Voice to Voice in the Dark by Tim Hunt
Frankfort, Kentucky. Broadstone Books. 2022. 101 pages.
The title of Tim Hunt’s fifth full-length collection of poems—Voice to Voice in the Dark—connotes an image of an intimate, past-midnight, station-to-station conversation, like a long-distance call from a lover or a best friend back in the days when there were such things as long-distance calls that sometimes cost dearly. Technically and tonally, the poems hold up to that expectation. The speakers of these poems are people who trust you with anecdotes and revelations concerning their fears, heartthrobs, heartbreaks, sillinesses, and wonder.
These free-verse poems do not revel in the cleverness of their own construction. Rather, they are so finely crafted that they often read as transcripts of some organic conversation. From the backseat of a cruising car, a young woman moons a gaggle of confused and vaguely delighted teenage boys. A boy visits the grave of his uncle, killed in North Africa while breaking up a knife fight during World War I. On a cold midwinter night in 1969, an unshod, shirtless student walks away from his Cornell dorm room and is never seen alive again. Once a week for six weeks, a group of octogenarian World War II vets meet to, at first, trade jokes about their youth and naïveté, but eventually they examine the intersections of fear and valor, hate and love, and how, having to negotiate those crossroads with the fate of the world in doubt, uncertainty has rippled through their psyches in ways they have never admitted nor understood.
Each poem is a vivid and continuous dream, and Hunt is wise enough never to let his poetry intrude upon the poem. He understands that the heart of the poem (like the heart of a long-distance conversation) may beat best when the lines break silently and when those feelings, for which there are no words, are allowed—indeed are required—to fill the empty spaces.
To talk of this is like writing a letter
to someone far away, some other who
as hearing not the black marks but the stutters
and breakage as the letters pull apart
into gaps of white, a silence knitting
around the cannot be said
These are not, however, poems of distance—the writer staunchly here and the reader fixed and sedentary somewhere (safely) over there. Rather, Hunt issues forty-six invitations for speaker and reader to enter short bouts of geographic and temporal motion. Hunt structures the collection as a sequence of scenes from the early to late twentieth century, as well as a west-to-east journey across the United States. An image occurring early in the collection is that of Vachel Lindsay on one of the three multistate walking tours he undertook between 1906 and 1912. The book’s second poem finds Lindsay bewildering Kansas farmers as he trades his performance art for provisions. The troubadour is unshakably convinced that
will open the door to you, a stranger,
and you will glow with poetry,
savoring the bread as if it, too,
is a poem, their poem
The equivalency of bread and poems is not lost on readers in the second section of the book (titled “American Graffiti”) in which poems take place in the mid- to late 1960s, with its cultural tensions represented by violent disagreements about the war in Vietnam and the psychedelic rock movement then emanating from San Francisco. It is not much of a stretch to extend the word association from “poem” to “bread” to “money” to “currency.” And this is why Hunt’s book, with its concerns so seemingly mired in the last century, is relevant in this one. In this book, Hunt offers readers a trip in which the “then” that is the subject of a poem becomes current—becomes the “now” that is the experience of that poem. Thus, the sad fact evident in this collection is that World War I is now. World War II is now. Vietnam is now.
But so is love. So is the need and the ability to reach out to one another with words—or with songs—of comfort, as in the poem “Hush Now, Don’t Explain,” when “Billie Holiday leans into the mic as if about to kiss you.” Hunt demonstrates that poems are a place where we may at least attempt to make our connections and share our bread simply by whispering voice to voice in the dark.
Volume I, Number 4
Tim Hunt, Voice To Voice In The Dark, Broadstone Press, 2022
Robinson Jeffers scholar Tim Hunt’s new selection of poems presents the American parade in snapshots, panoramas, of bunting’d balconies, hot rod fetishes, and dashboard radios blaring rock. Hunt, also the author of two definitive books on Kerouac’s work, Kerouac’s Crooked Road and The Textuality of Soul Work, has an eye and an ear for Americana, for the soundtrack of a particular time and history. The poems in Voice To Voice In The Dark offer a steady determined pace, the measure of speech, or a speech, meaning precise in its recitation. They are the fine speculations of a somber mind, mindful of the weight and intent of words, and their specific gravity. Some read like photographs sepia’d with nostalgia, others are dashed off with the lyric intensity of the moment, but all are reflections on what “In 1918 Van Wycks Brooks suggested. . . Americans were searching for . . . ‘a usable past.’” And as Hunt observes, “We are now, a century later, searching more, it seems, for ‘a usable present.’”
Voice To Voice In The Dark is comprised of three thematic sections, a proem as prologue, two interludes, and a coda. The first section titled Poetry For Bread takes its designation from the fact that Vachel Lindsay, in the early years of the 20th Century, made three walking tours, his last one from Illinois to New Mexico, and traded pamphlets of his poems for food and lodging. A North Bay native now making his home in Normal, Illinois as Professor Emeritus from Illinois State University, Hunt retraces his steps through wine country and the towns of his youth in 2016 almost fifty years later, revisiting and revising his impressions, the present overlaying the past.
“A Truck Stop In Kansas”, a prose meditation, evokes Allen Ginsberg: “What thoughts I have of you tonight, dear Allen, as I drive the endless plain of Kansas, dulled by the road, wishing the horizon’s thin moon would look my way.” Hunt riffs on Ginsberg’s “A Supermarket In California” in which the poet imagines Lorca and Whitman as shoppers. Also in play is Ginsberg’s “Wichita Vortex Sutra” in which the poet declared the end of the Vietnam war as he drove into Wichita. Hunt brings his reflection to a close thusly: “Forget with me a moment the black waters of Lethe. Forget with me a moment the green automobile, the empty cottage. Forget the actual America we have become. Then we will walk back to the car and drive on to Wichita.”
The second section is titled American Graffiti, an impressionistic autobiography of the late fifties to the late sixties before Hunt left the local environs of Sebastopol, Santa Rosa, Napa, and San Francisco, and headed off to college at Cornell. In “When Napa And San Francsico Were Far Apart (Summer, 1967),” the opening stanza pretty much sums up the attitude perhaps still prevalent today: “Here San Francisco is still Frisco, and not The City,/ and maybe ten miles south of town it’s as if there’s a membrane/ and through it is like the looking glass Alice found/ or that beam-me-up trick on Star Trek/ and you’re in something called The Summer Of Love”. And not so coincidentally, the time period Hunt is speaking from is in the same vicinity that Lucas filmed his classic of bobby sock’d nostalgia.
The five poems that make up the third section, In That Time When Time Is Not Measured are elegiac, memorializing, with titles like “The Boy Is Taken to the Soldier’s Grave” or one dedicated to a Gold Star mother. Of “The Circle” Hunt notes, “This sequence derives from serving as the discussion leader for a group of WWII veterans.” All are powerful testaments to the war dead. “Hush now, don’t explain” dedicated to John Clellon Holmes ( 1926-1988) harkens back to Hunt’s connection to the Beatnik past. His note on the poem should be quoted in full: “The occasion for “Hush now, don’t explain” is John Clellon Holmes’s “Sick Bed Blues For Billie,” which he sent me in reply to my having sent him a cassette compilation of Billy Holiday’s recordings. Holmes is best known for Go, the first Beat novel, but his second novel, The Horn, is an important contribution to the literature of jazz and should not be forgotten.” Of course, any poem Billy Holiday appears in is made better by her presence. However this poem does quite well on its own, and the final lines, a quote from Holmes, serves as basis for the selection’s title: “. . .I speak again the inscription/ you added all those years ago when you sent this to me,/ believing someday I would hear—voice/ to voice in the dark, John. Hush now.”
Hunt’s poems are a meditation on passing time, an ubi sunt couched in a late century vernacular of growing up in Northern California and revisiting it as vivid memories vividly recounted. There’s poetry in them thar hills.
The Good Life Review
Voice to Voice in the Dark by Tim Hunt
The spirit of the Beats pulses throughout this new collection from the poet Tim Hunt. The Beats, as we all know, were focused on genuine lived experiences and often protested against traditional modern life while celebrating art, music, and freedom. Tim Hunt has painted vivid scenes of the everyday with his imagery coupled with the hunger for travel, adventure, and hope. The poet calls out to the voices of the past—excellent poetry collection title—and gives the reader a glimpse into our current American life and its landscapes, both natural and manmade, with reminders of the near-distant past.
The collection opens with an invitation to the reader to go on a walk. The first section, “Poetry for Bread,” introduces Kansas on the verge of harvest. Hunt offers us nourishment for our journey in the form of imagery, prosody, and metaphor. He explores risk as well. In the poem “Here in the New West: American Canyon, ‘Gateway to the Napa Wine Country’ (August 2016),” he describes a game room and writes, “Here, each card matters. Win. Lose. Here, / they do not think about which can to open for dinner/ or what to pretend they want to watch on the TV…” The scene of the cardplayers absorbed with their cards mimics how each of us loses ourselves in something—be it film or literature or even a card game. As we latch onto distractions and devotions, Hunt reminds us that there is more to life than winning or losing, consuming and hoarding. Each day, each interaction matters.
In the poem “Between the Highway and Train Tracks (Vallejo, CA, August 2016),” Hunt brings us to a liquor store. He writes, “Here…. The upturned hand/ receiving the brown-bagged pint—/ the breadless communion/ of temporary salvation:/ blood of my blood: morning, / noon and night:/ forever and again. / Amen.” This quick detour has turned into a prayer, a lamentation. There is no sustenance in those bottles and pints; instead, the poet points us to what we can do, and what we should do. In the next poem “A Tomb for Melvin, Who Has None,” we’re reminded of the brevity and randomness of our lives. This line stays with me, “So, I offer this as if it could matter, as you once mattered..” What else can we give to our deceased loved ones and friends but our words, our memorials to those who once journeyed along the road with us? I thoroughly enjoyed Hunt’s take on Ginsberg’s famous poem “A Supermarket in California.” The poem, titled “A Truck Stop in Kansas,” is part portrait of the Midwest, part call to transcend the everyday.
As we move through the second section, we stop in Disney’s Magic Kingdom. The imagery here, focused on light, ends with this important ponderance about childhood ignorance/bliss:
And as the setting sun winks the streetlights on
and you wait for the Grand Parade to begin,
you do not think to wonder whether your parents believe
or pretend, because here, in this Magic Kingdom, you
do not have to worry about that.
Despite the happy setting, something is looming in the distance. Throughout the poems the reader catches glimpses of some kind of concern. There’s the “dark of the moon,” “fallen fruit,” the missed turn on the road, and “the lake’s spring-thinned ice.” All remembrances of the past are coupled with the pain of humanity’s selfishness and the hope for a better future.
The third section, titled “In That Time When Time is Not Measured,” begins with childhood, younger days of innocence. My favorite piece here is “The Story,” which opens with, “This is the story you were told/ when you were too young to understand the story/ but could tell from the telling that you were meant to remember/ and carry it forward…” Later Hunt writes, “Even why a war?” This—paired with the “brown shirts and military caps” from the previous section and the poem “The Boy is Taken to the Soldier’s Grave,” which begins this new section, and the long poem “The Circle”—captures how our American history is marred by war, how our society is built on struggle, and how if we consider the whole picture of our past, we, too, may question how it has come to this. But Hunt doesn’t criticize the soldiers who served and are serving our country; instead, he recognizes their painful sacrifices and honors them. Hunt writes about how soldiers became great fighters in the poem “The Circle.” He writes:
Because we learned to Hate—
the t snapped like breaking a dried stick,
and this not a sign or memory but the thing,
a never forgotten: brighter than pain,
grief—a truth. The truth. The hate.
And leaning back, arms closed, silent again.
Hunts ends the collection with imagery that is carried throughout the poems: light, travel, and a boat returning to shore once again. These poems invite the reader to journey with the poet as he strolls a gas station with Allen Ginsberg, travels from Kansas to California, hops on a railcar, stops at a soldier’s grave, and ponders America’s past along with its vast landscape and its promise of a better tomorrow.