Ordinary, everday, homely. These are words that come to mind to describe the dimension Hollis Summers’ poems live in. But they are inadequate words, and his are deceptively simple poems. They speak little, and quietly, but they record, in the silences they create, a desperate, melancholy magic about the surfaces and trivial events of our days. So we are led to discover, and assent, to all these tonal perceptions as the true domestic furniture of our inner lives. And though the poems see – feel – the transformation happening in us and about us, the flat surface of the moment is never lost, or lost sight of: as in “Maybe Nobody Wants to Appear”—
In our town we
Double park in Christmas week
Waiting for each other.
And we have been known,
At Christmas, to understand snow
In southeastern Ohio.
It is all reported in an insistently matter-of-fact tone: beautiful and mysterious moments we cannot translate into any meaning, a sense of urgency and incipent despair in all our acts and words, a daily normality of madness:
For five days after the boy’s death
I used him for a dust mop.
I am accustomed to helping my wife
Around the house.
We have a large house and many
Also there is fear. We fear the loss – and gain – of words in these poems. And Summers respects the fear too much to try to undercut it with any arch irony. The voice that speaks these poems does have irony in it, but it is only lightly-and sorrowfully-touched by it, as if by a faint wash of blue. It is too diffident to be used as a shield against its own truth-like the poems themselves. Quiet, unpretentious, seemingly uncertain, they make their certain visits.
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Browning’s Fra Lippo Lippi says that we may pass things a hundred times and never see them. One thing that Browning’s readers have passed without seeing, or at least without remarking upon, is the circular conclusion in so many of his poems. Some sixty poems (almost a third of them) have such conclusions. These sixty span his entire career and include both well-known and neglected poems.
The poems in One Unblinking Eye cast a steady and serious gaze at life outside the beltways. Whether testifying at a prayer meeting in Indiana, tramping the backwoods of northern New England, or working on an oil derrick in the Gulf, the inhabitants of these poems live on the margins of society. “They are the left-behind, odd-manneredones/Who speak in starts,” Norman Williams writes of the last residents of a West Virginia mining town.