Review by Maxianne Berger
The Infinity Sessions, by T.R. Hummer
(Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005, $19.95 US)
One of my early creative writing professors explained in class that when a topic truly matters to a poet, the poem itself will show it through the care with which it is written. In The Infinity Sessions, T.R. Hummer—jazz aficionado, saxophone player, confessed reader of liner notes—clearly shows how much he cares about this music.
Hummer reminds us that "[m]usic needs no subject, but one always turns up / Unexpectedly, dragging its trashy story" ("Blues in the Night"). With that in mind, the poems don't shy away from gritty poverty or violence. The title poem asks, "What will it be this time? Shuffle for the lovers found // Dead in an alley? Ballad for the boy / Who slipped over the edge?" The tales played out in this collection are "variations in the key of pain." This pain, though, served early blues musicians as inspiration, and Hummer transcends its darkness with the intelligence and grace of his revisionings. In "Vapor," he talks of "atoms" in which, "just to the left of the quark— / A little smaller and denser than color or charm, [ . . . . ]—the particle called pain / Chains its cold mutation in the structure of the double helix[.]"
These poems make noise: "Some of its timbre is friction, / Wind against brick, iron against asphalt, old rain / Making its way through pipe" ("'Taint What You Do"). Sounds made by musical instruments double as metaphor and simile. In "Twenty-Four Robbers," "The story arrives like music from a Victrola smothered / With a fat silk pillow: muted." The title character of "The Woman,"
[................................] has perfect pitch.
She recognizes an A-flat instantly when it pops
From the squeal of the brakes, and the repeated tonic/flatted fifth,
In concert G, of the ambulance siren.
These poems, though, are not made from the diction and jargon of music alone. Hummer's vision encompasses all the senses. Consider the opening lines of "Blue Differentials":
Nobody knows what slips in through the transom of the horizon,
The Egyptian name for the color that refracts in the prism of the horsefly's wing-
Faint tincture of a drowned child's skin, the nth distillation of which,
If caught in a bottle and swallowed, would warp your spine into ice.
Whatever it is, it stinks of Armageddon
The poet's intricate images take the reader from sight through taste and touch to smell, without a false step. Hummer's words create moods—("It Had to Be"): "The slot machine by the men's room shoots its load."
Hummer's skill is evident in all aspects of his prosody. Something as simple as a well-placed line break can increase tension.
A shame how God bends starlight through the crystal
Windshield of the Buick where the woman spits
A little blood and the man reconsiders
The bruise on the back of his hand.
Here, in "Beatin' the Dog," the poet discloses the violence slowly, as if some camera were coming closer and closer. A contemporary reader will provide all necessary reactions of horror, while the "God" of the poem merely "[k]eeps score in a tiny notebook." Music, however, is never far away. "The deadly sins / He totals glissando towards infinity."
In Hummer's hands, a simple, one-line observation can speak as eloquently as his extended counterpoints with the schemes and tropes of poetry. "He's an old woman's memory of a Saturday night dance" ("Cosmo-Extensions") puts an entire lifetime into unexpected and satisfying perspective. And if the lives are a bit bleak, the afterlives enjoy whimsy. When it's "[d]own time in the aether[,] the angels "lay down their wings and their trumpets, hang / Their sandals on sky hooks, kick back" ("Hours After").
Most of these poems are written as blocks of ten to fifteen lines, though some are longer. The title poem, however, and the final sequence, "Lives of the Angels: Duets for Saxophone and Sky," are gems of assonantal terza rima. These have, as titles, the names of birds. The final one, "As Skylark," showcases Hummer's literary dexterity.
[.................................]If Shelley played saxophone
He'd riff it again altissimo, notes blown higher
Than dogs can hear—Shelley, prophet
Of blues he never heard, Carmichael and Mercer
His hip reincarnations. Does the bird know it—
How the single note ricochets off heaven and turns
Us inside out? Forget that shit.
He's riding with the seraphim, he's golden, he's gone.
Four of the book's sections and the poem titles within them pay homage to specific musicians. For example, "Rain Down Rain: Suite for Mabel Louise 'Big Maybelle' Smith, 1924-1972" includes poems titled "My Country Man," "Way Back Home," "You'll Never Know," "Ain't No Use," and "Ocean of Tears"—titles all of songs on her album, Big Maybelle: The Complete OKeh Sessions 1952-1955. The section's title page quotes from the album's liner notes: "With the uncanny ability to be a fist-shaking, house-rocking vocal flamethrower... [and] frustrated by love and life, Maybelle poured her heart into the performance of every song...."
A tightly written tribute to jazz that can similarly be called "fist-shaking" and "house-rocking[,]" in line after line, in one "trashy story" after another, Hummer's The Infinity Sessions shows just how good poetry can be.