Friday Jan 21

lexicography Lexicography
by Carol Hamilton
87 pages
March Street Press, 2011, ISBN: 1596611537
Reviewed by Benjamin Myers
 

Book Review Editor’s Note: I love to read well-written reviews such as this one by Benjamin Meyers, who argues for Carol Hamilton’s Lexicography by placing it within the context of the western tradition as it has moved from the legibility of the world in Dante’s era to today’s uncertainty. A fascinating argument that should interest readers in Hamilton’s book.
                                                                                              Stephanie Brown
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The world was once a book. Perhaps not all could read it, but the informed, by study or by revelation, could peruse its pages and gather wisdom from it. Staring into the divine light, Dante says, in the final canto of his masterpiece, “I saw within Its depth how It conceives / all things in a single volume bound by Love, / of which the universe is the scattered leaves” (Paradiso 33.85-87, trans. John Ciardi). For centuries, this sense of the world as legible was at the heart of the western intellect, infusing our art and our science with a sense of meaning and purpose. Then came Newtonian physics, with its insistence that the world is a machine, not a text. Over the course of the eighteenth century, the idea of the book of nature, Dante’s “single volume,” was replaced by the clockwork of the deists and other devotees of rationality. Now, although we know more of the world’s particulars than ever we did, we don’t know what the world is. We don’t have a metaphor as central as Dante’s book, or even Newton’s machine. We don’t have a central metaphor, that is, unless we insist upon having one, as Carol Hamilton does in her splendid and impressively coherent volume of poems, Lexicography. Through sheer poetic will, Hamilton renders the world legible once again, while, like Dante before her, acknowledging the difficulty of reading it aright.
 
For Hamilton words are both the world and the means by which we know it: the world and the knowing of it are one. In some poems, words are like fingers, a way of reading the world in Braille. The book’s opening poem, “Naming Things,” demonstrates this quality while gesturing back to the Edenic discovery of language. When the poem’s speaker says to her naturalist friend, “You gave me a book,” she seems to mean both the literal field guide from which the poet learns “California / false heliotrope” and “Gambel oak” and the volume that is the legible world: to be taught the name of things is to be given the world of/in language. She ends the poem with the “desire to enunciate” as a desire to touch the world and know it well. This desire results in a deeply lyrical, sometimes rapt, impulse for description: “Just a soft petal, a sweet song, an arched wing.” Images of the natural world build as a sort of litany throughout the book.
 
The desire to touch the world in enunciation also results in a frequent imagining of the ways in which the physical and the semantic meet in tongue and in sign language. Rejecting any Platonic dualism, Hamilton is drawn to the body’s giving forth of language. In, for instance, “I Want to be Called” she says, “You may make it lepidolite, / for its pinky purples charm me / and the sound makes my tongue dance,” a phrase to make the reader’s own tongue dance, to enact the union of the word and the world. In “Listing of the Latest Names,” she tells us that “Long hidden tribes had tongue-tripping / nomenclature.” How delicious the word nomenclature, which would normally seem so Latinately stuffy, is when felt along the tongue. Such lines call us to awareness of the physicality of language. We see this awareness again in “Signing in His Sleep,” which begins “The hearing child watched his parents / sign in their sleep” and goes on to imagine words as “the frosting / of green buds in spring” which “shelter to form canopy” and “at last turn brilliant, fall, dry, disappear.” Signing, such an obvious union of language and matter, is here not a compromise when regular speech is unavailable. Rather, it is the very epitome of language itself, exemplifying the physicality of communication.

Lexicography
puts me in mind of one of last year’s best books of poetry, Kathleen Graber’s splendid The Eternal City.  That Graber shares Hamilton’s view of the world as text is apparent in the title of the first poem, “Tolle! Lege!” (words taken from Augustine’s Confessions and best translated as “take up and read”). The command obviously applies to the book in hand but also serves as directions for life, or even as a description of the process of living in the world as if it were a text. Both Graber and Hamilton describe experience as a finely layered text in which, ultimately, history and personal memory, allusion and recollection, are not fully distinct. This complexity of vision, a thread unifying the whole collection, makes Lexicography a book that rewards reading and rereading.
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BenMyers Benjamin Myers won the 2011 Oklahoma Book Award for Poetry for his first book, Elegy for Trains (Village Books Press, 2010). His poems have appeared in or are forthcoming in The New York Quarterly, Measure, Plainsongs, Borderlands and many other journals. His essays have appeared in several academic journals, including Studies in Philology and English Literary History, and he has published reviews of contemporary poetry in World Literature Today as well as previously in Connotation Press. With a Ph.D. from Washington University in St. Louis, Myers teaches literature and writing at Oklahoma Baptist University. He blogs at www.myerspoetry.blogspot.com.