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Fault Lines
Tim Hunt
The Backwaters Press
ISBN: 9781935218166

Reviewer: Michael Adams

          I admire a poet who declares his intentions up-front, as Tim Hunt does in Fault Lines, his first full-length collection of poetry. The book’s opening poem, an invocation titled “Prescript (Poetry),”  begins with “‘How clear,' my friend asks, / ‘is it okay to be?’” and proceeds in five succinct lines, reminiscent of William Carlos Williams, to tell us that he will be as clear as “the yellow bus// standing a bit apart/ from the others// ...gleaming through/ a skin of morning ice.// That’s how clear.” (author’s italics)

          To possibly oversimplify, there are broadly two ways in which poets view language. One is to treat language, in the words of Lyn Hejinian in her book The Language of Inquiry, as “nothing but meanings, and meanings are nothing but a flow of contexts. Such contexts rarely coalesce into images, rarely come to terms.” This is not Hunt’s way. To him, words have heft, texture, and substance, and these qualities go a long way in dictating the final form of his poems.

          I was more impressed with Fault Lines on the second reading than I was on the first, a good sign of a book’s true worth and an indication of the poet’s maturity and confidence. The book is sufficiently well-hewn that the craftsmanship is submerged in the work, integral and essential, as all true craft should be. Hunt is a mason whose material is words. In his work, words are as real and solid as stone, as fluid as water. His language is sensual and physical. Consider “Language”: “It is not the letters/ marching/ the matted white / of the page// …Rather, it is/ the tongue’s/ motion, the hand/ riding the waves.” Or these lines from “We need to talk”: “…The stone comes/ into the hand, the arm arcs, and we are talking/ on this surface of water….” The language isn’t flashy; it doesn’t need to be. Plain language serves Hunt’s poems well.
          Fault Lines is divided into four untitled sections. Many of the poems center on Hunt’s home country of Lake County, California, but they also branch out to Nevada, Colorado, Oklahoma, and beyond. Most of the poems are short, one page or less (the longest is three pages), and the effect is much like walking through a gallery of photographs. Hunt is a poet of light and has a photographer’s eye for the weight of shadow and absence. Listen to these lines from “Early Morning from a Hotel Window”:

How care –
fully we are
light and eye—
to these
and demand
            their tuning
even as our world
to be leaves and sky.

          As I get older, I come to agree more and more with Christopher Merrill that poems in which gesture and voice provide the main charge are less interesting than those that address the questions that press upon us. This is not to say that Hunt’s poems do not contain the occasional brilliant twist and gesture, only that he has the sense and perspective to never let art descend into artifice, sacrificing substance to surface and flash. For example, “When the dying was no longer slow enough,/ the face emptied and the mask hissed to itself…” (“Lake Country Elegy”). I don’t know that I’ve ever read, in two short lines, such a powerful statement of a person disappearing into death, leaving behind only the dry husk of herself, still drawing breath.

          Wendell Berry asks, regarding the poetry of William Carlos Williams, what is useful in his poetry? His answer applies equally well to Hunt: “…discovering where one is in relation to one’s place…to it’s mystery and sanctity…” (American Poetry Review, Nov/Dec 2010). Like Berry, Hunt is an intimate of the natural world where he grew up, and of the varied places he has lived throughout his long life. But he is an intimate also of the people who were shaped by and, at the same time, who shaped those places, the people whose sheep “…have cropped/ the headland so bare/ the hills glow// in the late sun—/ knuckles of a fist/ gripping the water” (“California Coast (Sonoma County)”). Hunt’s work is generous, humble, confident. The poet does not intrude on his work but allows it to live of its own accord. The work is personal, but we are directed not so much to the poet himself as to those people and places for whom and for which he writes. To my mind, the finest and most enduring poems in Fault Lines are Hunt’s portraits/elegies, such as the exquisite “Above Fort Collins (Summer, 1972)” about an unnamed World War II veteran “So thin, he was like a whisper walking—” so that the girl who sometimes visited him

…thought he was alone. She didn’t hear
the trees speaking to the wind, how they loved
the light, sometimes clear, sometimes tangled
in the dark clouds. She didn’t hear
his hands as he looked across the range grass,
listening even to the ridges of rock.

          Hunt transcends duality to show us that we are inextricably a part of the natural world. There is no humanity without nature and no nature without humanity; for nature, as concept, is a human creation.

          In “Stories,” Hunt presents a powerful portrait of family and class in his elegy to Irma Hunt Tarry:

As the cancerous thing grew in her mind
it took away the words
until she lived in her eyes…

Perhaps she found the black walnut tree, the one
in front of the house in the town by the lake.
There was money for candy then.
It was where her brother died, the one who read books…

          This is a lot in only a few words. And later in the same poem:

                                 …that tricky pride
of the poor—the failing that is success.
How for a time we believed that true worth
is to matter only to each other.
The rootless trailers, the shuffled
and reshuffled marriages came later
as we grew into our different failings.

          Welcome to modern rural America and the flipside of the American dream. Hunt warns us here of the dangers of believing too much in ourselves and ourselves alone, as if we can find love and happiness without concern for economic and political contexts. The poem is a cautionary tale about poverty and alienation in modern America, one we ignore at our own peril. In portraits such as the one above, as well as those offered in “Plate Glass (Sebastopol, CA)” and “Victrola,” I am reminded of the short stories of Raymond Carver, his hard-bitten, moving, and unsentimental portraits of working class life in the American west; and of the hardscrabble poetry of Richard Hugo, his Montana of beauty, space, bitterness, and fractured dreams.

          There are some failings in Fault Lines. I wish Hunt would stretch himself more, step outside the frame of the picture within which he so often places his poems. So many of the poems are framed by a window or a doorway. It feels as if the land he evokes so well is yearning at times to expand beyond the picture-frame. I understand the value of constriction, the mood it evokes, the sense of there being nowhere to turn. I only wish that Hunt would occasionally let the land have its full expanse. It would be churlish to make too much of this. It’s a minor criticism of what is ultimately an excellent work. Fault Lines is a book which I am happy to have on my shelf—next to the works of Hugo, Snyder, Jeffers, and Welch. 

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