To “jump the gun” is to act too soon, before the proper time, to leave the blocks before the starting pistol has gone off, but what does it mean to “jump the clock,” the title of Erica Hunt’s important volume of new and selected poetry? It sounds like an idiomatic expression, but I don’t think I’ve heard it. Maybe it means jumping out of clock-time altogether—out of mechanized, monetized time, in which the future is endless accumulation and the past is discarded. To jump the clock isn’t to get a leg up in the race but to refuse the race’s logic; it’s to make jump cuts, to escape into other orders, to develop counter-metrics. “Corpses will jump with the impact of automatic gunfire,” Hunt writes in her poem “Local History (cold war breaks),” reminding us that the guns in question aren’t firing blanks. Clocks and guns, a crucial conjunction of empire, cross in the title of Hunt’s collection, a title that asks us to imagine life outside the standard time enforced by violence.
The phrase “jump the clock” appears in the last stanza of her poem “Octavio Paz’s calendar”:
Not everyone makes it
To face forward towards the sun
Not everyone lives to jump the clock or
outwit the gaze that would turn us into stones
Not everyone lives to wake the dead if they have to.
Hunt is responding to Paz’s “Piedra de Sol” (“Sunstone,” 1957), a long poem comprised of a single, looped sentence (its last six lines are identical to its first six lines) that corresponds to the circular Aztec calendar, which is based on the synodic period of Venus—584 days, the number of lines in “Piedra de Sol.” Both poets are imagining different temporal orders, other ways of relating past, present, and future; both use poetry to explore alternative measures. Hunt’s emphasis here, however, is on those who don’t survive the leap, who are turned to mere matter, to “stones,” by the Medusa-like gaze of those who enforce the dominant rhythms of the day. “I must make a break or turn into stone,” Hunt writes in a recent essay, “into one of those statues some people want us to be guarding the door to the past.”
Erica Hunt was born in Manhattan in 1955. Her mother, who was blind, worked as a transcriptionist. Her father worked for the post office and the MTA. Hunt went to school briefly at the University of Vermont and then at San Francisco State University, where she studied with the poets Michael Palmer and Kathleen Fraser, and where, in the late 1970s and 1980s, she became associated with the Language poets. As a college student in the late 1990s I first encountered her poems in In the American Tree, an anthology of Language writing edited by Ron Silliman—an anthology in which she was, to my knowledge, the only contributor of color.
Language poetry was an avant-garde movement that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, primarily in the Bay Area and New York City. Crucial to the movement were small magazines and publishers, such as L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E (edited by Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein, with whom Hunt has often been in conversation) and Tuumba Press (edited by Lyn Hejinian). As with most artistic schools or groupings, differences among the writers quickly trouble the label’s coherence—poets like Rae Armantrout and Hejinian, for instance, don’t have that much in common beyond being very good—but there were shared concerns. In opposition to “confessional” poetry (and notions of poetic inwardness), Language poets emphasized the materiality and constructedness of language and self; the lyric “I,” these poets contended, was a bourgeois fiction.
In its most polemical early statements—like Silliman’s influential 1979 talk (later published as an essay), “The New Sentence,” and his related writings—the program of Language poetry was a kind of deprogramming, a weapon in class warfare: disjunctive prose poems would both illuminate and interrupt the linguistic norms of capitalism. Silliman’s idea was—roughly—that grammatical but logically unrelated sentences organized “quantitatively” (according to an arbitrary line count, not a main idea) into paragraphs would both solicit and then frustrate our “will to integration,” our tendency to link sentences into higher orders of meaning, which involves forgetting the actual marks on the page.
This short-circuiting of our reading habits was important, Silliman believed, because absorptive texts that conceal their own production, texts that depend upon conventions of a unified voice or realist strategies of depiction, are the means by which “capitalism passes on its preferred reality through language itself to individual speakers.” Paragraphs like the following by Bob Perelman are, according to Silliman, examples of writing that—by only almost forming a coherent narrative—tactically disrupts linguistic integration:
An inspected geography leans in with the landscape’s repetitions. He lived here, under the assumptions. The hill suddenly vanished, proving him right. I was left holding the bag. I peered into it.
Silliman wasn’t making aesthetic claims for such writing, but political ones (“Let us undermine the bourgeoisie!”), and the politics was entirely on the plane of form: these prose poems were jamming mechanisms breaking up voice and story, which were said to be ideological formations in need of deconstruction (poststructuralism, like Roland Barthes’s essay “The Death of the Author,” was in the air). For the Language poets generally, a smoothly written lyric or narrative poem might have progressive or revolutionary content, but it would nevertheless be reactionary in its reproduction of the norms of bourgeois representation. Laying bare the device was part of anticapitalist struggle.
For many decades now, in many disciplines, writers and scholars and artists of color have noted how postmodern pieties like “decentering the subject,” proclaiming the death of the author, dismissing identity as “essentialist,” or rejecting narrative can actually serve to protect the normativity of whiteness, which is allowed to remain unmarked, unremarked. In a trenchant 2014 essay published in the poetry journal Lana Turner, Cathy Park Hong, echoing James Baldwin, describes what she calls “the avant-garde’s ‘delusion of whiteness’”:
The specious belief that renouncing subject and voice is anti-authoritarian, when in fact such wholesale pronouncements are clueless that the disenfranchised need such bourgeois niceties like voice to alter conditions forged in history.
It’s a point that needs to go on being made (many Language writers themselves have long since made it), since I can personally attest to the fact that it’s still quite possible to be in a nearly all-white room listening to people talk about how a group of nearly all-white writers are doing important left political work—attacking the norms of capitalist subjectivity, undermining the language of empire—by writing sufficiently disjunctive poetry.
Hunt’s poems—many of them are prose poems—can certainly be read in relation to the priorities and techniques Silliman and other Language writers advanced. She often deploys non sequitur, for instance. And a range of discourses and perspectives appear within a single poem, both enacting and frequently describing the instability of the “I.” A passage like this, from the title poem in Local History, Hunt’s first book, in many ways resembles Perelman’s work:
X number of persons are manufactured in this country every minute. When I finished this sentence there were two more. We are completely unknown to each other so keep a respectful distance. It takes a wrap-around imagination, to separate our lives from the statistics. Look, I’m beside myself.
But Hunt’s poems, for all their tactical disordering of readerly assumptions, also explicitly and powerfully narrate episodes of racism (“Death is a white boy backing out a lawnmower from the garage, staring down the black girl’s hello, silently re-entering the cool shell of his house”) and make more or less direct statements about structural inequality and police violence. Such moments are in tension with Language poetry dogma about disjunction and anti-expressivity:
To live with gunshots riding on the night air is to live penned in or penned out of visibility just beyond the horizon, youth stolen or vanished. In this war casualties multiply: one in four in prison, one in four unemployed, one in four with a habit, every square foot to be fought for. In the panic that is no solution, the police pillage and fail to protect; youth stolen by fire; the ranks of the armies swell.
Hunt’s writing differs from most of the authors associated with Language poetry both because of passages of such narrative directness and because contesting linguistic norms and exploring the production and policing of personhood bear a different significance and expressive power when the author is a Black woman, someone whose full access to the status of personhood has historically been denied. (And while she shares a sense that disrupting conventional reading habits can disclose new possibilities of thought and feeling, Hunt, who has worked as a housing organizer and labor reporter, seems skeptical of the avant-garde fantasy that writing difficult poetry constitutes meaningful political action: “One troubling aspect of privileging language as the primary site to torque new meaning and possibility is that it is severed from the political question of for whom new meaning is produced.”*)
Her involvement with and contributions to Language poetry are real and substantial (as are Language poetry’s contributions to late-twentieth-century poetry and poetics), but she can neither be read as a writer who merely demonstrates some postmodern cliché about the self being socially produced, nor can she be accused of offering a smoothly packaged bourgeois fantasy of asocial interiority.
The way Hunt’s work refuses this false choice is part of its power, but I also suspect it’s one reason she isn’t better known or featured more prominently in discussions of Language writing or sufficiently read independent of it. She resists (but her reception might well be subject to) a familiar, pernicious, and still widely operative logic in which writers and artists of color are either dismissed for being concerned with identity (instead of formal experiment) or are reduced to their identity (at the expense of taking their formal innovations seriously). Penned in, penned out. As Dorothy J. Wang, the author of Thinking Its Presence (2013), a much-needed book on the interplay of form and race in contemporary poetry, wrote in The Boston Review in 2015:
Poems by minority poets are almost always judged on the basis of their thematic (sociological, ethnographic) content in the “traditional” or “mainstream” poetry world and rarely on their formal or aesthetic structures, properties, modes….
But the flipside of the same coin is true in the world of “innovative” poetry and poetics, where the “absence” of obvious racial identity is to be applauded—for not exhibiting the hallmarks of “bad poetry” (read: “identity poetry” [read: “minority poetry”]).
Hunt’s formal experiments are neither separable from the lived experiences and social circumstances she incisively describes—nor are they reducible to them. Even when, maybe especially when, she draws our attention to the materiality of writing, down to the literal shape of a punctuation mark, when she interrogates how the self is circumscribed by language, it would require a significant sleight of hand to elide the presence of race and racist violence, and their inseparability from her urgent desire to “invent a language”:
Is the speaker the puppet or the puppeteer?
Sleight of hand, an ancient forgery,
conducted in language so under the skin we think
we are speaking our own thoughts?
At the end of the line is that a noose or a question mark?
Jump the Clock gathers in one volume six small press books and chapbooks organized nonchronologically: Local History (1993), Piece Logic (2002), Arcade (1996), A Day and Its Approximates (2013), Time Slips Right Before Your Eyes (2006), and Veronica: A Suite in X Parts (2019). I’m giving the dates of the publications, but, significantly, they are nowhere to be found in Jump the Clock. The new part of “new and selected” is difficult to identify from the table of contents and there is no separate section devoted to recent, uncollected works. What’s new here are revisions and additions to the previous books, internal innovations and expansions that complicate their dating. To choose just one example, three poems that now appear as pieces of Piece Logic—“time management,” “High Anxiety,” and “Tin Gods”—were not part of the original edition from Carolina Wren Press. (Hunt’s practice of picking a series back up over time adds to this sense of her work as purposefully unfinished, ongoing: “A Coronary Artist,” for instance, appears in Local History; “Coronary Artist (2)” and “Coronary Artist (3)” appear in Arcade.)
Hunt’s unconventional approach to structuring her selected poems is an elegant conceptual architecture for a body of work so concerned with correspondence, repetition, and the life of the past in the present—the way human experience is often “clocked to incorrect/metrics,” reduced to linear time. (It is also a body of work concerned with the body, with eros and aging: “I am middle-aged, a woman of strong appetites and desires, furiously alive; a woman with a tongue in her head. At my age, I no longer live under virtue’s shadow. Now I have only myself to praise or blame.”) For Hunt, the past is always imperfect, in both the literal sense of flawed and the grammatical sense of unfinished: “The past is imperfect; it is unfinished”; “The past is far from perfect. It is unfinished”; “The future’s back and the light is imperfect”; and, from the brief author’s note at the end of the book:
As a history of the present, a poem is an immanent artifact, language in action written in dialog at a specific time, multi-sided, cubed and layered with the writer’s circumstances. A poem has an afterlife of its own, hits a pitch resonating with the past imperfect, askew/aligned with the present time.
It’s less that Hunt revises her previous publications, which would imply the present supplanting a static past, than that she accompanies the past in a kind of duet in the present and creates a chord between two moments of composition, holding tenses in suspension: “The past tense of read is read.”
In a typical “new and selected” collection, poems from earlier publications tend to be omitted, not added, so I kept having to remind myself that I might be reading new writing under an old title. I was briefly disoriented, for example, to encounter the poem “Lines on Love’s (Loss)”—a poem “for Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor”—within Veronica: A Suite in X Parts, a series that I first read in 2019. For a moment it was as though the elegy preceded the losses in question, mourned them in advance. This sense of temporal dislocation was moving and discomfiting because, while predicting the particular names of the victims in question would have required clairvoyance, predicting the ongoing fact of police murder of Black people is banal, a horribly sure bet.
The X in “A Suite in X Parts”—and there are a lot of X’s in Hunt’s work (“X number of persons are manufactured…”)—takes on a powerful resonance: it’s not only a declaration that the length of the sequence is variable, indeterminate; not only, perhaps, an echo of Malcolm X and the politics of naming; but also a placeholder for losses to come between the time of writing and the time of reading. There will no doubt be X more lines, X more epitaphs and epigraphs, to add in the future. That “Lines on Love’s (Loss)” includes blanks amplifies this sense of holding space for future mourning, anachronistic elegy:
“always more song to be sung” between the words
jars memory and its subatomic_______________________
moving at the speed of thought_______________________
in random thirsts rise__________________
naming the sensations,_______________________
fishing for breath,_______________________
“The future’s back and they’ve loaded the clocks with slugs,” Hunt writes in “The back of the future,” an anaphoric poem I quoted from earlier, in which slugs can mean both very slow creatures and bullets, again crossing clocks and guns. “The future’s back and I don’t see our names/(Fill in the curves).”
The way Jump the Clock faces forward and backward simultaneously makes it eerily appropriate for a present in which a pandemic has suspended the normal temporal rhythms for so many of us, while laying bare our mortally uneven relationship to those rhythms (who still has to clock in, who has to fish for breath). The book’s troubling of chronology also feels right for an election year that was in many ways a contrast between two versions of white nostalgia: Trump’s promise—and his promises are expressed in rhetoric more disjunctive than Language poetry—of a return to an imaginary world of unchallenged white supremacy and Biden’s bid for a neoliberal restoration (which is also a restoration of the conditions that produced Trump).
“In these poems,” Hunt writes in her author’s note, “I re-collect the old Cold War, as well as the continuous present wars of domination; I mark the struggles for Black Freedom, women’s, and queer liberation, as well as the backlash, and suppression that violently animate our present.” In its very structure, Jump the Clock marks progress and regress, the ongoing dance of exploitation and resistance, while refusing to offer a facile compensatory fiction of inevitable personal or collective advancement.
Instead, the precious thing it offers is Hunt’s practice of freedom, her insistence that poetry works “against bureaucratic seizures of the possible,” her decades-long commitment to a formal restlessness in the service of discovery and love, of poetry as a way of making contact in the always renewable present tense of reading: “Touch, reader, we were meant to touch/to exchange definitions and feed the pulse of/language.” I want to quote one poem in its entirety to give some sense of Hunt’s sensitivity to the pulse of language, to its music and its prosody:
ignites in me plenitude
that scents rain. Sense
the sky is full of surprising
music. Timpani, trumpet
a blue tent torn that orders
cogent, cumulative event in which no false intonation
claims itself king
over all. Every last woman
man, and child proof the rain falls
never to be worn out
Freedom is the breaking point beyond rage
I’m not scared and I don’t care where the dream
undertakers have warned me not
to take too much, not to
love too much, not to look too closely at the past,
What could there be left to break?
Nothing left to be broken
Nothing left to be taken.
I’m not sure how to read the asterisks in the title. They make me think of a censored obscenity, the way asterisks often are used to cite but avoid repeating slurs. “Freedom” is a word so often instrumentalized for projects of domination that it would make sense for it to be placed under some kind of typographical suspicion. Regardless, one effect of this elision is to attune me to questions of sound: the asterisks make me aware of the ee that’s gone missing, a long e I then listen for and look for as I read: me, timpani, and the crescendo of the dream the poem defends (maybe the dream of freedom?). The sonic pattering in the poem is exquisite: the play of t’s and n’s and short e’s across trumpet, tent, cogent, and event, sounds that give way to the long a’s in claims, rain, rage, take, and break. These repetitions and small, felt differences are distributed sometimes within lines, sometimes at the end of them.
And the poem’s enjambments (the little jumped clocks that make a poem) are at once highly unpredictable and soft, maybe because there is punctuation close to the left margin to cushion the fall of the syntax across the preceding right margin—the periods and commas that buttress “music,” “cogent,” “all,” and “man.” These modulations and staggered rests add up to a surprising music, an order in which no one tone is dominant. Such artistry with lineation, with “breaking points,” makes that phrase indicate something more than mere collapse, something more like plenitude, sites where meaning multiplies, a condition in which scents and sense, the sensorial and the logical, are fused in the music of the phrase, freed from singularity by punning and the unfolding of the form.
The poem transforms “proof” from an adjective (as in “proof against”) into a noun, letting it first flicker for an instant as a verb; it transforms the sentence into the assertion that we all constitute evidence that rain so sensed and scented is inexhaustible, that our senses form a commons. I could be overreading or otherwise erring here, but better to take too much than to be another undertaker, who treats the dream like a corpse. “What we do not dream,” Hunt notes in “Lines on Love’s (Loss),” “we cannot manufacture.”
All of this is to scratch the surface of Hunt’s work—I’ve said nothing, for instance, about her collaborations with visual artists and her incorporation of photographs into her books, or the life of her writing off the page, in performance. But I hope to have indicated something of why I find her poems so resonant now—resonant with the past imperfect in the imperfect present. She is a genuinely experimental writer whose work cannot be captured by the old but still influential vanguard futurisms that, under the sign of making it new, are so often conservative: reinscribing a distinction between form and content, conserving the normativity of whiteness. This is art that never pretends to be simply beyond identity (which would mean being beyond history) but also refuses to treat identity as a closed sphere, which would be another form of penning in. “These poems,” as Hunt says in her author’s note, “were and are a rehearsal space for emancipated knowing, thinking and feeling; the open space of hope that through invention and play, lies a road to getting free.”
February 25, 2021
The Trump Inheritance
The Stench of American Neglect
See Hunt’s “Notes for an Oppositional Poetics” in The Politics of Poetic Form: Poetry and Public Policy, edited by Charles Bernstein (Roof, 1990). ↩