Books

The Unpronouncable in Oli Hazzard’s Between Two Windows

There should be a
word that can only
be spoken if
one does not know what it means.

—Oli Hazzard, “Martedi Grasso”

This elusive word would exist only for the sake of itself, would be the Platonic conception of word, and the seed of language. These paradoxical lines seem to express that Oli Hazzard’s project in his debut collection, Between Two Windows, is to experience language like it’s the first time he’s ever read, written, spoken, or even thought of words. He approaches the page with the curiosity of a child, and the verbal intellect of a virtuoso poet. The opening lines of “Martedi Grasso” present Hazzard’s fascination with a language that precludes us, one that exists beyond the human body:

An infant left unexposed

                    to linguistic stimulus

                              will automatically begin to speak

Enochian, the language

                   of the angels.

Hazzard wants a lingua franca that lifts the dust of daily use to reveal forgotten, luminous bodies. Like an archeologist combing through individual granules of sand, he discovers his words like artifacts, holding each one up to the light, proclaiming: Look, look what I’ve found! And although he is often playful with language—poking, plying, and examining it—he takes his playing very seriously.

“A Few Precepts,” for example, is a poem in which Hazzard puns on famous adages and colloquialisms, and also makes up absurdist precepts of his own:

Potato potato. Pronounce scone as scone.
Pronounce grass as grass. Bastard is
as bastard does. Keep your mind
on a short leash. Don’t let it eat from
the table. If it barks at you,
bark back. Lock it in a room.

This poem is meant to be read aloud to emphasize the strangeness of varying pronunciations, almost as if Hazzard is making fun of our inability to come to consensus on how to say “potato,” or “grass.” But there is also a dark humor here directed at the kind of mind that is conditioned by these clichéd phrases. By altering and riffing on them, Hazzard strips these precepts of their trite, categorical meanings. After the whimsy, (“Drink sake for the sake / of a joke.”), this piece concludes on a darker, satirical note: “By the time you’re done, home will be the place where, / when you have to go there, / they have to report you to the relevant authorities.” This social critique directed at a collective apathy and paranoia lurks beneath the surface of Hazzard’s best seriocomic poems.

Hazzard’s focus on language leads him to experiment with new poetic forms. Some of these structures are both inventive and meaningful, while others feel forced. His palindrome poems, for instance, wed form and content by dealing with self-reflection and the process of making art. In one such poem, each line is a palindrome, including its title: “Are We Not Drawn Onward, We Few, Drawn Onward to New Era?” This “new era” might hint at Hazzard’s vision for a poetry concerned with the expansion and inclusion of more meta-poetical forms.

“True Romance” takes a different approach to the palindrome form by operating on the vertical axis of the page, with the poem’s two stanzas repeated as mirror opposites of each other: lines ABC in the first stanza become CBA in the second. Again, this poem escapes feeling contrived because of its self-reflexive nature. The first line, “The window I saw myself in was a room,” sets up the concept of how the writer is framed by his writing; it shows Hazzard looking out through lens of the poem, while that lens simultaneously reflects the poet’s image, containing him within the room of the stanza.

The collection also includes found poems, multilingual poems, and poems that catalogue strange words, or list the definitions of strange words. “The Inability to Recall the Precise Word for Something” is one of these “found” poems that lists the definitions of rare, bizarre words taken from a website called Unusual Words.The words themselves are never given, there is no punctuation, and the lines range from “One who eats frogs,” to “A horse’s attempt to remove its rider,” to “The act of self-castration.” While this poem’s conceit works within the context of the book’s playful impetus, it lacks the emotive center that anchors his palindrome poems.

Two Windows, however, is not only a book of language poetry. Hazzard’s preoccupation with nature—his other driving motivation—is revealed slowly, and more subtly throughout the course of the collection. These pastorals enact the process of perceiving the natural world, and challenge our ability to construct, or reconstruct, an experience of nature using language. Hazzard includes a Gerard Manley Hopkins epigraph in the beginning of the book to describe this relationship between language, experience, and thought as a “knot.” Rather than undoing this knot, Hazzard is more concerned with placing it in the reader’s hands.

The first pastoral, “Moving In,” is about an “I” and a “You” ambling about a beachside wilderness. The sense of sound weaves through the poem: the two characters feel they are being “overheard” because telephone lines buzz overhead; they seek to build a fire in “some burrow, some hood of earth / Where the sound of the sea is as unbroken / As it is within a coiled shell”;  and the narrator muses that the voice of the fire, “like chicks-being- / Incessantly-hatched, will make our / Own seem all the more improbable.” The metaphor of hatching eggs for a fire’s crackling is not only lovely, but it also destabilizes the romantic nuance of the poem, and human speech, human connection, starts to seem impossible amidst all the static. And sure enough, in the end of the poem, the narrator is suddenly alone—the “You” simply vanishes—and left to contemplate a fire that “Flays the whole sky of its stars.” With this conclusion, Hazzard has handed us the nature-experience-language knot, urging us to recognize the improbability of ever being able to undo it.

“Some Shadows” operates in a similar vein. Again, Hazzard renders the experience of perception—this time, of seeing and hearing light:

Sitting in the square, we hear the swing of the light
And the sudden shadows of the trees
Lash the whitewashed buildings: we are mute,
And the trees seem just expressions of their shadows
Levered up on the sun’s slings.

In a small space, Hazzard sets up two thematic dichotomies—sound/silence, lightness/darkness —and offers some stunningly inventive description: “trees seem just expressions of their shadows / levered on the sun’s slings.” Here, Hazzard is at his best because he is not sacrificing meaning for his freshness of language. Even though this poem is a sestina—a received form in which six fixed words end each line in an alternating pattern—it does not feel straight-jacketed. The narrator here is ridiculed by his friend for waxing poetic about trees: “How grandly you speak this morning! What did you read / That made you think you should stop being mute?” Hurt, he offers a justification for playing with words: “I didn’t think, in the shade of the trees, / That speech, like some drowsy, buttoning finger, / Had to be always working.” This line reminds us of Hazzard’s project in the book: to play with weathered words, to breathe new breath into them in order to rediscover that Enochian language.

“Outside” ties the knot of perception and language even tighter:

All through the afternoon the sound like water pouring into bowls
fills the empty corridors of the house
like an ache spinning through a tooth
eaten, as language is eaten,
from the inside out.

Here we have the sense of sound (“water pouring into bowls”) as an external source trying to touch an internal sensation (“an ache spinning through a tooth”). Again, Hazzard conflates dichotomies, blurs the distinction between perception and experience. This leads into a meta-commentary about language being consumed from “the inside out.” It’s as if he’s saying that language is like the chaff housing the kernel of its idea, and that we must attempt to understand an idea in its pure form by extricating it from the shell of language. The next stanza mirrors the first, reflecting the elements of sound, within-ness, without-ness, and ideas:

An idea is meant to begin inside you.
Out in the courtyard, sun sprays through the pomegranate tree.
Shadows open like gills on the flagstone,
stir the clover of everything
too slowly in the ear.

The variations in this reflection are lifting the in/out dichotomy from its rigid logic. As the toothache begins from within, the thinking-experience begins from within, and language, trying to process sound, moves too “slowly” to keep up. In the final stanza, the poem resolves itself (maybe) by stating that dichotomies are too simplistic, that knots do not have to be untied: “Out in the courtyard, I’m inside or outside. / They are not equal, accident or argument. I hear water pouring / inside out.”

“Outside” sits somewhere near the center of this book’s range; it’s not impenetrable, yet it is linguistically dense. “In Absentia” is a poem that brings us closer to the pastoral end. Two people are out in a snowy wilderness, smoking: “Twinned cavities in winter’s tusk, / we tow a spliff’s gegenschein / through the trees like a trousseau.” Yes, this is a lovely description of smoke trailing like bridal linens over the shoulders of the smokers. Yes, I had to look up gegenschein, which is a “faint, elliptical patch of light in the night sky that appears opposite the sun.” And yes, the diction may be high (as it is in the whole book), but with a little effort we get it. The narrator goes on to express his desire to get beyond patterned thinking:

Sometimes we find ourselves
at the edges of things—
think it possible to live
within their borders,
as sun jellies in the palette
of a puddle, or water is controlled
by the curve of a vase.
Even now, we flicker in uneven light.

I love these lines for their stillness, for their quiet will to admit we may be trapped with language. Because the poet sees himself at the edge of ideas, he believes he can use language to transfer the meaning of those ideas into another’s mind. However, he is mistaken, for his words merely hinder the thought or idea, contain it, impress upon it “borders,” just as a vase limits the shape of water. The poet is resigned to use his words, which he knows cannot express the thing itself, but are his only option—the flickering light he must use to illuminate meaning.

The second section of the book opens with this epigraph from John Ashbery: “But as the days and years sped by it became apparent that the naming of all the new things we now possessed had become our chief occupation.” Naming new things may have been Hazzard’s starting point with this project, but he goes beyond it. The poet wants his generation to be concerned less with the things themselves than with the ways we talk about them: “they shall speak / with new tongues.” This act of speaking with new forms is the unifying act of the book. It demonstrates Hazzard’s desire to find those words we can only speak without knowing their meaning: a primordial, angelic, ancient lexicon.

In “Manna,” Hazzard wisely suggests that each of us will have a different Enochian language if we choose to find it. Here is the poem that may be as close as he gets to untying his knot, to reconciling language, nature, and experience, and to speaking what is unspeakable:

Nothing is the same for anyone:
oil for the elderly, bread for the young, as thick as honey
on the tongue
for the thing you cannot imagine being.
When you put it in your mouth
it fits itself
to every speaker’s taste:
as though the question what is
it is as good, as unpronounceable,
as what it is.

Like the narrator here, I feel the weight of trying to pronounce the nature of things—to explain the ways in which Hazzard’s poetry is working. However, the poet relieves me of this burden by saying that the “question,” the act of seeking answers, is as worthy as the answers themselves. And yet, there is another burden here: the knowledge that we can never come close to speaking the language of angels.

Greg Emilio is a Southern California native who writes poetry and book reviews. His work has appeared in Foothill, Miramar, Pleiades, and World Literature Today. He teaches English at Chaffey College and tends bar at The Press Restaurant in Claremont.