Dark Green by Emily Hunt
The Song Cave, 2015; 76 pp
Reviewed by Davy Knittle
Emily Hunt’s debut collection, Dark Green, opens with the Emily Dickinson quotation “To the faithful Absence is condensed presence,” which introduces Hunt’s central tension, and suggests a lineage that’s useful and right. Dark Green meets the quiet heft of the Massachusetts landscape with austerity and precision. “For Flowers” begins: “how pretty / how exact is nothing / how booming and direct are the fields” (14).
In her poems, Hunt uses a condensed lexicon to be briefly and intensely accurate about the undivorceability of visual and emotional information, to activate emptiness without populating it.
Absence is abundant here, and in the company of other crucial spaces: the woods, the sky, the sea and colors, especially blue. In Hunt’s poems, they’re all a kind of nothing. A sea is a void, like the sky, a nothing space, one you can look into, but need tremendous accommodation to inhabit, simultaneously intimate and far away.
The sea and the sky can also be counterpoints to one another. Hunt’s invested in pairs, in opposites, human as well as environmental. People are often missing, or leaving others alone, in her poems. “Bumping Into Her” ends with the lines: “she was confused, I explained / you had moved / but I was still living here” (36).
Hunt records presence, too. Her short, declarative, highly visual lines lend themselves to taxonomy: “Symbols” begins “The one above me is solid, dark, and simple” (11). “Blue Takes Over” is a taxonomy of color: “blue takes over / green gives us the lush / yellow lies down” (40) through fifty-nine colors, some repeated.
Hunt documents the physical world as she distorts it to make it emotionally exact. From “What Stunning Privilege”:
the very cracked sky
whose wet leaves
I grew in my sleep
those hours that open
a year I can touch (23-24)
Touching the year, opening the hours, growing leaves in sleep, is the purpose of these poems. Hunt materializes time and sleep, which are the vehicles of living, and which are immaterial, but also hold bodies and allow them to move around. This kind of distortion collaborates with the woods, the sky, and the sea, which anchor the book and underscore Hunt’s interest in how the frameworks we make illustrate what and how we feel.
Perhaps for that purpose, Hunt employs a variety of simulacra. The entirety of “Museum” reads:
not a dangerous thing
there is rain below the floor
the course of history, a city
so close to what the world is like (38)
In being “close to what the world is like,” the poem is a simulation. The way to access its world is to put rain below the floor, and history in it, to have a city that’s available from floors and history and rain. Hunt’s poems have to change the world in order to get close to it.
Hunt builds worlds to rearrange the physical, and also to remake the kinds of communication that are possible between people. From “A Conversation”:
the sun might be above us
you could turn to me
and it might be easy in the picture (15)
What’s easy in the picture suggests it’s not easy outside of it. Hunt’s poems are concerned with what’s possible, in spite of the pressure against things (people, feelings, the sky, etc.) to not exist, to go unseen, and so they invent contexts where things can take up space. These poems are full of longing, for people and places, and for a way they exist or did or might. They insist on visibility.
The final line of “It’s Good to Be in Your Paintings” reads “Massachusetts is dark green,” (35) and insists on seeing and classifying Massachusetts, and on a kind of visibility that conveys the emotional reality of place as visual information. “Dark green,” here, is felt and seen at once.
In her austere union of heart and landscape, Hunt is conscious of her Massachusetts roots. Dickinson is here, and, as a more contemporary antecedent, so is Peter Gizzi, who himself distills elements of landscape and grants physicality to the unseen until it is gorgeously heavy and exact. “Nothing,” or absence as an active presence, is also one of Gizzi chief concerns. “It’s hard to imagine atoms, hard to imagine / hydrogen & oxygen binding, it’ll have to do,” Gizzi writes in “In Defense of Nothing.”
Hunt’s project is survival, for which these poems are necessary. The complexity of their precision, itself a simple machine, is what’s spectacular about them. Exactness matters to Hunt, and to be exact is to create visual information that’s seen as its thought and felt. As she writes in “Last Tool on Earth”: “it is exactly / visual to survive” (60).