December 5, 2008

Review by Michael Meyerhofer

OCTOPUS
by Tom Hunley

Logan House Press
Route 1 Box 154
Winside, NE 68790
ISBN – 978-0-9769935-3-7
2008, 80 pp., $12.00
www.loganhousepress.com

Tom Hunley’s Octopus is the kind of book that feels like the poet had just as much fun writing it as I had reading it. For me, a book of poetry has to pass the dog-ear test before I consider it one of my favorites; Octopus passed that test with ease. Here is a poet of sharp wit, integrity, and bittersweet intellect. He is also a fine craftsman of sharp imagery.

For example, in “Release,” Hunley gives voice to a captured rainbow trout: “I’m no wall trophy. / Let me go.” The poem goes on to mention Cho Seung Hoi, responsible for the infamous murders at Virginia Tech, but does so with poignant grace and respect, merely describing: “32 orange and white balloons / lifted up, launched into the night” (40).

Throughout this book, Hunley speaks eloquently of love, loss, fatherhood, and the everyday absurdities of life—which, in Hunley’s hands, sound damn heroic. He is a poet who understands the humorists’ golden rule, popularized by other poets like Tony Hoagland and Thomas Lux: to really drive your point home, first disarm the reader. Take these final lines from “In My Thirty-Eighth Year, Remembering My Nineteenth”:

…I fell whenever
I felt. My frailty wasn’t my fault. The sky
was the color of a burning book, and I
decided to try and write what I
supposed the book might have said. (1)

For me, those lines work not only because they’re great lines, but because Hunley has wisely softened up his reader with: “I was drugged at dawn, drunk / at noon. It was an open secret, like the pee in the / public pool…”

Another prime example of this disarming tactic, executed with the quick grace of a fencer’s foil, can be seen in “I Do What I Can.” Here, Hunley opens with: “My wife says our children need help / being conceived, being born, / and I’m there for them, there for her. / My pleasure! I tell her” (51). The poem progresses through a whimsical short list of fatherhood duties, from Tee Ball practice to karate lessons, then turns to helping a stranded driver—which leads, in turn, to the narrator observing the need for a pallbearer at a funeral that turns out to be his own:

…They don’t need
someone to carry the casket, they need
someone to crawl into the box and be
the dead body. My pleasure, I tell them. (51)

There’s humor here, but courage too in the poet’s fierce resignation, his amusing acknowledgement of the strange sequence of events that leads from love to fatherhood to old age and, ultimately, to death. Yet what could easily have been a morose tale becomes a ballad of quiet heroism and humor tinged with sadness, a narrative of seemingly effortless turns that opens the reader’s heart and mind all in the space of a single page.

These poems sparkle with an easy wit and an intellect reminiscent of Hemingway’s “Iceberg Theory,” wherein the writer deliberately leaves out certain details for the reader’s imagination to fill in for itself, thereby adding more depth and enjoyment to the story. In short, what’s left out of Hunley’s deceptively simple poems speaks to the incredible strength of emotion and understanding just beneath the metaphorical surface of the page. While Hemingway’s theory and style were originally meant for prose, Hunley is one of those few modern writers able to successfully adapt that style to poetry.

Even “The Dental Hygienist,” which seems at first to be a purely comical poem about a pretty hygienist asking questions to which the patient can only respond with “Mmpllff,” ends up turning into a commentary on relationships, masculinity, and communication—a turn, like many in this book, executed so gracefully that the reader follows without missing a beat.

Hunley’s Octopus is a fine read for those who are veteran readers of poetry, as well as those who are new to the craft. I can definitely see the merits of teaching this book in classrooms, helping to dispel beginning students’ preconceived notions of what a poem can and cannot be. Octopus also serves as a lesson to those who think poetry must conform to one of two extremes—being either intellectual but humorless, or witty but without substance. Hunley’s book takes a big risk in seeking to disprove both notions, and we’re all better off for his success.

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Michael Meyerhofer is the author of two books and three chapbooks. His work has appeared in Ploughshares, Arts and Letters, North American Review, River Styx, Mid-American Review, and other journals. He can be contacted at: mrmeyerhofer@bsu.edu