A Review of Ali Blythe’s Hymnswitch

by Stewart Cole

Stewart Cole is the author of the poetry collections Questions in Bed (Goose Lane, 2012) and Soft Power (Goose Lane, forthcoming fall 2019). He grew up in the Rideau Valley south of Ottawa and spent time living and writing in Victoria, Montréal, Fredericton, London, and Toronto. Now an expatriate in the U.S., he lives in the Midwest, where he teaches at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh.

Ali Blythe
Goose Lane Editions
2019, 67 pp., $19.95

Ali Blythe’s second collection opens with a string of three longer poems, each unfolding over several pages, each remarkable for its precision of image and tone, and each inspiring in this reader a sense of care not only for its voice and the being behind it—who takes vivid shape across these opening pages as a person possessed of (and perhaps freighted with) an unusual thoughtfulness—but for the evolving text itself, in all its vulnerable intricacy. In tracing the course of these poems, it is as though one is witnessing a house of cards take shape in thin air, quietly marvelling at how little fear one feels that it will fall.

The opening of the first poem, “Waking in the Preceding,” embodies some of the collection’s signal aesthetic gestures:

Hello, My Forever Ago, don’t worry,
you won’t be reading this much longer.

You will have already returned
in a snowcloud, which is suggestively,

fashionably, only ever one second old.
Yes, darling, it’s me, it says

as proof that in space,
though there are many silences,

fleeting isn’t the opposite
of infinite, but its perfect match.

These lines inaugurate a tendency that will continue throughout Hymnswitch: though firmly anchored in a lyric mode—and, as I have implied, emanating from a speaker who takes on palpable, personal shape for us—the poems in this book flout monologue, continually reaching outward and drawing in, whether through apostrophe (“Hello, My Forever Ago . . . / you won’t be reading this . . . // You will have already returned”), polyvocality (“Yes, darling, it’s me, it says”), or the simple inclusion of other people as meaningful presences who urge and alter the speaker’s course of thought. Blythe’s trans-poetics seems inherently distrustful of the authority of the single voice (as the title of his first collection, Twoism, might imply), and this leads his work into enriching forms of dialogue.

His work is rare in both fully warranting close analysis and continually, powerfully reminding us that poetry aims partly at what thwarts understanding, at the residual, at something akin to what silenced music leaves lingering in the body.

This distrust also manifests as a kind of negative capability, especially as concerns language itself and the assumptions it harbours. In the above-quoted passage, for instance, the proposition that “fleeting isn’t the opposite / of infinite, but its perfect match” collapses an assumed binary not purely in a spirit of deconstructive hostility to binaries as such, but to suggest something important about one’s relationship to one’s own past (“My Forever Ago”), which is fleeting in the sense of being both temporally irrecoverable and infinite “in space”—that is, in its irrevocable presence throughout our lives as embodied memory. That the agent of this mutual collapse of fleetingness and infinitude should be “a snowcloud” is apt; as the book’s first image, it takes up the vein of effective ‘soft surrealism’ that helped make Twoism so consistently surprising while also (as usual with Blythe) swerving clear of the hollow nonsensicality that can attend such a mode. A snowcloud is both a transient weather effect and (at least hopefully, climate change notwithstanding for the moment) an event bound to cyclically recur. How does it make sense, then, that it is “suggestively // fashionably, only ever one second old”? I’m inclined to link this to the metapoetic thread that runs through the collection (introduced here by “you won’t be reading this much longer”)—as though the snowcloud that bears the returning past is only ever one second old for the same reason that we will never be reading this or anything much longer: the present is perpetually spooling into the past, leaving us with no purchase beyond the instantaneous. This phenomenon can register “fashionably” because fashion is by its nature ephemeral, its appeal rooted in delusory novelty. “Suggestively”? Here I reach an interpretive limit; if “suggestive” is used in the sense of freighted with suggestion, then the adverb is bit banal here, and yet the alternative sense of erotic innuendo seems to be missing. The attentiveness of Blythe’s voice inspires such readerly trust, however, that these moments of irresolution register largely as strengths. His work is rare in both fully warranting close analysis and continually, powerfully reminding us that poetry aims partly at what thwarts understanding, at the residual, at something akin to what silenced music leaves lingering in the body.

I have perhaps made Hymnswitch sound like a forbidding book, and “Waking in the Preceding” (the whole of which could sustain an essay on its own) is certainly a weighty poem, striving to lend tangible substance to explorations of identity, transition, and the nature of subjectivity. Both of Blythe’s collections contain a dimension that for lack of a better word I think of as metaphysical, and much of their resonance derives from being unafraid of the challenge of transfiguring the abstract into something concretely felt for us. A particularly powerful poem in Twoism ends as follows:

The removal of material

the movement to immateriality
is minimally invasive

for the misnamed moth
plucked between finger and thumb.
A little heap of translucence.

The poem in question (“Playing Dead”) begins with a tercet that evokes FTM or FTN top surgery—“I play dead to trick you into / going about the motions of being / deeply at work on my chest”—and builds through a series of deft figurations that connote rending, slipping away, and unravelling before landing on the ending above. Notice how the profusion of Latinate diction (“material,” “movement,” “immateriality,” “minimally,” “invasive”) builds towards an earthward drop into the Anglo-Saxon register with the image of the “misnamed moth / plucked between finger and thumb” before the poem’s final sentence effects the reverse trajectory, moving from the Anglo-Saxon back into the Latin over the course of a single line, “A little heap of translucence.” By the time we reach “translucence,” a word potentially precious in its cerebrality instead shimmers as it should, having been rendered palpable by the weight of the image that precedes it. Throughout both books, Blythe is frequently masterful at not only shifting between linguistic registers in this way, but exploiting their mutually strengthening properties, using abstraction to lend glimmers of transcendence to concretions which themselves tether the abstract to a living fabric. Notice, too, how musical this all is, particularly in its play of assonance and alliteration (removal/movement/translucence, material/immateriality/heap, invasive/misnamed, minimally/misnamed/finger/little, etc.), with each of these sonic effects contributing further to anchor the lines in the readerly body, thus highlighting the inadequacy of the “metaphysical” label I employed earlier, which fails to do justice to the sense of embodiment—and the negotiation with the vicissitudes thereof, trans-poetically and otherwise—that pervades Blythe’s work.

I have taken this detour into Twoism because I want to assert the essential quality of both books, because they are compelling in similar ways, and because Hymnswitch registers an awareness of such continuities, as though talking back to its predecessor. I don’t have space to enumerate the full range of such correspondences, but curious readers might compare Twoism’s “Mask”—a poem centred on the image of a hole (“I take the hole / and put it / on my face”) that ends with the speaker declaring, “From this deeper / nullity / I’m watching”—to Hymnswitch’s “Something Goes Here,” which begins “We are learning about / the hole at the centre / of our beings” and ends, like the earlier poem, with the speaker having become the hole’s occupant: “The hole isn’t a mouth. / Only an ink-blue opening / I lie down in to listen.” Or compare the first book’s arresting animal poems “Four,” “Fox,” and “Owl” with this one’s “My Animal Family,” which sees the characters of those earlier poems return in transfigured form (“Owl’s motionless soup spoon. / The endless knotted pull / of fox’s used handkerchiefs”). Or note the persistent references to Ovid—the locus classicus, of course, for the themes of metamorphosis that so occupy Blythe—across both collections.

I cite these correspondences not just because it’s fun to spot them, but also because they constitute facets of a worldview, lending depth and richness to our experience of Blythe’s work. The motif of the ontological hole, for instance, dialogues with the Lacanian notion of subjectivity as constituted by lack, a premise that Blythe’s trans-poetics seems at least implicitly concerned to negotiate—and indeed Lacan is cited, via Maggie Nelson, at the opening of “Vessel of Bottom Smashed Off” (“If a woman who thinks they are a man / is mad, a man who thinks they are a man // is no less so”). Similarly, the animal motifs signal one aspect of Blythe’s confrontation with what one speaker calls “our gendery animalia”—an evocative phrase which I take as deftly encapsulating the embodied tension between what is fluid in our being (contained in the hedging adjective “gendery”) and what is less tractable (“animalia”). The allusions to Ovid seem another means of staging this confrontation; asked about his classical references in an interview with Quill and Quire around the release of Twoism, Blythe responds: “I wanted to re-imagine Hermaphroditus as someone who entered the pool and became whole. When Hermaphroditus twins with Salmacis it’s believed that the two turn into a monster—a half-woman/half-man creature—but I like to imagine them becoming fully themselves.” There is both a commitment to justice in this formulation—indeed, Blythe goes on to reflect, “I think of all the intersex people in the world and all those knives that have cut them and made them into something else”—and, figuratively, an apt characterization of what is often happening in Blythe’s poetry: wholenesses formed through the combinatory dissolution of binaries (abstract and concrete, physical and metaphysical, personal and communal). It’s exciting to see a writer so conscious of building a body of work within and across collections, pursuing not just a set of ideas and concerns but an artistic vision.

I don’t want to over-emphasize the continuity between Twoism and Hymnswitch, as the latter certainly adds new dimensions, both formally and thematically, to Blythe’s evolving vision. A prominent narrative thread in Hymnswitch involves the speaker’s path to health through an alcohol recovery program, and the poems that take up this thread anchor themselves more firmly than Blythe’s previous collection in mundane, platonic encounters with other people. Beginning with “Unmanageability Harmonica” (the second of the aforementioned three longer poems that open the collection), we often find Blythe’s speaker both extending and receiving empathy, his voice emanating a kind of placid human warmth. About a third of the way through the poem, the speaker apostrophizes an unidentified addressee:

I wish you could see
all the good, solid boots

in this circle. Boots
whose owners help me
just because they too

have found themselves
in this room that is a thousand
degrees too warm

to get help in repetitive ways
for what seems to be
largely due

to either painful
or more painful
cultural circumstances.

One of the Blythe’s particular formal strengths resides in how skillfully he renders complex sentences in shorter lines across repeated stanzaic units to exploit the musical and tonal tensions between line, sentence, and stanza. The effect is often, as with the above, both loosely conversational and tautly precise, conveying at once both spontaneity and artfulness. Sonic and rhetorical techniques help to unify this passage; we can follow the assonantal ‘oo’ sounds down the page, for instance, and the recurrent epistrophe (“all the good, solid boots // in this circle. Boots,” “to either painful / or more painful”) is subtly but effectively deployed. What really holds this together, however, is Blythe’s ear for the tensile music of everyday language. Often when reading Hymnswitch, I find myself conscious of how what would in prose be banal utterance is transfigured, as if alchemically, by the careful modulations of poetic form. Of course it helps that what is being discussed is so often compelling; here the kernel image of boots in a circle deftly distills the precarious mutuality of the support-group setting, while the closing reference to “cultural circumstances” subtly rebuts the neoliberal credo of personal responsibility that would stigmatize and denigrate the circle’s inhabitants. But there is no romanticizing this setting, either; in the next poem, “The Program,” Blythe returns to the image of boots as a means of highlighting the recovery space as a pervasively masculine one—the normativity of which, in the context of the speaker’s sustained consideration of trans-masculinity, cannot help but register, if not exactly problematically, at least un-neutrally:

I don’t see many dresses.
No lovers allowed.
I concentrate on boots.
Boots, boots, eyes, boots.

Although I notice Griffin
has a griffin tattoo.
I have always thought of myth
as its own mythical creature.

Like the four types of stress
reactions on the whiteboard:
Freeze, Fight, Flee, and Freeze’s
monstrous relation, Dissociate.

The way this nuances the resonances of warmth and support that had accrued to boots through the previous poem nicely illustrates the coherency of Hymnswitch as a collection, as recurrent images and concerns place the book in ever-shifting dialogue with itself (and, as I have already highlighted, with Twoism). Here, Blythe manipulates punctuation and enjambment to clever tonal effect. The four consecutive end-stops of the first quatrain convey the speaker’s halting confrontation with the unspoken rules and boundaries of the space. The next quatrain’s loosening—but not relinquishment—of the end-stopped structure hints at the mildly liberating effect of having noticed Griffin’s tattoo, and the third quatrain’s hard enjambments (“stress / reactions,” “Freeze’s / monstrous relation”) neatly hew form to content. And of course this all means so much more in context: Griffin’s griffin can’t help but resonate differently within a body of work so rife with classical allusions, and while that list of reaction words remains specific to the setting in question, it also occurs within a collection whose speaker continually ruminates on the valency of words in themselves and in relation to each other (one poem ruptures dis/aster into its component parts, for example, while two others explore the triads exclude/preclude/disclude and declivity/proclivity/perversity).

Hymnswitch is at its most powerful in its longest poems, where Blythe’s sense of orchestration is on fullest display.

This is why I’ve reached this point in a review with the nagging feeling of not having quite conveyed the depth of my engagement with Hymnswitch: not only is every poem here transfigured for the better by its presence within the carefully wrought contexts of both the collection itself and Blythe’s wider body of work, but unlike Twoism, which is largely a book of short lyrics, Hymnswitch is at its most powerful in its longest poems, where Blythe’s sense of orchestration is on fullest display. I have touched on the three longer poems that open the book, but the collection’s structural (and, I think, aesthetic) apex is “Snow, Night, in the Defunct Lyric of Masculinity,” at four-plus pages the book’s longest poem and positioned about two-thirds into the collection. Like “Waking in the Preceding,” “Snow” could readily warrant its own essay, and so almost all I can do here is urge you to read it yourselves. Multifaceted, beautiful, and un-paraphrasable, “Snow” is where Hymnswitch’s various thematic strands—embodiment, gender, transition, animality, the insufficiency of language in designating our subjectivities, etc.—are most mesmerizingly woven together. It is also a poem that abounds with riveting turns of phrase: the speaker “with nothing else to do / but withdraw to bed / and decline one’s own misuse”; his “tromping / over the lace of paw scent” left through the house by his “traumatized dog”; his wondering “if I can enter / this, the golden-throated era / of the hormone”; and his final resonant assertions, “I perform again and again. / I am not a performance.” Like so much of the collection to which it belongs, “Snow” leaves this reader in an awed in-between, having heard, witnessed, understood, and felt something all at once, and blinkingly knowing that much of that something is bound to elude articulation.

Stewart Cole is the author of the poetry collections Questions in Bed (Goose Lane, 2012) and Soft Power (Goose Lane, forthcoming fall 2019). He grew up in the Rideau Valley south of Ottawa and spent time living and writing in Victoria, Montréal, Fredericton, London, and Toronto. Now an expatriate in the U.S., he lives in the Midwest, where he teaches at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh.