the head,
Hitting it; hurt yet?
Here you hit the pillow with your head,
Thinking, hate to think,
Or will it help to think? You said you hate
Help. Hit the pillow
With your head. Help yet? No, it doesn’t help.
Helpless are the hurt
And you should know. Hurt.
Blank it out. Blanket it. Blankety-blank
Before the fear breaks.
Years, your favorite sedative, the rant.
As these two collections show, there are many reasons to read and reread the poetry of Judith Hall. Rather than handing over their meanings, each poem is a scene of writing, self-conscious and immediate, inviting but not demanding complicity from the reader. Her intelligence, conscience, and psychological astuteness take the temperature of their subjects with uncompromising poetic and personal courage. What more could we ask?
Lisa Russ Spaar is a poet, essayist, and professor of English and creative writing at the University of Virginia. She has published numerous books of poetry, and her latest collection, Orexia, was published in 2017.