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Winter (Mirror) Paul Hoover
Date of Review: 
John Olson
First Intensity 18 (2003): 242-243

In most regions of North America, and definitely in the Midwest, there is a stately beauty to winter.  This imperious charm is evident in the crunch and crystaline sparkle of snow, the bright burning ari, water italicized on icicles and bodies parenthesized in coats.  The world becomes uniformly white.  The world becomes compact.  It is in the guise of such stark opulence that Hoover mirrors his linguistic distillates.  He acheives this sense of grace in austerity in part by imposing a rigorous constraint on the construction of his lines:  they are uniformly short and symmetrical throughout.  Foujr of the poems are limited to three words per line, and four are restricted to two.  Images build fragment by fragment.  Data comes in a measured step-by-step pace, much like the graceful thrusts of an ice-skater. 

Commensurate with this strict economy is a creative energy tugging the other way:  a delight in the revelations of the random and accidental.  As each words adds fresh information--and Hoover is delightfully resourceful when it comes to inserting the curiously apt but unexpected word--the lines thrum with an alternating current.  Puns and palindromes incandesce, as in these lines from "Polyester":  "That polaroid / of the sun // cooling in / your hand // is a certainty / and a fact, // kissing your / eye in a // semi-ecstatic / doubt that says // the man / is a rat, // the rat 's / a star." 

Here the Polaroid serves nicely as a metaphor for the way images develop in the short little lines of the poem--emerge into focus--and "kiss the eye."  The words "rat's" and "star" unite in a palindrome to marry to low and mean to the celestial.  The very title, "Polyester," underscores the process of synthesis, the blending of diverse elements to achieve a unified fabric, a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

In the poem "The Innocent Eye," a very formal appearing work of eleven stanzas, each with four lines, Hoover reveals much of the intent behind his work, and especially its allusion to a winter mirror, to reflection amid austerity, to transmutation and the thin ice of language.  The phrase quoted in the poem, "the innocent eye sees nothng," which I believe is from Auden, is a variation of the phrase, "the innocent eye is a myth," from art historian E. H. Gombrich, who wrote a seminal work on artistic representation called Art and Illusion, published in 1960. This work argues Ruskin's notion that we should view art as a blind man who has had his sight restored; everything viewed without preconception or judgment.  A nice notion, but unworkable.  As Oliver Sacks says in his essay on a blind man named Virgil who has his sight restored in An Anthropologist on Mars, this simply isn't the case.  Virgil is able to see physically, but everything, including his own face, is an indistinguishable mass.  Perception is learned.  The world we experience and recognize is a product of our upbringing and our own creative decisions.  The construction of the nameable objects we call things is an artifact of figuation. The world--no world--is a given.  We are at liberty to alter perception.  "A person made of words," Hoover proclaims, "lives in a garden of stones; / immensities of time and space / collapse around the known."