At his mother’s funeral, my father read “The Emperor of Ice Cream.” The priest, I later learned, was unhappy about that. Perhaps, I gathered, because it is verse not taken from the bible, and perhaps, too, because it acknowledges the absoluteness of death, a message not often found in Church doctrine.
Death’s absoluteness, and the uncertainty with which the survivor navigates it, creates drama throughout The Abridged History of Rainfall, Jay Hopler’s second book. The poems are sad as hell, but they revel in the play of language and are meticulously formed. Wallace Stevens makes several appearances. The poet alludes to the “horny feet” of the aforementioned poem in the tenth section of “The Rooster King,” the long sequence at the end of the book:
Last week, when the mangled bodies of his brothers were dumped in
the street, bloody, wrapped in newsprint, their horny feet protruding,
he looked on as an emperor, hovering above the wings ripped from
their sockets, the broken necks, the eyes strewn across the sidewalk—
Here the beam has affixed on the visceral. While Stevens wraps in newsprint flowers, Hopler wraps the corpses of chickens. Wings are ripped from their sockets, necks broken. The final image of “eyes strewn across the sidewalk” suggests both extreme violence and, figuratively, how the speaker himself has seen a great deal and through pain. So it seems for all who witness death. Yet at my grandmother’s funeral we celebrated her kindness and strength when living—her ice cream, my father claimed.
There is no ice cream in these poems. They are moving in their frankness and confusion, and jarring in how they depict grief, ultimately, as futile. There is little recovery or acceptance; what beauty and goodness there is in the speaker’s world remains out of reach. Consider the conclusion to “Where is All this Water Coming From?,” the book’s second poem:
That book, when read
by a window, in her marriage house, aloud, and in the German,
Makes a man want
To turn his eyes sky-
Ward and confide
His despair to the migrating
Birds. If only there were migrating
The specificity of “migrating birds” is surprising, and at first seems hopeful: The speaker, though in despair, knows precisely where to find emotional release. If only! The natural world denies such attempts at sense-making throughout the book. And so the speaker doubts observations, corrects interpretations, and is left with only his own uncertain belief.
It’s this editorializing that I find most moving. The speaker, never finding what he’s looking for, must make do. He must rely only on faith, as in “The Grove”:
Was ever there a sky this low?
No, and still there’s not.
It’s just a flock of black-
Birds shrouding out above the trees. The moon
And the stars.
or on rationalization, as in “Sonnet on Consequence:”
I couldn’t make myself believe those smells were anything
More than pleasant addenda to an early evening’s walk—
Bloom-woozy and full of swoon, maybe…but necessary?
No, not necessary. Not for understanding this world, anyway.
And what other world is there?
The push and pull of the real and the perceived—“Some clouds wisp by. / Or is that smoke? Some smoke wisps by”—are moments, like death, of transformation. He with whom the speaker may have once relaxed on the back porch or tended the yard no longer exists, but something fills that space, nevertheless. These poems are a working through of that something, a manifestation of understanding.
The understanding is created in part through the play of language. Hopler stretches diction, as when the speaker calls to blame “these lachrymose battledores” and “inebriated bicycles,” and calls out to “cadaverous handstands” and “beachfront cummerbunds.” Sonic and syntactic play are frequent, as when “On the pond beyond the north lawn / Swans in honking congress congregate.” There is a villanelle, several reimaginings of past poems, and a number of 14 line poems that can be called sonnets, depending on your strictness of definition. And there is humor, too: I laughed at the mock-heroic tone of “And lo! The Rooster King! How he chases from these vacant lots / the lesser, more domestic cocks!” and at the comic assessment of the fearful, “unslapped” subject in “Elegy for the Living.”
In these poems the visceral and the delightful—the rainy and “unrainy”—though at times in conflict, ultimately coexist. I said at the beginning of this review that the poems depict grief as futile. I believe they do. But the poems, in their lack of resolution, are themselves effective managers of that emotion. Grieving is not a process here, but a state of being, a ceaseless attempt at making sense. “O, the Sadness Immaculate” serves as a thesis for the collection. It ends,
From my window, I can see the house
Where Galileo invented the telescope.
I wonder what he was thinking
That night, that night he first searched
heaven. I wonder what it was
He was trying not to see.
Jay Hopler has seen and not seen a great deal. He has rendered it into a satisfying and beautiful collection.