Jay Hopler, poet of Florida and storms and Rome and roosters, has published three books, a trilogy of elegies. In the first, Green Squall, he records—among many other meditations—a father dying and a mother “going / Crazy over it.” Yet the book is as funny and delirious—language-drunk—as all his works, having an extra hint of lightness even at the gallows, in a way only a young person’s poetry could foster. Devil-may-care, even in his linguistic zest, part-Hart Crane with a dash of Amy Clampitt, part-Wallace Stevens with a helping of Hopkins. That first book won the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition, and it had lines like this: “It was so loud it was so quiet we didn’t sleep we slept,” or this, describing a cardinal: “Lean and summer-hungry.”
The Abridged History of Rainfall, the poet’s second collection, elegizes the father more directly, tries to make a song—including about life in Rome after winning the prestigious Rome Prize—sung under the shadow of his dad’s death. The poet begins to rhyme more openly, to favor closed forms. Mother, a woman of books, appears for instance in Hopler’s second book’s second poem, reading “The Unabridged History / Of Rainfall,” but it turns out, “No, it’s Günter Eich, / Botschaften des Regens.” (Trakl and Rilke appear elsewhere in the collection, in Hopler’s deft translations.) This poet, it should be said, is a connoisseur, fastidious—he deploys punctuation like a composer deploys scoremarks—but he doesn’t reject accessibility.
And so in the poet’s devastating third collection—the language alive as ever, written on his deathbed as he dodges and dances with the cancer that’s almost killed him—the elegy, it turns out, is for himself. The book: Still Life. A dark joke of a title, given the context. It might feel self-absorbed if the writing weren’t so nakedly vulnerable, and if it weren’t so clear and up-front about the failings and, really, the insignificance of the very voice that speaks the poems. And in that, these poems are not only significant, but made, I think, to last as long as people are reading.
I should also say that this collection is extra special to me, and that I am utterly biased in my estimation of it. I edited and published Still Life, and also The Abridged History of Rainfall. Listen, if not to me, to the poems. Here’s one that catches a glimpse of that terrible moment when the cancer catches the poet off-guard, peeing into a metal john in a public park restroom:
Over the soccer fields roll
The shadows of clouds.
In the piss-tolled bowl,
A little billow of blood.
And here’s the ecstatic sound of grief, lowercase and headlong:
but the sound was more forlorn: a sub destroyer’s sonar ping
beating the hull out of a submarine or a hearse w/ a bad axle
squeaking its grief all the way to the grave-
side no line of mourners following behind
Or this bleak comedy about a duck who lands by accident on what he mistook for water, an allegory for a hard ending:
How about a little mercy,
For ducks’ sake? What the duck
Must think the moment the lake
Reveals itself a field of blue
Flowers & a few sharp stones—.
O God, where did I go wrong—
It’s not a question, for this poet. Hopler is a poet of forceful, sudden opinions that perforate the verbal and descriptive bedazzlement he conjures. He is a metaphysical poet, like John Donne, which means to me that he has something urgent and visceral to say in the only form he finds sufficiently efficient and appropriately stabbing. Of course, he’s wrong about their being “no line of mourners.” Time will tell, but I suspect we will be hearing the silence he has left us, made vaster by the string of bleakly radiant poems that ring in it, for a very long time.
JESSE NATHAN: I’m always interested in what poets themselves seek in poetry. From where you sit now, what would you say a good poem does?
JAY HOPLER: You know a good poem when you see it. It takes you out of yourself and rearranges you, and then it gives you back to yourself changed. That rearrangement happens because a good—or maybe great—poem allows you access to another point of view, and makes that perspective not only believable but felt. Another way of thinking and being, another consciousness. It takes that which is foreign and makes it familiar. It takes experience which is most quirkily alien and convinces us that it’s ours. In other words, a poem like that is our own personal empathy machine.
JN: Have you always known you were a poet?
JH: I’ve always felt myself to be a poet. From my earliest days, I loved words, I loved reading, I loved the sounds of language read aloud, and I wanted to write. My wife, Kimberly Johnson, says this is an emblematic detail: On any form that requires I write my occupation, like medical or tax documents, I don’t write “Professor” or “Teacher” or “Writer.” I write “Poet.”