Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Poem366: “Almost Famous”­­ by Trish Hopkinson



Almost Famous by Trish Hopkinson

Almost Famous by Trish Hopkinson, Bangalore, India: Yavanika Press, 2019

In Almost Famous, the fourth chapbook by the consummate literary citizen, Trish Hopkinson, we find powerful and painful coming-of-age stories crafted as poems. The book starts with a vivid depiction of her own birth, written from her perspective, and it carries forward into the childhood and teen years, and every poem packs a potent gut-punch. While there were parts of my own life that diverged widely from the childhood Hopkinson describes, there was enough here that was familiar and shared.

For me, the strongest parts of the book were the first and last poems. The first, “Third Day, Third Month, 1972,” describes Hopkinson’s birth, which included the use of forceps:

                  A doctor,
or a man rather, pressed
a tool inside her, like the back

of a soup spoon reaching in
to a bowl of cold grits,
fished around for my tender

skull, and excised me for comfort.

The image here — forceps in a birth canal as a spoon in cold grits — casts the birth scene into an otherworldly sphere, I think mainly because the grits are cold. What kind of birth is this? It’s such a small touch, but a smart poetic decision because of its perfect not-quite-rightness.

At the end of “Third Day,” the poet looks down at her mother, “lying there / — as if dead. Her eyes still to the day, // anesthetized.” This was a startling notion as well, and it set up some questions at the start of the book: Are these biographical poems? Was the mother permanently damaged by the birthing incident? The mother performs ordinary acts, like conversations, through the rest of the chapbook, but the idea that there is no coming back from the birthing room seems to hold.

The dominate voice in the poem seems to cover a lot of ground — Missouri, the western mountains — but in “Kansas Flat,” Hopkinson writes evocatively of mobile home life in tornado country. She writes, “We drag this mobile home / from one town to another trying / to find a job my father can keep.” She offers perfect description of the trailer, with its “rows of science fiction paperbacks / double-parked to fit them all” (a telling detail of escapism), but she ends with the most stunning image of

                  mid-west trailer parks

where timid homes lie down like a dog
being scolded at the foot of a tornado —
sometimes, broken down in its wake,
collapsed like an empty cardboard box.

If any childhood scene is more fraught with danger than a Kansas trailer park, I don’t know what it is.

I mentioned that the first poem was one of my two favorites, but my very favorite — the place where Hopkinson comes into her full-throated own — is “Mixed Tape.” This poem is composed partly of lines from other poems in the collection and partly with new material, and the snippets are numbered and discrete, à la Wallace Stevens. Each section stands alone as its own perfect gem. I offer two favorites, just to give Hopkinson a chance to really strut her stuff here:

IV. I remember the fertile mud smell of the lake in Missouri where I learned to swim. If sense of smell worked underwater, it would smell of catfish and silt and long afternoons of treading water in the sun with the bluegills.

V. Should I ever grow a tail, my sacrum will connect it to my spine and wiggle when I walk or wag. For now, it holds my pelvis in place, gives each side a wall to lean on, like beatniks against a lamppost.

I am enchanted, body and soul, by those beatniks. It’s a perfect, and perfectly surprising, image from a rare talent.

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