November 2004

Olivia Cronk


Fossil Sky by David Hinton

David Hinton deals in Chinese poetry and philosophy. (His works include translations of Tao Te Ching and Mencius.) His recent publication of original poetry, Fossil Sky, fits agreeably in his body of work. I must say, though, it is a risky sort of collection. No, not a collection. That is not quite right. If Fossil Sky is a collection, it is a collection of words and their sites (in space, in the mind). It is not a collection of poems, per se. Fossil Sky is risky because it is not a book. Hinton has re-defined the boundaries of poetry in print which is something very exciting, indeed. Fossil Sky folds out like a map. And I not speaking in simile; this is literal. It can be spread across a tabletop, a floor, your lap in the car. I am stunned by the thing as an object. Is this where readers of contemporary poetry should be looking to set their fingers to pulse? Hypertext. Illustrated works. Installation. Wild maps? Poetry’s space has become less and less permanently defined. David Hinton’s work is a symptom of the wonderful madness of form gripping poets all around. This is exciting news for readers. Your regular dose of heady poetry now comes packaged in such delightful ways, you nearly feel guilty.

Fossil Sky is generously handsome. Lovely to handle. It looks like a poetry roadmap... and Hinton is not so subtly egging his reader on. Go, go: choose your route, sketch a path. The text itself loops around and around, breaks apart into islands of one or two words (“hydrogen,” “ash,” “in and”), and generally meanders (“early crickets pitched too high for aging ears their song all sky now”). Sometimes, the lines of text even cross over one another so that a controlled bit of chaos breaks out in spots on the map. This kind of reading is a game; it requires as much concentration as you choose. I found I would get up from the floor and the map and when I returned I had no idea where I’d left off. There is an unimposing circle outlining the piece, so Hinton nudges your direction through the thing, but the words face every which way and the lines never stay steady for long. Be prepared to get up and crawl across the Twister-mat you find yourself reading poetry atop of. “Perhaps I should have stayed home: a roof a family a fire But there are other forms of shelter: Boundless sky cocoon light whisper snow[.]” The real genius of Hinton’s form is the endless metaphorical application. This is a journey. Poetry is a journey. Words are places. Places are in words. Sounds are sights. Sounds are sites. The mind rambles. Travel can happen in the mind. With words in places. With images that move. Direction is relative. And so on. I’m sure I’m making it sound sophomoric here, but I don’t mean to. This is great brain candy.

Though I do believe that Fossil Sky is risky (because of its “formal daring,” as the PR info states), I also believe that Hinton has conveniently eluded traditional critique. I find it hard to even quote the verse here, let alone begin to construct a notion of the whole. That is, I cannot see a whole outside of the map. I know that this project is the culmination of “a year of walks.” I know that Hinton references his daughter. And time. And he likes living in the words of the places of the world. But something about this form resists the kind of reading I am accustomed to. This, of course, begs the question: Do poets hide in avant-garde forms? I certainly hope not, as I so enjoy the novelty of it all.

Fossil Sky by David Hinton
Archipelago Books
ISBN: 0972869271