Pre-Posthumous Poems, by Lawrence E. Hussman
Review by Carmine Di Biase
Luminare Press, 2021
When I first met Lawrence Hussman, in 1981, he was teaching American Literature at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. I was a graduate student in his seminar on the naturalists: Stephen Crane, Frank Norris and, among others, Theodore Dreiser, the writer who inspired one of Hussman’s most important books. The austere outlook of these writers, for whom the human experience is governed almost entirely by heredity and environment, suggested great courage and a fierce devotion to the truth, and for that reason they drew me into their worlds. Now, nearly forty years later, I have discovered that what drew Hussman to the naturalists was his own kindred sensibility. That sensibility informs every line of his first chapbook of poems, Last Things (Inkwater Press, 2019). And such is the case with this second chapbook, Pre-Posthumous Poems, only here the poetic voice seems more assured and, in some ways, more bracing.
The title itself is revealing of Hussman’s wry character and his enduring belief that this life, the here and now, is the only certainty we have. These thirty-four new poems—most of them in free verse, some concluding with a rhyming couplet—fall into two main groups: poems about birds, fish, earth and water; and poems about people, their longings and their losses. In his retirement on the Oregon coast, as his poetry suggests, Hussman spends his days meditating on the lives, human and otherwise, he has observed, and pondering what drives them.
As if to introduce himself to the reader, he opens this collection with a poem entitled “Encounter.” The encounter in question is with a sea lion, but the poem does introduce us to Hussman’s poetic world. The speaker walks along a beach “veiled in fog, / so solid that only memory could see / the gulls.” Then all of a sudden “an outsized shape” appears, a “guttural bark” is heard, and “the truth” is revealed: a sea lion comes into focus, at rest, and readying itself to return to its “endless / quest for fish and groups to gather with.” The walker thanks the creature for proving “that death still / waited a ways away, and life again / was willing with its wonder.”
The unabashed alliteration here is characteristic of Hussman’s verse. This trait, however, never cloys, and indeed is an expression of the poet’s reveling in language, in its ability to recover human experience and protect it from the savage claws of time. This he does with economy and precision. In “A Gift Withdrawn,” the speaker recalls a dear friend, who was also a poet, and their time together in Poland. They visit a World War II cemetery “one dark autumn afternoon” and she weeps upon seeing the writing on one tombstone: “Soldier, Fourteen.” Not long thereafter, a deep vein thrombosis takes this poet’s life. “I chose not to join the familiar funeral folly,” says the speaker, who rails instead against “the clichés of preachers and priests.”
In this way, Hussman resuscitates his dead; they are to him what they were to the Shakespeare who wrote once, in a sonnet, of his “precious friends hid in death’s dateless night.” What is it, however, that keeps the people and the other animals in Hussman’s world moving onward during their natural lives? Is it, as the naturalist writer would say, the mere instinct to survive? One answer may lie in “Homeless.” Here Hussman directs his eye at what the unhoused, and perhaps the housed as well, all have in common:
They labor up the busy highway,
burdened with their shoddy gear,
pushing purloined grocery carts,
or crude rigs of wheel and box,
moving their all from place to place.
It is the journey itself, the need to journey, that drives us on. And given the images of domesticity and society—not only the grocery cart but also “an old man in tattered top hat and tails”—the implication is that the journey promises, as the sea lion does, the occasional “wonder” and perhaps a group “to gather with.”
“A Salmon’s Journey,” which bears a resemblance to Eugenio Montale’s “The Eel,” is one of Hussman’s rawest and most beautiful poems. The etymological link between “travel” and “travail,” words which he does not use here, nevertheless comes vividly to life. The journey literally makes its mark on these fish, which are left
starved and scarred, their once sleek bodies
discolored, deformed, backs humped,
jaws hooked and fanged.
The speaker laments “pitiless Nature,” which might have chosen some “kinder game plan,” but unlike Montale’s singular eel, Hussman’s salmon are plural: theirs is not a solitary journey. Here and elsewhere, moreover, the exactness and spareness of the diction, the sheer transparency of the images, and a masterful rhythmic control, all lead to a poetic experience that is at once arresting and redemptive.
A poem called “Grief,” which serves as the coda to this excellent collection, recounts the discovery of a man found “frozen to the hill that held his little cabin.” The chatter that follows—”worry for the way he died, / the life he must have led, no family, or friends, / not anyone at all to miss him, mourn him”—is pointless. “Save your tears,” says the speaker, “for those that ache, the living.”
Even for a scholar of naturalism, then, there is more to life’s journey than heredity and environment. There is, in short, community, the reassuring sense that one does not travel entirely alone, or at the very least, the awareness that the strangers among us are themselves on an equally arduous journey, soldiering bravely on because “mere steps ahead,” as Hussman says in “Encounter,” might just reveal, if not a sea lion, then something just as wondrous.
Lawrence E. Hussman is professor emeritus of American literature at Wright State University. Among his seven previous books are Dreiser and His Fiction: A Twentieth-Century Quest and Desire and Disillusionment: A Guide to American Fiction Since 1890. He lives on and writes about the Oregon coast. Pre-Posthumous Poems is his second book of poetry.
Pre-Posthumous Poems, by Lawrence E. Hussman.
Eugene, OR: Luminare Press, 2021.
$9.95 49 pages.
Carmine Di Biase writes about English and Italian literature, and his poems have appeared in various journals. Last year his English translations of thirteen poems by Cesare Pavese appeared in L’anello che non tiene: Journal of Modern Italian Literature. Occasionally he reviews books for the Times Literary Supplement. He has recently retired as Distinguished Professor of English at Jacksonville State University in Alabama. His chapbook of poems, American Rondeau, is due out from Finishing Line Press in August of 2022.
Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.