Review by Stephen Allen (email)
THE BOOK OF FUNNELS
by Christian Hawkey
Wave Books, 1938 Fairview Avenue East, Seattle, WA 98102; ISBN #0972348794; Verse Press/Wave Books, 72 pp., $13.00 (pb.)
Broadly speaking, Christian Hawkey's first book of poetry can be said to fall under the general rubric of American Pop Surrealism, where "Pop" refers not to, say, Britney Spears but rather to, say, Roy Lichtenstein. This is Surrealism stripped of its political agenda and much of its theoretical base, but still taking delight in the odd image, the curious phrasing, the disruption of expectations. Think John Ashbury (who contributes a blurb to the back of The Book of Funnels). Think Charles Simic. Think, above all, James Tate.
The structure of The Book of Funnels is reasonably straightforward: three sections of multiple poems alternate with three sections containing one poem each. All sections but the second, which is labeled "The Book of Funnels," are headed by an "X." (X marks the spot? Solve for X? Either could apply.) Placement of poems seems, for the most part, random: there are no unifying topics or formal patterns in any of the sections with more than one poem. More cohesion is provided by the recurrence of two major themes: subliminality and fragmentation.
It should come as no surprise that a Surrealist poet would pay attention to what goes unnoticed and remains hidden: despite the su[pe]r prefix, Surrealism has always concerned itself with the subconscious and the subliminal. This is the realm where things are known in passing if at all, where what is most important is most hidden. Here is where we can find people who speak "Manx / from the Isle of Man, or Monapia, which no one recalls, except in sleep" ("The Isle of Monapia"), where a search party is needed for the search party ("Search Party"), where whispers are the main means of communication. Of course, putting something on the edge of, or just beyond, awareness draws attention to it:
Once he kicked a red ball over the fence.
Once it was over it was in his mind.
Once it was in his mind, it began to grow.
("The Art of Navigating in the Air")
This stylistic gesture towards that which is just beyond awareness reaches a peak "A Clearing," where the sense that important things are happening offstage is combined with a lyric intensity that lifts the poem far above much of the rest of the book.
What is experiencing, or trying to experience, these hidden things? A very fragmented body. The very first poem ("The Island of Monapia") contains ribs that appear to drift loose and faces that "have risen from water, / floating above us." This fragmentation can contribute to the muddled perception endemic to the speakers in Hawkey’s poems:
. . . by the seat
of my lips I speak sideways, into an ear,
any ear, my own, which never fully formed,
is deformed, is simply a hole . . .
. . . All sounds find a hole & disappear.
("The Nervous Man in a Four-Dollar Room")
The ultimate expression of this fragmentation occurs in "He Spoke And, Speaking, Realized He Could Speak," where first the subject's head refuses to follow orders, and then his entire body, leaving him no choice but to submit his self to his physical form.
So what to do with all these bits and pieces and all these things existing on the edge of consciousness? Hawkey’s answer seems to be to set them beside each other and see what the juxtapositions reveal. The first poem in the “Book of Funnels” sequence goes from an overturned wheelbarrow, to the aforementioned exchanged genitals, to a hummingbird’s beak, to a monastery of mushrooms in an oak, to the wind in the grass, to a voice coming through a window, to a dinner bell, and finally to fireflies in the tall grass. Stated baldly like this, this seems a mere list of unrelated things, and while the poem itself does make some connections, there is still a sense of continuity. But perhaps this is the wrong way to look at these poems. In "Third Lung," Hawkey states:
And if I didn't want all things altogether
at once this poem, which began with joy,
wouldn't have veered off
There is a sense in The Book of Funnels that Hawkey is trying to hand over to the reader “all things altogether at once,” as if the world were an object made of infinite facets that have to been seen simultaneously to be understood. And in this case, perhaps it would be better to call Hawkey not a Surrealist, but a Cubist on a grand scale.
Stephen Allen holds an MA in creative writing from the University of Illinois at Chicago. He currently lives in Michigan, where he works as a free-lance writer, translator, and underpaid hourly help at various fine retail establishments.