Review of Cynthia Hogue’s Revenance

revenancecoverIn section two of Revenance, Cynthia Hogue’s eighth collection, she writes about the process of re-constructing a lost interview with Samizdat poet, Olga Sedakova. Hogue (and her friend, Professor Slava Yastremski) interviewed Sedakova in 1999, but their tape recorders failed and the backup “mangled the speech” (31). Hogue was left with pages of notes she wrote by hand, fragments of speech and thought (both hers and Sedakova’s) that create a profoundly lyrical sort of erasure.

Hogue calls this new text an “artifact,” and states: “I want the reconstructed piece to confirm, by the very fact of its existence, that something that is no more once took place, bodied forth, returning like a revenant: not whole, but changed. Struck by an absence at once partial and absolute” (32).  This statement certainly applies to the interview, but it is also an apt guide for the entirety of Revenance, a collection that is constantly setting up linguistic and philosophical binaries only to break them down and create texts that feel brand new. 

In “Spirit Says (2),” for example, Hogue comments on the change in meaning that one word can affect:

Voice of 
Or voice for
which is a capacity to change

                       one word and all
                       meaning (…). (1-5)

Hogue’s speaker desires to break down language into its smallest building blocks—into words, into syllables, into sounds—in order to showcase its mutability, its capacity, as Whitman famously wrote, to “contain multitudes.”

Revenance is also a poetic exploration of the Saussurean model of semiotics. Hogue re-imagines Saussure’s model of the “sign,” with her own “signifier” and “signified” often emerging out of natural elements. She meditates, thus, on an encounter with an eagle in “Hiking South Mountain”: “You look back curious,/alert—he is eagle-eyed, words of which under the intent gaze of one eye you grasp full/meaning (…)” (4-6). Nature is necessary here to convey a “full meaning” that goes beyond actual words.

After a mercurial journey through four sections of Hogue’s collection, we arrive finally at the fifth section, which crystallizes the ideas of loss and absence that have accompanied us thus far. Here we encounter the elegiac poems: “Elegy with Boulder,” “Care Giving: An Elegy,” “Elegy with Window,” “Elegy with Lake.” The speaker of these poems mourns for humans who feel very specific, as in “Care Giving: An Elegy”:

She is an I who can
no longer read hear
or walk and he

her ears, cane, brain—
was dying his hand
was in yours (…). (31-36)

The grief, however, extends to nature as well—specifically when humans find nature irrevocably changed or destroyed. Hogue’s work has often been called “ecopoetic,” and it clearly fits this categorization in poems such as “Elegy with Boulder,” where Hogue writes about “the boulder that was/my father”: “They’d dynamited the boulder the week before./Nothing moved it. Equipment broke. Eventually, they built the road around the boulder” (5-6). The human artifice/ nature binary is dissolved here and the two discrete elements are combined into a brand new experience for the poet and for the reader.

Revenance is not a quick read. There is no single narrative complete with characters and plot. There are no catchy popular culture references. Instead, there is a resplendent attention to the nuances of language. Readers should engage fully in Hogue’s poems because this book is a gorgeous meditation on what is lost and the echoes that remain, a book that “sends you to a place where stealth/infiltrates beauty and elements” (5-6).

-Dominika Wrozynski

Dominika PhotoDominika Wrozynski is Assistant Professor of English at Manhattan College in New York City. Her latest poems have appeared in Crab Orchard Review, Slipstream, Kritya: A Journal of Poetry, The Spoon River Poetry Review, Saw Palm, Rattle, and are forthcoming in an anthology entitled 200 New Mexico Poems.

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