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Anthem

by Helen Humphreys

Novelist and poet Helen Humphreys’ fourth collection of poetry is an eloquently written, passionate book about language, desire, love, and indecision.

In “For Jackie, Who Will Never Read This,” Humphreys details the importance of speech outside mere communication, likening it to radar: “We still need language to find us, tell us where we are.” A strong voice guides, commenting on the blunt and artless characters who throw around words and phrases without accountability for meaning: “Emotionally reversed. / Reserved, I said. Shut up, / she said. You know what I mean.”

“By Definition” is about a young girl abused by her father, yet the word incest is never used. Even as the characters recount the events, Humphreys relays an understanding that the naming of the act fails the experience altogether and is therefore arbitrary: “The word never explains the thing.” Humphreys rejects definition in exchange for the rawness of experience by fusing strong images of nature with industry, for example, “sticky light,” “a spike of moonlight,” and “a snarl of wire.”

Humphreys’ attention to individual words is further illustrated by her use of transposition – by shifting word order and thus playing with meaning. This technique is used throughout Anthem, first in “Chinchilla,” where it is applied to the lives of her characters: “Any story we remember is a truth about ourselves … I am leading a woman / out of this. Later I will be this woman….” Then, in a series of three poems entitled “After a poem by …,” Humphreys uses the works of Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, and Louise Bogan, reconstructing them by rearranging words, lines, and phrases to create new meaning and sentiment.

By focusing on the importance of each word, the poet creates a rich world in which no words are used without considerable thought, and no thought feels contrived.