Hummer, T(erry) R(andolph)
HUMMER, T(erry) R(andolph)
Nationality: American. Born: Noxobee County, Mississippi, 7 August 1950. Education: University of Southern Mississippi, B.A., M.A. 1974; University of Utah, Ph.D. 1980. Family: One son. Career: Assistant professor of English, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, 1980–84; assistant professor of English, Middlebury College, Vermont, and since 1984 Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio. Visiting professor, Exeter College, England; writer-in-residence, University of California, Irvine. Former senior editor of Kenyon Review and New England Review. Professor and director of creative writing, University of Oregon, Eugene. Awards: National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1987, 1992–93; Guggenheim fellowship, 1992–93. Address: Kenyon Review, Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio 43022, U.S.A.
Translation of Light. Stillwater, Oklahoma, Cedar Creek Press, 1976.
The Angelic Orders. Baton Rouge and London, Louisiana State University, 1982.
The Passion of the Right-Angled Man. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1984.
Lower-Class Heresy. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1987.
The 18,000-Ton Olympic Dream. New York, Quill/Morrow, 1990.
Editor, with Bruce Weigl, The Imagination as Glory: Essays on the Poetry of James Dickey. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1984.
Critical Studies: By Ronald Baughman, in James Dickey Newsletter, 1 (1), Fall 1984; interview with Phil Paradis, in Cimarron Review (Stillwater, Oklahoma), 71, April 1985.* * *
Southern writing in Faulkner's day could draw on the mythology of farming life, its rituals of male passage into manhood through hunting, the deflowering of girls white or black under the full moon, the death of grandparents, and the burial of family relations. All these were fresh in the age of nearly universal agriculture. By the time James Dickey came to write about these myths, they were at one remove from a southerner's daily life. They were remembered, but at a distance, as places and events outside Atlanta and other cities, as a part of the disappearing past.
With T.R. Hummer and his generation southern rural life and its folklore are now almost gone. Hummer makes good use of his own experience growing up on a Mississippi farm, but the act of reliving it is self-conscious, rhetorical. He is at his best when narrating an exciting moment in a boy's life, as in "Calf," from his 1982 book The Angelic Orders, where his father pulls the shattered parts of a half-born calf from the mother cow. The details are frightening and vivid, and the boy's soul is shaped by the terrifying ordeal of death, birth, and a father's authority:
the calf's back legs tear off
Like rubber boots pulled out of mud.
My brother turns away,
But I can't take
My eyes from the place
Where the calf was, and now
Is not, or cannot be seen.
My father shakes his head.
We only got half.
Rolls up his sleeves.
It's going to be mean.
Hold her head.
Contemporary southern poetry is influenced by the work of Dickey and Dave Smith. Hummer coedited a book of essays about the former, called Imagination as Glory, and studied under Smith at the University of Utah. He carries the mark of both writers, who fashioned a lush, sonorous rhetorical style in which the labors of growing up male in the South are sung variously in laments, love songs, and dirges over lost innocence. The style was originally minted by Faulkner's prose, with its trademark inner voices set in italics, a technique imported into Hummer's dialogical meditations with the self. Throw in the musical narratives of James Wright and you have nearly the whole pantheon of giants marking the southern style.
Hummer is more quintessentially southern in his sense of poetry as the exploration of pain, suffering, and regret. The argument of his poetry is that we are shaped by our losses. What we lose becomes our emotional heritage:
Boundary between hypothesis and truth
In Hummer's psychology memory is the imagination, and pain is what we remember best. The poetry seems once removed from an older Christian reading of life as a pilgrim's journey toward redemption. Hummer's pilgrims suffer without religious consolation, but a form of religious faith appears in the beauty of the language, the lyric inspiration that rises from their sorrows. In "Inner Ear," from Lower-Class Heresy, the balance mechanism of the inner ear is ambiguously described as "A small sealed chamber with a fine dust inside," a tomb, in other words, with the past inside it giving us our orientation in the world:
The dust is always settling, always falling.
Your body knows. That's how it tells up from down.
In the closing poem of Lower-Class Heresy we get this telling observation:
The fact is, the world is the same as yesterday,
Only colder, that's all, and what I want to see
As a visionary difference is only a difference in vision,
In light that makes me focus on the boundaries between things,
Their dark and believable presences in the air of almost-night.
Hummer is more articulate and penetrating in Lower-Class Heresy than in earlier books about his methods. "Solitude," he tells us in the poem "Cold," "is the laboratory of the heart." Consciousness is a result of growing up into adulthood; one wakes up into manhood to find oneself stranded in a difficult place, shorn of the usual supports of parents, grandparents, a usable past. In "The Moon and Constellations," the only place from which his language arises, Hummer says, is from the adamant principle of the body, which "appropriates everything." The hand he holds up to "whatever shatter of moon there is" confirms only "the one great law of the physical, /The body."
Hummer's capacities for lyric music and self-analysis are large. If his voice seems a little indistinct from his contemporaries, it is not for reasons of talent or skill but rather the region that raised him. The South demands that its body of myths be articulated according to certain laws of psychology and language. Although writers tend to lose something of their precise selves in the process, what they give us to read is a unique descent into the American psyche in which the sexes are drawn in vivid opposing colors and the ceremonies of coming-of-age are written in high operatic registers.