As someone who has been captivated by MC Hyland’s work for a number of years, I admit to knowing a bit of the procedure behind this poem and her larger project, An Aperture. I will talk about its means of production here, though I must acknowledge and work through my hesitation to do so. Who would want to reveal the conceit of the work and in doing so, unintentionally limit or demagnetize it? Not I. But that’s not really possible, since the work remains wonderful with or without this knowledge, and because ultimately I feel that the text asks me to “tell” by hinting at its own making:
“The room too dim to see me in the convex mirror
Fog & glass flowers perched perhaps on a stone ledge”
“The woman with eyes upon her eyes
Turns into tiny pleats or hair or water”
“Rain falling on the river & the beautiful girl
The cameraman visible in reflection”
Here the tentative steps, ushered by the “perhaps” and “or”, delicate confusions, indicate that we are squinting at a surface, trying to “make out” a happening or event. We are being introduced to a setting in the dark of the theater with glowing, watchful faces. We are taking notes. I know, from my conversations with the poet, that these poems are gleaned from notes on early-to-mid-twentieth century silent films. I do not know the origin film (or films) of this poem and this is a good thing. This way I can be fully immersed in Hyland’s captivating phrasing, images and fractures.
In this process the shifting surfaces on the screen are transcribed onto new flat surfaces and rearranged, filtered into a different medium through a deliberately faint “I/eye.” The room is “too dim to see” this means of creation; both Ashberian construction and the camera lens are invoked by the distorting surface of the convex mirror.
What is so interesting to me about this sequence is the way it subtly indicates a speaker, a viewer, a note-taker, a narrative, without a didactic or overdetermined viewpoint. It seems stained by the personal without emerging directly from it.
The poem begins with a progression of strange iconographies. The syntax is often manipulated, taken just slightly off center:
Circle & then hollow circle leads to eternity
Which turns on its side & becomes grass
Again away from the sun a pointed shape
Made of shadows the way fronds turn diagonal & threshold
I feel as though I am being oriented to Hyland’s interpretation of filmed movement. The “hollow circle” opens into the poem like an eye. We are shown tricks of light that move around the sun as it is filmed, piercing the screen. These are her opening shots.
“In the /Hole in the hill where my finger intrudes/ Her body ripples like a private ad-hoc/ Nocturnal ocean”
Here the viewer punctures the landscape, unlocking the female character that is compiled and dissolved throughout. The oscillation between I /we/ and the composite “she” or “The woman with eyes upon her eyes” (a near-perfect characterization of both the female body on screen—to be looked at, eyes on her—and the “doubleness” that often comes with cinematic experience, the overlay of successive shots which form movement) is strange but somehow natural. The woman, a palimpsest of shifting transpositions, becomes a “speckled machine,” the engine of the poem, and an “instrument of the particular present.” She is constantly changing. At times she seems a landscape, at times an animal, a ship, a mechanism. When “Zeroes & typographic pearls/ Quell across her breast,” more holes and apertures present themselves on her surface.
There is a feeling throughout of a slow unraveling, an elongated and suspended turn towards, never quite landing, but hovering over arrival. The word “turn” carries the first half of the poem, appearing five times. In his essay, “A Dialectic Approach to Film Form,” Sergei Eisenstein describes the technicalities of movement in cinema (emphasis mine):
Placed next to each other, two photographed immobile images result in the appearance of movement. Is this accurate? Pictorially – and phraseologically, yes. But mechanically, it is not. For, in fact, each sequential element is perceived not next to the other, but on top of the other. For the idea (or sensation) of movement arises from the process of superimposing on the retained impression of the object's first position, a newly visible further position of the object…From the superimposition of two elements of the same dimension always arises a new, higher dimension. In the case of stereoscopy the superimposition of two nonidentical two-dimensionalities results in stereoscopic three-dimensionality. In another field, a concrete word (a denotation) set beside a concrete word yields an abstract concept – as in the Chinese and Japanese languages, where a material ideogram can indicate a transcendental (conceptual) result. The incongruence in contour of the first picture-already impressed on the mind – with the subsequently perceived second picture engenders, in conflict, the feeling of motion. Degree of incongruence determines intensity of impression, and determines that tension which becomes the real element of authentic rhythm.
I get this feeling of “transposed motion” when I read Hyland’s poems, images caught in the moment of becoming each other, climbing over each other’s edges into brief view. This constant shift creates a third state; I can only describe it as an incongruous beauty. This happens without any fancy formal innovations— just line breaks, very little punctuation and generous gaps of air in the middle of her lines, spaces for turnover.
An invisible audience becomes trees her hair & her shoulders
Moving above ground towards the city center a globe crushed
Electric wire seen from a train Tallest building
Pointing up & up to commemorate
The empire & how it shapes the water repeatedly
The viewer is again implicated in this ambient causality, swept into the scenery, which becomes the woman, who becomes the city, the empire. In their act of viewing, the audience sets off a chain of events that seem global and spooky. There is a way in which this work rejects and revises the usual ekphrastic transference between makers, instead allowing the collaboration between, film, viewer and theater to move the poem forward.
Silent films are not without language, but they are without vocalization, the filtration of speech through the actor or character. We rely on the seen and intuit the heard. This poem is thus unaltered by outside human intonement. We are allowed to feel “the rocking of silence” in the poem’s shifts—an incredible sensory rhythm.
The last line of the poem, “Descend the whale,” is a delightfully shocking command. I made a sound when I first read it—not quite a gasp. At first I thought it a manipulation of Baudelaire’s “Descend the way that leads to hell infernal.” That seemed too awful. Instead, it reads like an invitation to be swallowed, a final moment of elongated movement.
There are more of us wrestling perhaps
In places worn so the light comes through
Orbiting the words she makes a circle around herself
A door opens in a hidden room her face
Mounting from trees to a severe sky
So much water waiting to receive her
Descend the whale
Hyland is one of our great transcribers of simultaneity, a poet whose immersion in other forms surpasses the usual, rehashed “interdisciplinary” results. Of course I’ll descend the whale. Why wouldn’t I?