Speaking in Tongues: On the Poetry of Tom Hunley

by Jeff Newberry

The epigraph that serves as an introduction to Tom Hunley’s The Tongue reprints an anecdote recorded by French avant-garde artist Guillaume Appolinaire in the journal Aesop’s Feast:

His master, Xantus, who was giving a banquet for his friends, ordered him one day to compose a meal of the best ingredients he could buy. Aesop served a banquet in which every dish, from the soup to the desert, was made of tongues prepared in various ways. When Xantus reproved him, Aesop replied that he had followed his orders to the letter, since the tongue, being the organ of language, is also the vehicle of truth, reason, science, social life and all things that make life precious. The next day Xantus ordered Aesop to prepare a meal consisting of all the worst ingredients. Aesop again served the same dishes, explaining that the tongue, as the organ of language, is also responsible for all the worst things in the world—quarrels, dissensions, lawsuits, strife, war, lies, slander, blasphemy, and all manner of things evil.

Pithy and profound, the anecdote not only introduces Hunley’s The Tongue but also informs readers about the poems that follow. As the central image of the anecdote, the tongue serves as a useful metaphor for describing Tom Hunley’s poetry, as well. As a poet, Hunley speaks in several dialects with a proficient tongue that addresses both sides of life, light and dark, and all the gray in between. As such, his work is difficult to classify. Some may look at his formal work like “Blues Sonnet” and note his New Formalist tendencies. Others may look at a prose poem like “Teaching Manners” and see a connection to a poet like Russell Edson. The various types of poems that Hunley writes mirror the various subjects that he covers. From wrecked cars to wrecked relationship, from family histories to self-depreciating portraits, Hunley’s poems span a wide berth. No matter the case, however, Tom Hunley surprises and delights readers in a host of lyrical and narrative poems, all the while speaking in different tongues.

Doubtless, the voice of Hunley’s persona is his primary strength. Like his mentor, David Kirby, Hunley adopts a flabbergasted every-man kind of voice in much of his work. His speakers find themselves in normal, pedestrian situations; however, the way the speakers attempt to make sense of these situations makes the poem. For example, Hunley’s meditation on blood and mortality, “Full of My Blood,” finds the speaker musing not just on death, but on the very mystery of life. After killing a mosquito that has bitten him, the speaker observes:

[ . . . ] I washed
my own blood off my hands, and then it hit me,
as startling as a bee sting, how amazing it is
that I’m alive, how fantastic and strange
that there’s enough of me here for something to feed on,
enough of me to fill
this bag of skin.

In a lesser poem, the speaker would have focused on his coming death. Indeed, in a poem like “Full of My Blood,” which begins with the speaker taking a sick dog to the vet, mortality seems an appropriate subject. However, Hunley finds transcendence in the mundane. Rather than focusing on death, the poem centers on life in a celebratory lyric that both affirms and challenges a reader’s concept of life. In this poem, a sick dog is just as important as the speaker, who in the end finds epiphany in something as mundane as a mosquito. His best poems don’t eschew the ordinary as much as they remind us that the ordinary itself is cause for celebration.

Even in a poem about a break-up, Hunley finds a meditative moment to focus not on the consequence of the parting, but on the possibilities of the moment. From the central sequence of The Tongue, “The Hard Sciences,” the poem “Ecology” finds a college student speaker who has dropped an ecology class because “everyone in it/seemed too earnest too early/every morning.” Far from attacking the hypocrisy of his classmates, however, the speaker turns the critique back on himself, ultimately discovering that his commitment is just as weak as his classmates’. Furthermore, his devotion to ecology has little to do with the environment and everything to do with a girl he wants to impress. Revealed at the end of the poem, this lie says more about the speaker, certainly, than about the girl; however, Hunley’s speaker gives in when he tries to woo back the lost love. His “recycled phrases” reveal not the speaker’s own limitations but the limitations of language itself. In “Ecology,” preservation is everything; and in relying on hackneyed and “hallmarked” clichés like roses, the speaker finally undercuts the very authenticity he searches for throughout the poem. Tempered by humor, the poem finds a lyrical moment in an every-day situation.

However, Hunley’s humorous voice often masks serious concerns, as is evident in one of his somber pieces, “Adytum Abintra,” a poem that explores the paradox of belief in an age when doubt seems so appropriate. If “Ecology” and “Full of my Blood” find transcendental moments in the mundane errata of life, then “Adytum Abintra” takes this theme a step further by centering the conflict on a doubting speaker who has every reason to disbelieve. The poem is structured to slow down readers, beginning with a dependent clause, “Before it has time to consider.” Readers may be puzzled: “Before what has time to consider what?” The poem then unfolds in a litany of illicit, immoral acts such as cheating televangelists, lying landlords, and slavery, all of which underscore the speaker’s inherent disbelief. However, by the end of the piece, a hard break in the line stops readers yet again and the speaker observes:

my head—

as I walk past the blue and white marble
Greek Orthodox Church crowned by a cross
that resembles a dove ascending—

bows instinctively.

The poem’s final lines avoid pretentious piety in favor of silent reverie. The closing image of the head bowing completes the poem’s opening clause and the hard dashes draw readers’ attentions to the Greek Orthodox Church just as the blue and white marble draw the speaker’s eyes. The poem sets up a very real conflict between faith and reason; and since the majority of the poem is filled with reasons for distrust and doubt, readers find themselves in the same situation as the speaker: wondering at the distrust and hate in contemporary society. By the poem’s conclusion, however, this lyrical moment belies the narrative set-up of the poem and manages to work both in form and in content: by finishing the sentence at the end of the poem, Hunley sets up a nonce form that works perfectly in the poem’s context.

Like Miller Williams and David Kirby, Tom Hunley’s poems can make a reader laugh, take pause, and reconsider both the small things and the large concerns for life. He has a poet’s eye for detail, teasing out both narrative and lyrical poetry from seemingly mundane observations. Hunley peppers his poems with everything from obscure quotations to little-known anecdotes about historical figures. But Hunley avoid pretentious obscurity by taking a child’s delight in language and in discovery. Nonetheless, Hunley’s greatest strength lies in his voice, which as at once familiar and eccentric. These poems are both witty and elegiac, often exploring serious themes. The humor of the work is never trivial or dismissive; often, the humor provides Hunley an opportunity to explore sobering themes. As Hunley has observed, “I think it might be something peculiar to our age that many of us mistake trivial seriousness for high seriousness and dismiss any poem with humor in it as light verse.” Certainly, one can’t dismiss Hunley. With The Tongue (Wind Publications) and Still, There’s A Glimmer (Wordtech), he has established himself at the beginning of a great career.

A native of the Florida Gulf Coast, JEFF NEWBERRY is the author of Brackish (Aldrich Press, 2012) and A Visible Sign (Finishing Line 2008). He is the co-editor (with Brent House) of The Gulf Stream: Poems of the Gulf Coast (Snake Nation Press, forthcoming). Newberry’s writing has appeared in a variety of print and online journals, including Anti-, The Florida Review, The Cortland Review, Chattahoochee Review, New South, Memorious, Hobble Creek Review, Saw Palm: Florida Literature and Art, Sweet: A Literary Confection and Waccamaw: A Journal of Contemporary Literature, as well as in the online anthology Best of the Net 2008.