Even though he has been publishing poetry for over a decade, A Clean Edge (BOAAT Press, 2017) is Jeremy Allan Hawkins’s first book-length publication. And in this case, it’s an all-too-short book. Winner of the 2016 BOAAT Chapbook Prize, A Clean Edge is a collection of sixteen “beautiful, important poems” with “an exceptional understanding of balance,” per Richard Silken, who judged the prize.
I largely agree with Silken. In addition to balance, A Clean Edge is marked by economy, both of language—there are no superfluous words in these poems—and touch. Hawkins does not lead his readers by the nose, suggesting what and how they should feel. Instead, he presents things at a clinical distance in the tradition of “show, don’t tell.”
Here’s a representative sample, the striking last few stanzas of “What Is True is Seen from a Distance”:
We stood on another shore & looked out
to see the ducks quarreling, to see
how the swans write an invisible script.
Our time is spare. We are stone’s arcing flight,
doubled a moment in the water,
just as we seem to meet.
The boy aims & finally strikes one of the swans, snapping
Something in that willowy trunk.
It dies slowly, & he is made to watch.
However, the book’s economy makes for a somewhat unapproachable read. Like its minimal, nigh-inscrutable cover art, the poems in A Clean Edge defy easy description. Who is the speaker? Are there multiple speakers? Likewise, if you haven’t seen the 1960 Italian film L’Avventura or read much Kant—referents of the seventh and eleventh poems, respectively—well, you’re shit out of luck. And why do the poems seem oddly depopulated, even when characters are “idling with razors” and sitting in piazzas? The poems in A Clean Edge feel like they’ve been highly edited, picked over and scrubbed over a long period (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing). These poems weren’t published in haste.
To better understand the thinking, if not the stories, behind these poems, I interviewed Hawkins over email. Though the text has been lightly edited for style, I preserved Hawkins’s ruminative answers (which addressed multiple questions simultaneously) as much as possible. They are the iceberg beneath the surface.
Can you talk about the role of the pastoral and nature in your work? There are obviously people & towns & built environments in your work, but the feel I get from A Clean Edge is much more meadowy.
And I have my own ideas, but what do you see as the unifying theme of this collection?
Well, you have me in a bind right from the start, but that’s good. The difficulty I have in expressing myself on the pastoral, on nature, on the built environment, and how we articulate these concepts—where we situate a meadow, even—in poetry or otherwise, is one of the engines that lead me to write this chapbook. Like many writers, I think my work often finds its origins in quarrel; in this case, I can say your question touches directly on my frustration with humanist philosophy, common conceptions of nature, and Robert Duncan, not to mention the language in which all of this comes into being.
Nearly all of the meadows we know are anthropogenic, including Duncan’s symbolist meadow. This doesn’t deny the fact that they can hold important ecosystems, in the real and in the imaginary senses, especially now that we have declared the existence of the anthropocene, but most of us have never seen or even pictured a meadow that hasn’t come about through human influence. There are more staggering things to consider when it comes to the terrible impact of humanity on the planet, but it’s this idea that has me rereading Duncan's “Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow” differently than when I was younger.
The meadow of agrarian nostalgia, of fascist cinema, and of pastoral poetry is, with hardly an exception, a “made place.” That Duncan, gorgeously, establishes this as an originary site of being, well, it drives me crazy. Put that poem alongside Stevens’ “Anecdote of the Jar” and you can get me close to spewing lava. Both poems put the made thing at the origin or the center of order in the world, which isn't necessarily wrong, depending on your understanding of order, though it is questionable to celebrate such idealist stances. Granted, not Duncan, nor Stevens, or any other writers of the past had the evidence we have today of human violence toward the earth, and I don't have any pretensions of bettering them.
What does it mean, though, when what we long for, what we may desire to return to, is essentially the built environment? Does longing for wilderness make any real difference? Doesn't nature encompass it all, even our fatal technologies, from plowshares to CRISPR/Cas9? [Editor’s note: CRISPR/Cas9 is a genome editing system] Isn’t this the same trap that Heidegger set up and sprang himself? Is our best hope to return to the made thing in the form of the cut, the return to the beginning of the break?
If I return to your question, I think it's important to say that the poem itself is a built environment. It can approach or encompass a meadow, but it has no purchase on an unadulterated nature, a wilderness, if such a thing exists on this planet. And so, longing for that would be longing for an escape from the poem, a veritable desire in the fact that it is blunted and turned aside by the limits of material existence, including where the absolute lack of human morality in nature shows itself in force. Otherwise, the natural in most poetry isn't much different from “green space” in urban planning—a palliative.
The oldest poem in this chapbook, “The Crocus Thief,” was written nine years ago in Transylvania, in the city of Brasov, from where I've just come after reading in a poetry biennial they held in November. It’s a rare place in Europe in that it has a bear problem: there, in the Carpathian mountains, bears, wolves, and lynx still have habitat. So really, it’s that the bears there have a human problem, because their remaining habitat is being encroached, to the point where the images in my work of bears stalking around apartment blocks has a certain normality. These incredibly intelligent beings are breaking into garbage dumpsters, adapting to the environment to find food and survive. How long, though, until Transylvania looks like modern-day France, where I live? Until the Carpathians are as culled and tamed as the Black Forest in Germany?
I should say, anything we need to understand about the ridiculousness of human attempts to empathize with bears, or nature in general, can be found in Herzog’s Grizzly Man. I really can't improve on that, or, for that matter, on the vast bulk of what ecopoetics and ecocriticism has taught us about our literally pathetic conceptions of nature. We haven’t gotten very far from the pathetic fallacy, if at all. Which, naturally, means we might also reconsider how we dismiss it so easily, in literature at least. In the meantime, these concerns have taken up deep roots in my thinking, and so has been a structural constant in the writing of these poems, and mostly without my consent.
Swans might seem like they don't quite fit in all of this, but I think they do. They aren’t very pleasant animals, but we are sensitive to violence against them because we perceive their beauty.
These don't strike me as speaker-centered poems. Obviously a speaker is present, sometimes more often than not, but these aren't me-me-me or confessional poems. Or if they are, the confessionalism is obscured by a kind of distance. Can you talk about your use of the speaker, how you view it in your own work, ideas you have thereon?
To get to the question of the speaker, I think it’s worth making a connection to my previous comments about the human vs the natural. I'm not so persuaded by that binary, but I am, however, fairly convinced by our inability to transcend the human. Which is to say, however much it deals with ecological questions, ecopoetics as a field is still a fundamentally human affair, just one wise enough to position itself within an ontology that doesn't elevate humans over existence itself. Poetry, as a human endeavor, then, for me, is bound up in human concerns, even as it desires to go beyond them.
Can you imagine a non-human poetry? It might simply be another way of thinking of nature. What greater poiesis than creation? It's a bit high-highfalutin, but the question does occur to me frequently.
When writing the poems in A Clean Edge, however, I was very much concerned with human limitation. I think there's a strong Kantian odor in my work that I just can't seemed to get rid of. And perhaps, for me, the hope is not to transcend the human, but to transcend the individual subject. This would be the stakes of Kant’s third critique, the Critique of Judgement, establishing beauty as the grounds of link between individual consciousness and the shared moral imperative. It's dangerous philosophy to take too literally, and I'm persuaded that we have to carefully dismantle the unexploded ordinance leftover by German idealism, but I don’t take that to be a recipe for flat denial. Slap Kant's work around with a hefty dose of doubt, three servings of new materialism, and one or two meaningful human relationships, and it becomes salvageable, I think.
I’m grateful, though, that you read the speakers in these poems as distant, obscured by distance. I keep talking about philosophy, but maybe that's my way of diffusing the grief that grounds most of this writing. In a way, I’m not sure if that emotional center is important—it has its gravity, over which I have limited control—and the historically real grief that spurred some of these poems—now transformed beyond recognition—is the least relevant aspect of the work for me. What was pertinent to me, as I wrote this chapbook, however, was that I accept the weak force of the human voice born in the grapheme. To fault the human is not to stop loving it, and so the quarrel behind these works is amorous. The speakers are horribly in love with themselves, no?
Kevin O’Rourke recently published his first book, the essay collection As If Seen at an Angle with Tinderbox Editions.