Hemisphere by Ellen Hagan
(Triquarterly Books, 96 pgs., $16.95)
Ellen Hagan’s new collection of poetry, “Hemisphere,” is finally tuned to the form. In “Mint Julep,” she writes, “Nostalgic for what? / Old South—prim, pomp, / proper, powdered & permed, /permanent, poised, playful, / crushed, jammed, tumbled, / wide-brimmed hats, My Old / Kentucky Home—” the p’s pop like kernels of corn on the stovetop. They bounce off my tongue when I read aloud, exploding every moment, questioning, asking, tugging, before bringing me into a “spicy new world — where your home- / coming is Irish — sure, mixed / w/ Arab & Affrilachian & Filipino / do the math ‘til you exist.” Hagan demands and questions, evaluates nostalgia and finds it wanting. Repossess she writes, reinvent, reclaim, re-appropriate.
Poets, by virtue of being poets, have a license to do things with line, language and symbolism that prose writers just don’t and Hagan breaks the rules to great effect — leaving sentences hanging without closing punctuation, setting one “&” following a word, following another ampersand. “A bag of limes on your back porch / squeezed & bitter & neon & orbiting / over you.” Beautiful.
I don’t read much poetry. This is a personal flaw more than anything else. But I’m not a complete stranger to the form. I love Mary Oliver and memorized my favorite silly Shel Silverstein poems as a kid. As an adult I don’t often have the patience that I think poetry requires, or the silent, empty apartment where I can read aloud, letting the words out into the air without embarrassment. I’ve only written one poem that I like, and it was about a dog and a jar of peanut butter. So, I’m not really sure if all that makes me more or less — probably less — equipped to review a book of poems. But I did have the privilege of hearing National Book Award winner Nikky Finney read her poetry aloud on a rainy night in Pittsburgh a few years ago. During the reading I began to understand what poetry can do — what poetry can be.
Hagan’s poems are so approachable and so lovely to read aloud that much of my anxiety about how I’m not a poetry person disappeared. Instead, I found myself lost in the images and smells of New York subway rides, in the pungent fragrance of sour mash, of thoughts of growing daughters, teeth, pregnant bellies and pelvic bones.
I need poetry like this. Poetry that as much explores one woman’s inner world from New York City to Bardstown Road as it asks me to examine my own history of how I got here. And because there is so much love in it, love for Hagan’s own daughters and for the world’s daughters, love for a husband, for the girl she once was, and the mother she has become. Only a poet could make the image of cupping hands to catch vomit so full of love and even beauty. That hopeful little symbol “&” is everywhere. A wonderful collection, one that has inspired me to read more poetry, and what higher praise is there than that? •