This is “Magical Thinking” by Lynda Hull:
from Collected Poems, Graywolf Press 2006; reprinted with permission
Lynda Hull has been called a lyric master, and that is certainly true, as is evident in every line of her work. She was also a master narrative poet, because she was a committed storyteller, a highly sophisticated balladeer, a blueswoman. Her poems are so committed to story that I would say narrative is one of her operational credos: telling a story protects what is vanishing before our eyes, moves characters forward, and convenes a listening community, a community that we now know is long outliving Lynda, as this work does. I think, finally, she is also an epic poet. Her poems are longer than you expect them to be, but not of conventional epic length. But they take up space, move across time, and once again have a keen sense of the bardic, and the communities they call. She is telling the story of a blues tribe, and like the blues, when the singer sings “I” in all the specificities of her lament, the crowd hears “we” and joins her in the world she has created.
Hull’s poems’ belief in the word is quite utter. I know that all of us believe in questing for the exact right word in the exact right place; that is what we do, at the root. But Lynda Hull’s poems are relentless in their reverence of words. She uses quite remarkable words, but the poems never betray a self-satisfaction at having found that hundred-dollar word. Rather, she seems to have mined language—a broken and misused thing that she nonetheless reveres, in the ways that she approaches so many of her characters—and is then presenting both her readers and, it feels to me, the people inside her poems with the gift of the shimmering excellence of her words. She exalts the word and is humble within language, even as she creates poems of the most marvelous fabric.
Lynda’s poems make me jealous, in the best way—the kind of jealousy that says to poem after poem, I could not have written that, but then sends you back to the woodshed. Her poems teach: you must know so much more than you show. You must have at the ready more words, more vocabulary, than you could ever use. You must trust the sub rosa. You must love what you write about, even and especially in its wretchedness, and you must never condescend. You must trust artifice, for that is what we exercise when we make poems. She took artifice further than most poets, but her decoration was never frivolous. Rather, it revealed what was beneath it as it exulted in the fierce human will to make beauty from the broken glass of life. Her poems feel like fabric embroidered by a thousand tiny fingers; their voice is singular, and yet they feel like they speak for communities often dispossessed.
And these poems, it seems to me, were very hard to make. She sustains thought. She follows difficult emotional paths further than you imagine one could. Those thick five- and six-line stanzas do not collapse under their weight. She elegizes without being sentimental or maudlin. I imagine these poems as gold weights; they are heavy, in the literal sense, and in the jazzy vernacular that interested her but did not dominate her poems. The poems weigh a lot because there is a lot in them: language, emotion, story, saturated lines. Her poems are both of their times—the twenties, the forties, Newark in 1967—and in place at moments in the subterranean histories of people’s lives in place. So, she is keenly historical and intimate, at the same time. I am jealous of that, as well. Her poems are charms, are themselves magical, they ward off evil and invite the power of beauty. They have power that is palpable and actual and functional.
And I love that she is an urban poet. I always feel she saw and wrote about what was disappearing. In the urban east coast neighborhoods she so often wrote about, so much feels faded, suffering, struggling. DC, Philly, Newark, New York’s Chinatown, Roxbury: our urban neighborhoods are filled with a million stories of struggling and suffering, of going forth in style, and being human in each other’s midst. How powerfully Lynda Hull was drawn to those lives, and how powerfully she told those stories. The poems are nowhere near sentimental, as I’ve said, and yet they deny no part of the heart-feeling that seems to be a modus operandi for survival in her world. One mantra I take from her work, from the poem “Frugal Repasts,” is: “Better this immersion than to live untouched,” and that feels in part to speak to what it is to be a creature of the urban polis.
I watched Lynda listen to a story once, told by her friend Alane Rollings, who is a poet and great Southern storyteller. Alane had witnessed a flamingo being born, and she stood in the center of a small group of poet friends describing what she had seen. She described the moment of birth, the baby flamingo emerging from its mother, as she said, “like a scarlet pocketbook that dropped to the ground.” And then, as I remember it, Alane looked right at Lynda and said “Take it. You can have it.” And we all wanted it. But you know, I don’t think I could have done anything with it—I think it was hers. I don’t think it came into a poem, but the way she listened is what I remember, the way she beheld the story, and recognized the extraordinary image inside the story, and the language of which the image was made. I didn’t know Lynda well at all. We lived in Chicago in a few overlapping years and I would see her at readings, vivid and decorated and open-eyed. Her acuity spoke to me clearly, and I am sad not to have gotten to know her better, because I would have loved to have known more.
I’ll end with a very short poem that I wrote, called “Lynda Hull.”
“Lynda Hull,” from the poem “Elegy,” by Elizabeth Alexander. from American Sublime, published by Graywolf Press, 2005