In 10th grade, a girl in my English class informed me that the word “moist” was the sexiest word in our language. So sexy, in fact, that hearing it caused certain areas of her body to palpitate in a noticeable quiver. Whether or not she invited me to explore those regions is another question – the fact is, she lodged the idea of word’s power firmly in my mind.
I still fall back on that sophomoric wisdom whenever I encounter the word. I’ve gone so far as to quiz other women, many of whom agree that the word, on some level, does “things” to them.
Therefore, when I picked up Moist Meridian (© 2009, Mammoth Books), Henry Hughes’ sophomore effort — his first full-length collection, Men Holding Eggs (© 2004, Mammoth) won him Rookie of the Year honors when it brought home that year’s Oregon Book Award for poetry — the title, coupled with the cover art (a beautiful rendering of a female nude by artist Richard Bunse), told me the poems within would be, in a word, sexy. (Never mind that the first poem I opened to was, “After Four Years of Sex”.)
That’s not to say that the book is only about sex, or even more obtusely, sexuality. That would be a disservice and injustice to what Hughes’ has done with the collection. Along those same lines, it’s a misnomer to refer to the book as Hughes’ “sophomore effort.” He’s been at it a long while, picking at poems and producing eloquent elucidations since the early- to mid-80s. A traveler, professor, fisherman and literary critic (he’s a frequent contributer at Harvard Book Review), Hughes knows what he’s doing, knows the world around him, and knows how to shed light on what the poet Paulann Petersen described as “secular epiphanies.”
Yes, sex comes up now and again in Moist Meridian, and one can’t blame Hughes for going there. As a poet, he’s interested and committed to exploring a wide range of human emotions, relationships and frailties, and to bringing these realities together with broad strokes that often take us out to sea, or at least to the shoreline. Were he to avoid sex and sexuality in the process, he’d be overlooking a central part of our human theater. He’s too smart and too curious for that, and all too willing to approach the topic, and many more, with visceral language that aims to entice the reader into the bed each poem makes.
Perhaps fittingly, then, the greater metaphor found throughout the collection doesn’t pertain to the body or our instincts as much as it relates back to the place from where life sprang: the sea (which also serves as the title for the collection’s third section of eight poems).
Throughout “The Sea” section and elsewhere, we find ourselves returning to the water, running to the shore, revisiting nights of coastal fog and mornings of blanched salty whiteness. Beyond the subject matter, Hughes also connects us to the water in his play with form and style, stretching his lines at times out to the margins as if following the natural flow of a wave.
Rather than going for a certain aesthetic, Hughes, when we spoke about the collection, admitted that there’s a natural ebb and flood to the lines themselves.
“I’m not the kind of poet who sits down and says, ‘I’m going to write a sonnet, or I’m going to write a villanelle.’ I really write what I want to say, and then end up looking at the lines later. It seems that I’ve found this motion naturally.”
When lines jut out of stanzas, they resemble our own temporal permeations that sometimes follow balloons out windows when our eyes are told to stay on the spreadsheet in front of us. Or, to stick with the ocean metaphor, Hughes’ lines remind us that a white cap may in fact come tumbling over an otherwise yawning current at any moment.
An unseasoned reader may find his approach challenging; a strict formalist may call it distracting or careless. While neither would rankle Hughes, he’s sensitive enough to want to pull the novice in, if for nothing more than to keep the poems approachable in language and story. Hughes’ goal, in Moist Meridian and elsewhere, is to say something meaningful and humane, and to sound like a real person affected by human emotions. As he did with Men Holding Eggs, he succeeds.
Even his most playful language never loses the reader. In the poem, “Flight”, for instance, Hughes’ narrator seems less than excited to be in the midst of air travel:
“And when thunder rattles our ice, and rain
stretches the round corner
of the little window, I shut the beige shade. It’s enough
to tell myself
fall. Reminders are desperate.
The invisible captain speaks of seatbelts,
weather and time — that’s fine if we’re coming back to earth.”
In the poem, Hughes ruminates on God, death, religion, our own downward drift and demise. Still we’re graced with an “invisible captain” while thunder rattles the ice in the passenger’s diet Coke. For Hughes, arriving at these lines and images is the result of being playful, putting in the hours of work, and, to a degree, getting a little lucky.
“It’s like the Arnold Palmer quote,” Hughes says. “The more I practice, the luckier I get.”
What becomes apparent over the course of the collection is that Hughes is always practicing, constantly needling away at lines, and preparing for more well-earned luck to follow. As much as we get the sense that Hughes is a poet entering his stride, we’re reminded throughout that he’s also one with plenty to say about a number of topics – death ( “My Father’s Old Girlfriend Dies at Seventy” ); suffering ( “What My Wife Would Be Like if She Were Alive” ); relationships ( “Together in the Ice Storm”, “Rooms without You”); politics ( “Skeleton Pirates of America” ); memory ( “Substitute”, “Moving” ); and yes, sex,( “At the Edge of the Known World” ). But sex in Moist Meridian is sex in the most tender sense, brought to the reader by a man with a young man’s playfulness, a willingness to surrender, and the idea that, behind our walls of flesh, a moist, thumping organ — the heart, of course — beats true.