Jane Huffman’s new poetry collection Public Abstract is a study in form, beginning with the art on the front cover: a sketch by Albrecht Dürer of a series of pillows. On the palimpsest of each wrinkled pillowcase, crosshatch strokes hint at faces pressed into fabric. But what at first looks like six – remember this number – individual pillows might actually be the same pillow replicated over and over. Repetition as anxiety, repetition as mastery. The artist like an insomniac desperately fluffing a pillow over and over until she can finally rest.
Clues that I have been reading Public Abstract:
- Browser tabs open to the following etymology dictionary entries: form, Morpheus, morphine, morpheme
- The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, Paul Fussell’s Poetic Meter and Poetic Form, and Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s Portraits and Elegies stacked on my nightstand
- A bookmark in the “Criteria for Diagnosis of Opioid Use Disorder” of my DSM-5
- Lists of six – there it is – words scrawled on the back of a veterinary bill:
tried longing circles swords head away
ear door want veil will cell
want book door brother little longing
I have a fantasy that Huffman was in my poetry MFA workshop. She would never tire of my villanelles, which were admittedly numerous. She wouldn’t comment every week in the margins of my poems, “why so much repetition?!” Over post-workshop drinks we would chat casually about our mutual fixation on making and breaking poetic structures. Through this shared lens of form-addiction, a brief survey of the landscape of Huffman’s first book:
Public Abstract contains by my count six – yes – poetic forms: four received (haibun, sestina, sonnet, duplex) and two invented (what Huffman calls “fragments” and “revisions”).
Huffman is most loyal to the traditional haibun, a Japanese prosimetric form combining prose and haiku, perfect examples of which form the book’s entire final section and are titled “On [X]” (breath, dreaming, influence, etc.). Often Huffman’s haikus turn a darker or comic eye towards the preceding prose; after imagining composing a play while ill at an urgent care in “On theatre,” the poem ends “I quit theatre / because it spoiled other / darknesses for me.”
But Huffman’s true love is the sestina, the famously masochistic form in which six words are looped six times across six stanzas of six lines – listen, I don’t make the rules – followed by one final repetition in a three-line closing stanza. As you might surmise from the torturous preceding sentence, most poets only write sestinas under duress (read: college poetry workshops). Huffman is able to find pleasure within the form’s claustrophobic walls, which she tempers by adding extra repeating words and discrete titles for each stanza. In her sestinas, it is longing (one of the repeating words) that disrupts physical and metaphorical structure: “my want like a hole that / I bore in the floor.”
A large swath of poems in Public Abstract fall into formal buckets of “fragment” and “revision” poems. In the helpfully titled “Revision” section of her book, Huffman uses brackets to enclose alternative version of lines and images. The most successful of these poems is – count ‘em – “Six Revisions,” a meditation on illness, mistranslation, and St. Augustine’s Confessions where Huffman plays with the structure of a haibun, repeatedly revising each section’s haiku-like final stanza. The revision poems are unsettling and force readers to confront the mutability and uncertainty of the writing process, a messiness often glazed over by the shine of publication.
Finally, Huffman’s “fragment” poems are scattered throughout the book’s first (“A Bout”) and third (“Later Fragments”) sections. These poems are Emily Dickinson-esque in their short lines, bracketed titles that match the poem’s first line, and focus on wit and sound. The fragment poems contain sections separated by backslashes and circle thematically around the discomfort of inhabiting a body, particularly the female form. In one of my favorite fragments, “[I remember partially]” the speaker is both the search party looking for a missing female body and the woman herself:
Hiding in the wet
My shirt and socks
And sweat I didn’t
Make it easy
On myself I never do
We end on an indictment that expands beyond the speaker – literally hiding from herself – to a commentary on the book project as a whole, which is formally so rigorous one cannot help wonder why Huffman is punishing herself.
The line I have read the greatest number of times in Public Abstract was not written by Huffman, but by the artist Louise Bourgeois. The book begins with Bourgeois’ epigraph: “Pain is the ransom of formalism.”
Decoding this enigmatic statement seems essential to understanding Huffman’s book, which is so much about pain and so much about form. But each time I sat down to write about the line I felt a deep uncertainty. Did Bourgeois mean that engaging in structure-making requires us to suffer? Or that escaping from the captor of structure demands suffering? I have flipped the coin of this statement over and over in my palm. Luckily Huffman has given us an out in her book’s second epigraph, a balm for my desire for certainty: “But to say, I know—,” she quotes Jean Valentine, “is there any touch in it?”
A teacher once told me that my poems were “distinctly female.” I felt this to be both accurate and a compliment, and I would like to gift the same description to Huffman’s poems. While Public Abstract references the likes of Augustine and Yeats, the most important male figure in the book – her brother – is never named. Instead, we find a litany of named women, ranging from poets (“Jean” and “Emily” i.e. Jean Valentine and Emily Dickinson) to Huffman’s mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother (Mildred, Ann, and Lynn) who all “parented addict sons.”
In Public Abstract we see women engaging in traditionally feminine activities (sweeping, mothering, sewing, braiding hair, riding sidesaddle) while the speaker remains deeply ill at ease with societal expectations:
Mortified to move
My body through
In the way
That it demands
How does the world in Public Abstract demand women move their bodies? With a quiet compliance. Tidying, not making a mess. Reading, not writing. Making babies, not art. In one of the more emotionally affecting poems in the book, “On Invention,” Huffman grapples explicitly in sectioned prose poems with her family history of addiction and her commitment to not have children.
As a female physician and patient, I found myself particularly interested in the ways that illness and caregiving become gendered throughout Public Abstract. All the doctors are men, but the only healing presences in the book are women. The men are born “with blue lips, sucking the fentanyl lollipop,” while the speaker is breathless from other causes: anxiety (“a little art of panicking”) and an unnamed pulmonary illness. Just as Huffman manipulates received poetic structures, so too does she attempt to bust out of the received female form, acknowledging ultimately that she is like the snow that
To be sexless
At first this review
was titled “Six Fragments” but
I had more to say.
As a psychiatrist I often find myself reflecting with patients on the nature of addiction. When I offer patients with opioid use disorder a replacement medication like Suboxone, they frequently voice that they would be substituting one addiction for another. I try to frame addiction as both a chemical dependence and a pattern of sustained behaviors around obtaining and using substances. At its heart, addiction seeks repetition at the cost of all other joy.
This cost is clear in Public Abstract, where we watch the devastation of substance abuse – perhaps more than any other illness process – ripple out beyond an individual into her family and across multiple generations. Huffman’s brother’s substance abuse becomes the poet’s entire identity: “I became the child sister of the child addict.” The familial pattern of addiction is so predictably destructive that Huffman pursues tubal ligation to ensure that she does not have children. In this way the book brilliantly enacts its content: Huffman compulsively repeats poetic forms that she is then able to deviate from, mirroring her desire to interrupt the familial pattern of mothering a son with addiction. Huffman’s interest in the process of revision, too, seems to contain a wish for her brother, who is unable to begin again. What is recovery from addiction but an attempt to revise a life?
There seem to be two large pitfalls when working in poetic form:
- A rigid inability to deviate from received form
- Use of form as a shield against emotional risk
Huffman is well aware of these twin traps. In the haibun entitled “On poetry,” she writes: “I know a little poetry. It frightens me. The way it breaks, the way experience breaks in.” Anxiety about structural and emotional breakdowns do not stop Huffman from engaging in either, though she remains more comfortable with the former.
Paul Fussell once grumped that the sestina form “would seem to...[give] more structural pleasure to the contriver than to the apprehender.” It is rare to feel this way about the usage of form in Huffman’s book, sestina or not. Huffman’s structures are an extension of content and her deviations are frequent – and more importantly meaningful (for example, a haiku with a dangling additional syllable to demonstrate a lack of control over her own mind: “If I could think a / single thought that didn’t burn / itself to ash, I / would —”).
Moments of lived vulnerability in Public Abstract are precious in their beauty and relative rarity, and at times I yearned for more. In the devastating poem “Three Odes,” Huffman reflects on her brother, whose addiction has become a sort of slow death: “I’ve mourned / my living brother all my life.” Loss, both actualized and anticipated, is localized within the poet’s life. Poems like “Three Odes” color the book’s more oblique fragment and revision poems with personal risk and darkness.
Like looking at someone’s face for half a dinner party before realizing finally who they remind you of, it wasn’t until I was deep into reading this collection that I began thinking about the very early work of Gjertrud Schnackenberg. Huffman and Schnackenberg, at their best, are masters at walking that difficult tightrope of formal and emotional ambition. (Not to mention they share an elegance of language, quick wit, and an interest in classical texts and ekphrasis.) It is easy to fall off this highwire to one side or the other, particularly later in our careers as we settle comfortably into a style. Huffman’s first book is a great achievement; I ardently hope that her fear of “experience breaking in[to]” her poems will not stop her from continuing to crack open a few windows.
Celeste Lipkes is a writer and psychiatrist residing in Asheville, North Carolina. Her first book of poems, Radium Girl, was recently published by the Wisconsin Poetry Series. Prior to medical school she completed her MFA at the University of Virginia. For more visit http://www.celestelipkes.com/