Friday, January 28, 2022

So as Not to Go Unremembered by Mary A. Hood


Source of book: I own this - my wife found it for me for Christmas last year. 


For the most part, I do not use middle initials of authors - it generally isn’t necessary. I mean, there aren’t two Charles Dickens to confuse. In this case, however, the “A” is actually important, because there are three Mary Hoods who are authors and famous enough to show up in a web search. First is the Mary Hood who writes southern fiction to some acclaim. Second is the Dr. Mary Hood, who wrote a book about homeschooling (which I haven’t read, and do not intend to for reasons.) And then there is Mary A. Hood, who is scientist and former professor who has published quite a few really nerdy things about microbial ecology, such as “Effect of Processing and Storing Oyster Meats on Concentrations of Indicator Bacteria, Vibrios and Aeromonas hydrophila.” Oh, and she also writes poetry, which is what this book is. 


I am not sure exactly where or how my wife found this for me, but I had never heard of Mary A. Hood before, and certainly wasn’t aware of her poetry. However, this book is quite good, in an unusual sort of way, and will make a nice addition to my poetry collection. 


The book, All the Spectral Fractures, contains all seven of Hood’s poetry collections previously published, plus her uncollected poems. I suspect that these were originally written for fun, and perhaps to share with friends, but they ended up published, enriching us all. 


I chose to read this particular collection first, because it had a nod to Wallace Stevens among the poems (see below) and also because I liked the title. It turns out that it also contains the poem where the line “all the spectral fractures” is found. 


It is difficult to describe the poems, because they don’t really fit into neat categories. There are a few nature poems, of course. But also ones about kitchen implements, motherhood, basketball, a truck stop, a fantasy about being an opera singer, people watching, and more. There is no unifying “type” of poem, or specific format. They are just…poems that reflect what Hood was thinking. Because her main training is not writing (in the literary sense), I didn’t feel that they were “poems™” the way you occasionally find them from aspiring poets, and they would undoubtedly draw some funny glances from MFA types. But quirky and unexpected are good things, in this context. 


I also want to point out that there is an unfortunate stereotype about scientists. Just like Fundies have set up a false dichotomy between religion and science, in order to bring in donations to “fight the religion of science and secular humanism,” many media sorts (who presumably were humanities majors) tend to overplay the “science versus poetry and wonder” thing. This is actually far from the truth. Just as plenty of scientists past and present hold religious beliefs, many scientists are also full of wonder, love poetry, and are in fact more “dreamy” than the average person. (For more proof of this, check out Loren Eisley and E. O. Wilson…) It should not be surprising that Mary A. Hood would also share a fascination with science along with a love for the poetic. 


Deciding which ones to quote was challenging, because there are lines from many of the poems worth savoring. Also, because she is living, I do not want to just steal her work and reprint a significant percentage of the book. Instead, I hope to offer enough of a teaser that you go and buy her book, and savor the poems at leisure. 


In Praise of the Thumb


My friend in the clinic

needle in her arm

pumped full of chemicals

types with one thumb

one line:

“I am OK.”


I write back:

Plug that saved the dike from breaking

tucked into front pockets with confidence

not sticking out like a sore one.

Once a sucker for comfort

then good for hitching a ride

or making a rule of itself.

Ready to turn the world into green gardens

but never a good place to be under.

I am praying for them up.


It is said the thumb is 

what makes us uniquely human

opposable makes writing possible.

But best of all

it is the digital text from my friend

teaching me the miracle in words

and the quality of courage.


There is a cycle of seven poems entitled “Kitchen Poems,” with subjects that include the kitchen sink. Here is my favorite, although I could have quoted any of them. The whole set is delightful. 


The Blender, the Toaster, the Mr Coffee Maker


I’m a transgender blender.

High tech speed’s my game

Black and Decker’s the name

I mix everything up, turn everything

back to its original state

I am the captain of my ship

the mash master

the push-button of my fate.


Toasting on the dole

Transformation’s my goal

Bread to tea’s right hand companion

A cure for what ails you

A balm for the soul.


I am the consummate awakener

the stout hardy coffee maker

good as the sun

Call me Good Morning. 


This is pretty typical of the set, which are tongue in cheek, and bizarrely humorous. Hood must have been in a goofy mood when she decided to write them, and they turned out pretty well, I think. She also, as one can see, references other poems and authors, such as “Invictus.” Another poem that is a conscious nod to another is her cycle “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Mailbox.” Obviously, this isn’t the first time “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” has been used as a springboard for other works. Just last year, I read a book by Colum McCann that borrowed from Wallace Stevens for purposes of inspiration for a novel. Several years ago, a local composer set the original poems to music. And I am sure there are many more. 


In this case, Hood strikes a note somewhere between serious and not serious, shifting mood along the way. The poems are not specifically in the form of the originals, but have some correspondence. I considered quoting all of it, but I think I’ll just go with one. 




There is meaning in numbers-

they mark our place, our being.

We have so many but this one says

we are home.


Next is this one, which shares the title with an interesting musical I saw a few years back. I think that Hood has a marvelous gift for introspection, and I was drawn to her poems like this, that capture a mood and a feeling. 


If Then


If the trees hesitate

then rustle as sleet bounces off their dead leaves

then it is winter


If the darker the shadow, the brighter the light

If the subtler the rustle, the harder one must listen

If truth lies in contrast to what is not


the positive and negative charges

of our electric bodies or the way we use

reversions to communicate


If Rosetta’s comet sings like a cricket

is this then the symphony of the cosmos

or the voice of the divine


If our senses are so unreliable

can we be certain only within that tiny line

between one thing and its opposite


Or is there some vast space for being

some limitless room where there is no

if and no then


So many interesting things going on with this. I love the way she uses “truth lies” - that’s great wordplay right there. I love the shift between the third and fourth stanzas, where you can see the breakdown of the dichotomies from “if/then” to “both/and” starting, with the final resolution in the last line. I love how she capitalizes only “If” for most of the poem, until that central “Or,” after which “if” becomes lowercase. Most elements of poetry are best experienced orally - I always read poems out loud if I possibly can - but this is wordplay in print, something that complements and enhances the spoken beauty of the poem. More than anything, though, I love the idea of moving beyond the dichotomies that define so much of our way of experiencing the world, of recognizing that our perceptions are limited, but the universe is bigger and less rigid. 


The final poem I want to share is this one, which takes ideas from science and uses them in unexpected ways. 


The Physics of Driving Home


Night lights reflect the black road

nebulous galaxies in a random universe.


Windshield wipers metronome rain

but not enough to keep it from fracturing light.


Trucks accelerate past like parabolic comets

trailing water and ice and rendering the road dark matter.


An evening workshop discovering errors in my words

a writer whose work I adore takes my arm


holds up an umbrella and helps me to my car.

Some acts of kindness cause nuclear meltdown.


Back in the real world, a deer is caught

in the headlights. All the spectral fractures exposed.


What is weakness and what is strength?

Are we defined by our attempts to make


of our tragedies lessons or balanced equations?

In quantum mechanics anything is possible.


In poems e rarely equals mc squared.

Thermodynamics states we always seek order


but there are unaccountable gaps in the calculations.

Driving on through the prismed night


Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase is

fragmented, trying to keep it together


without the glue of ego, uncertain a unified theory

resolves chaos, wondering if we must break


to be whole and if out of the power of language

and tenderness we fix our brokenness.


Particularly good in this one is that question about whether we have to make lessons out of tragedies. I mean, this is something that was hammered into us as Evangelicals - every tragedy, every hurt, every harm we suffered, was designed by a “loving” god to make us better, to help us in some way, to teach us lessons. As part of my process of deconstructing from all the toxic ideas, this has been one that I have had to wrestle with a lot. The fact of the matter is that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is a steaming pile of shit. Obviously so. We wouldn’t have so many broken and damaged people if it were true. In the real world, not the Evangelical bubble, emotional harm is as damaging as losing a limb. One can go on with life, but the damage remains. Relationships cannot simply be mended with the snap of the finger - or the quotation of a prooftext. Mostly, tragedies are tragedies. And I think if we recognized that, rather than glorifying the suffering inflicted by humans on other humans, we might start to address the problem of preventing the damage in the first place. 


The poem, though is optimistic. Perhaps we don’t need to “keep it together,” or try to make a poem a balanced equation. With all those “spectral fractures” exposed, language and tenderness can help us heal. 


As this small sampling shows, there is a wide range of poems in this collection - I haven’t even quoted a representative sample, just my favorites. I am glad to have discovered Mary A. Hood, and look forward to exploring the rest of the collection. 


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