Tuning in

Local poet has found his frequency

May 28, 2008 at 12:00 am

Listen. There are poets, and then there are poets.

Ancestral Radio was written by a poet.

His name is Edward Haworth Hoeppner, longtime English professor at Oakland University, whose first book of poems, Rain Through High Windows, published by New Issues Press in 2000, was a gorgeous and intuitive collection.

Aptly titled, Ancestral Radio, his latest book of poems, is about family. The word radio suggests tuning into a channel of observations by one particularly awake man.

Ancestral Radio is broken into four parts. The first is set during the autumn season. These are poems of frustration and melancholy chaos; about problems like alcoholism and vacations gone sour. The setting traverses either physically or psychologically distant land. The speaker is lost, agitated. In "East Dakota," the complaint:

There are too many stars
on the prairie tonight.
They are too much here
and there is nowhere else
to turn.

The second section is set in the past. It faces backward — staring intensely at deaths and endings. At this point, memory is either missing or deceiving. "Private Property" summarizes the life cycle in this bone-chilling way:

You go off like a flash-bulb,
and people rub their eyes.

Poems in part three deal with winter: "this dry, white ship, slow cage." There's frostbite, snowdrifts, sickness, and talk of how Michigan winters suck:

…brain's not propped up
well enough to handle being shoved inside a box
and left for long.

The most enjoyable section is the last — it's spring! Here Hoeppner fulfills our urge to transform grief to joy. The setting for most poems is near Minnesota, his birthplace. In fact, the last word of the book is "home," signifying serenity.

Notice Hoeppner's descriptive mastery in "Early Spring":

…for this season made from small
bells, in which you step once more
across the planks, to a bobbing edge,
spread your hands as if to float
straight from out your clothing.

As a whole, this book is sober, with glints of hilarity. The speaker appears consistent, autobiographical and incredibly honest. Indecision, contradictions and misperceptions take center stage, reflecting the inaccuracies of the mind. Quite often the speaker will say how something is, and then immediately say that it isn't; there's also a riot of double (even triple!) negatives. What impresses most, though, is the poet's obvious appreciation of the intricacy of systems — systems of thought, of nature, of time, and that which governs human interaction.

This universe, all flecked
by things that move so quickly they are partly gone
when they arrive.

Hoeppner cannot be called a simple poet. He is not an Alice Walker or a Billy Collins. Ancestral Radio asks patience. It calls for meditation, for time to fight your bafflement. This book is reminiscent of work by Hoeppner's biggest influence, John Ashbery. It requires readers to respond as they would to Ashbery's poems — by letting go and processing meaning with something other than the brain.