Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Alaskaphrenia by Christine Hume

New Issues Press, 2004

Reviewed by Britta Ameel

There are 39 poems in Christine Hume’s Alaskaphrenia, 72 words between “language” and “landscape” in the Oxford English Dictionary, and Alaska is the 49th state at a latitude of 54° 40' N to 71° 50' N and a longitude 130° W to 173° E. Hume counts, maps, mines, names, explores, lists, categorizes as the surveyor of her Alaska-of-the-mind landscape. She surveys not only the literal landscape replete with bears and moose and ice caves, ocean, mountains, planes. Hume surveys the “poetic” language meant to arrange our uncontrollable internal states, our Alaska on the inside, where we “will be a bellwether bomber, you dream-bomb the last place: a dogsled dream, campfire dream, pioneer dream, pioneer, lynx, lynx, lynx.”

This surveyed Alaskan consciousness is under-punctuated, grammatically wild, written on scraps of paper edged with fire and water, folded several hundred times to fit in a pocket. Hume has “adopted an Alaskan ear long before; with it, it’s not unusual to hear from inside the hammer: stampeded terrain, yea, avalanche.” The inside of this hammer sounds, indeed, like avalanche: words shape-shift and metaphors crumble under sound:

             “Under these circulations
             You could not wear cirrus the way cows do

             Always your mange meant to be smoke
                      molting, moonglow”

This associational, sound-driven logic (lynx, lynx, lynx) powers the surveyor’s 4x4, which explores the transformative nature of consciousness. This particular Alaskan consciousness is ultimately poetic, circular, fractured, though reliant on prosaic and instructional structures: documents like brochures, diagrams, comprehension questions; indices, instructions, explanations, translations, dialogues, do’s and don’ts. These are the maps pinned under otherwise confounding experience, and Hume instructs: “If you cannot work the Eskimo yo-yo, you must walk around and create a map inside your muscles. There, a secret heat makes air remember birds. In their flight, your absurd hands go to seed. Only the other day your pacing made something stop sleeping; it made nowhere a shook-out place.” And again: “Never let what you think fool you.”

The parallel Hume draws between the surveyor’s language and poetic language feels at every turn right for complicated consciousness. Yet, what startles most is the fact that both languages are essentially inaccurate, and indeed almost violate the very areas and emotions they are meant to represent. Hume’s act of surveying, though, exposes the rich veins of landscape and mind, which, though perhaps inaccurate, are made once again original and exquisite. This reader wouldn’t want it any other way, for Hume has

             “…outened the world
             to show you real barenness:
             a void a light
             warps into want and then wants
             until it warps all it glances.”

Warp away, Hume, we’re with you on this expedition, counting as we go.


CHRISTINE HUME is the author of Musca Domestica (Beacon Press, 2000), winner of the Barnard New Women Poets Prize, and Alaskaphrenia (New Issues, 2004), winner of the Green Rose Award. Her reviews and critical work has been published in American Women Poets in the 21st Century (Wesleyan UP, 2002), American Letters & Commentary, Chicago Review, Context, Verse, and online for Constant Critic/Fence, How2, and Slope. The Colorado Council on the Arts, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the Fund for Poetry, and the Wurlitzer Foundation have awarded her fellowships and grants.


BRITTA AMEEL has lived most of her life west of the continental divide. Her current stint in Ann Arbor, where she teaches and writes at the University of Michigan, makes her miss the mountains and the ocean. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in em, Hayden's Ferry Review, and Fugue.