Sunday, July 27, 2008

And with the darkening evening, a deeper darkness: James Hoch, Grief and Love

The lights in Robert Frost's small sturdy barn glowed softly as James Hoch took the podium this evening. From his first laughing interchange with one of the poet faculty members, he crashed forward into lively poems in which he often paused to tease himself and the audience -- holding everyone's attention, so that even though the chorus of bird calls slowly vanished and night settled around the barn, only the golden light and the laughing poet mattered.

Like Bruce Springsteen, Hoch grew up in New Jersey, and like "The Boss," he paints the rough and troubled lives he's seen. He read a handful of poems from his first book, PARADE OF HANDS, then segued into MISCREANTS. And with a poem that he said took him 12 years to get around to writing -- "The Court of Forgetting" -- he moved swiftly away from even the smallest jokes, into the tangle of death and loss. Son of a long-time whiskey drinker, and father now of two sons himself, Hoch's aching affection for seven Pueblo juvenile delinquents, to whom he saw himself as foster father, tore open his heart and sent him back to school for writing. Forty people's silence hung thickly as the poem moved from its pickup basketball opening, into the lives that the boy players were able to set aside while leaping after the ball:

The one who pries his mother's fingers
from beer cans, the one who wires pickups
and ditches them in canyons, one who
swaggers and stares stone-inducing stares
before crossing over and diving to the hole,
they have the sweet, easy hands, and pray,
if only briefly, for the clean, wet sound
of ball swishing net. The one who has taken
his uncle's prick in his mouth, the one
who showers with his sister, who lie in bunks
and weep as orphans and convicts must,
they are silence in the backcourt, deadly
from the perimeter.

From here through the end of the poem, and on through "Late Autumn Wasp," "Morphine," and "All Things End in Fragrance," Hoch rode the wave of stillness and attention that the listeners provided. Then he swept into a handful of noir-brushed love poems and, in manuscript, a long exploration of his father, his son, history as dust: "Disgrace and Oblivion in Ancient Rome."

Wrapped within the poetry he read this evening was the long poetry sequence that he did not repeat, but had explored earlier in the day with the Frost Place participants, in the safety of daylight: "Bobby Almand," Hoch's extraordinary 41-page centerpiece work from MISCREANTS that plumbs the abduction, rape, and death of a boy he knew. Gently telling the listeners that he'd talk about it again some other time, he walked only as far as death, only as far as the regret that grown son and father share -- not into the deeper darkness of horror that he's faced so profoundly.

As I turned to walk back through the night, down Frost's mountain to the car, I heard someone behind me murmur, "He really knows how to read his poems." I turned to the young man who'd just spoken and said, "Wouldn't you love to be in his classroom at Ramapo College?" A pause, and indrawn breath ... "Yeah," the younger poet sighed. "Yeah."

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