Lynda Hull's "Ornithology"
I want to thank David for pulling this panel together; these have been extraordinarily moving statements. I want to acknowledge that some members of Lynda’s family are here today: her parents, Gene and Christine Hull, and her sister—thank you for doing this. And I want to thank Graywolf for bringing an essential text back into the light of print and available for new generations of readers.
I’m going to read Lynda’s poem “Ornithology.” And I’ll give you just a little bit of orientation for the poem. The speaker begins in Chicago; she’s out for a walk and an observation triggers the memory of a night in Kansas City, years before, when she and a friend went looking for Charlie Parker’s grave. And it might be helpful to know that the poem ends with a quotation from Parker himself, and along the way we are contemplating some ailanthus trees—those are those tough, urban trees with feathery foliage and red seed pods that seem to—that the more dreadful the conditions in which they are growing, the better they look. Here’s the poem:
from Collected Poems, Graywolf Press 2006; reprinted with permission
Lynda Hull’s “Ornithology” centers on a compelling bit of narration; it just seems intrinsically interesting, a drunken all-night quest with a black drag queen to find the grave of a great jazz musician (and notable heroin addict). But I want to focus here on the ways this story is framed, the extraordinary apparatus of commentary, image and meditation that surrounds the tale. I’d argue that this scaffolding, in fact, is the poem; that is, the narration’s only here to provide a kind of hook, a focal moment which makes the poem’s larger gestures apprehensible.
The poem begins with an evocation of an ailanthus, a tough urban tree with feathery foliage and reddish seed pods that seems to thrive in the worst of conditions. The tree-ripe seedpods suggest parrots, and thus suggest the Charlie Parker album that lends the poem its title. There’s no action in that opening sentence:
It simply places the tree before us, in a phrase with its usual syntactical order inverted, and then follows it immediately with a bit of reflexive commentary:
Thus the pattern of the whole poem’s been predicted; the text will present us with image and narration, but it will also tell us how to read what we’re given, providing a self-conscious commentary throughout.
“Take a phrase, then fracture it” is a good description of a working principle of jazz, and of the poem’s own syntax and lineation—it’s artfully staggered on the page, introducing air and hesitation. But it’s also a good description of reverie, the associative mode of thinking that provides the poem with its structure. The speaker’s thinking about Parker’s music while contemplating that flaming tree, and tells us
Thus we can move effortlessly into memory, and the poem’s offered us another description of its own method in that beautiful phrase, liquid geometry, an oxymoronic term that describes precisely the way that consciousness is both fluid and orderly.
The reconstruction of experience in memory lends it a kind of a heightened sheen, an atmospheric lighting borrowed from film noir, the risky old days gone beautiful through this lens. You can hear this quality in
or this bit of Hollywood:
As much as Hull loves the sensuous glamour of those details, they cannot ward off a chill at the memory’s core:
Nor can they erase the fact that the speaker’s own all-too-human life cannot quite match the effortless effects that the restorative agents of memory and artifice would like to achieve:
The question the poem has been circling becomes overt when the poet asks what can be made of the sad tombstone of an artist destroyed, and what can be made of this memory itself:
The question is urgent because it is not academic; it is as much a personal quest as it is a consideration of Charlie Parker’s fate. And it has a very particular answer: “Phrases,” the poem’s only one-word sentence, a gesture which points to how essential and plain an answer it is. What we have, in light of erasure and ruin, all that jazz and death play down to, is the music we can make. That music, in Hull’s poem, carries us back through the past, in its beauty and brokenness, back to the ailanthus, with its brilliant colors arising out of deprivation, and finally to the poem’s final assertion of an esthetic credo, quoted from Parker himself. What ruins us, what carries us away, the wreckage around us—well, it can be lived out, can be lived into, and if we can do nothing else with it we can make music. This is another version of an emphatic statement of belief which appears elsewhere in Lynda’s work: “Better this immersion than to live untouched.”
These two statements—“If you don’t live it, it won’t come out your horn” and “Better this immersion than to live untouched”—are the guiding principles of a restless intelligence determined not only to give form to the troubling, roiling stuff of memory and of struggle, but to engage us in that form itself and its making, to understand how any artist, poet or horn player, makes out of love and trouble a pattern which, in the hands of masterful artists like Lynda Hull or Charlie Parker, outlives its maker, and transcends the circumstances of its making.