Making History Bearable: Lynda Hull and Reading Newark

Better this immersion than to live untouched.
— Lynda Hull, “Frugal Repasts”
If poetry is not absolution, we can expect pity from nowhere else.
— C.P. Cavafy

Lynda Hull’s love of beauty was so intense that she could risk her life to achieve it. In the fall of 1981 in Little Rock, Arkansas, driving her oil-burning “Outlaw Vega” through a thunderstorm, she decided not to turn on her windshield wipers, since the rain-streaked patterns of streetlight and starlight on the glass reminded her of Monet’s water lilies. She crashed into a parked car, cutting and bruising her head. This incident illuminates many of the themes her poems address: the intensity of longing, the attraction to near-disaster, the compulsion toward desolation, and the glamorization of difficulty. These forces were manifested in her greatest poems, and were what drew her to the sad and unfinished story of Newark’s decline and renewal. Hull was an urban poet; her approach to personal and collective memory merges her historical context with an intense, ethical, empathic language: she moves the chaos of the cities as herself or through a mask, and describes the streets with a jazz-inflected lens of horrified fascination.

Lynda Hull
BY Michael Trombley
PHOTO COURTESY OF GRAYWOLF PRESS

She is an urban poet, with the concerns of urbanity: she pursued an inventive way of describing the interlocking meanings of decay in her own life and in the city that she loved. We should care about Lynda Hull because she not only illustrates intensity. Her work illustrates that empathic inquiry can start with one idea: to look at cities, and then ask one’s own mind: what else have you got to say about reading cities with love? Her subjects employed to find these meanings show the simultaneous attraction and repulsion of lost causes, and of “utsuroi,” a Japanese term for “a way of finding beauty at the point it is altered.”[1] Hull did not, however, seek to praise decline, as much to embody its necessity of reinvention, and of relocation — she sought to be critical enough for her subject to become greater. David Jauss, Hull’s undergraduate poetry teacher at the University of Arkansas in Little Rock, reveals her desire for criticism in a way that relates to this obsessive treatment of her subjects — she handled criticism better than she handled praise, if only because she believed it more than she could allow herself to believe the praise:

“Such a craving is not only good but necessary if someone truly wants to be an artist, of course, but at times I thought there was something almost unhealthy about Lynda’s response to criticism: it was as if she desired confirmation of her own negative judgment of herself, as if she wanted proof that she didn’t deserve to be praised and loved.”[2]

The dynamic of her attraction to criticism and her attraction to the shards of the cities annihilated by the urban crisis are connected. The urban crisis, a special collocation that Thomas Sugrue associates with a cities’ arsenal of democratic social services, blue-collar industry, and fast growth that changed since the end of World War II; those cities (Detroit, Watts, the Bronx, Newark) later became “eerily apocalyptic,” with boarded up shops, hollow shells of factories, and huge portions of the population living below poverty line.[3]

In Hull’s exegesis of this crisis… she did not romanticize suburban ambivalence. She sought ways to create a subterfuge to escape that ambivalence, even if it meant seeking the caustic, often painful remains of the urban spaces that ignited her imagination in the first place.

Hull’s work explicates her unique reaction to this crisis, which looks into the vortex before the plunge and embraces the burning buildings. By claiming an intractable crisis, commentators severed their moral ties to places in decline and thereby reneged on their social obligations. Many argued that people had either succumbed to despair or lacked the capacity to overcome their condition. The practical advice instead became extreme — abandon the city![4] Poetry helps us to read nuance and subtlety to this term[5] because it does not take politics as a way out, it constantly refreshes and engages language, and it engages the reader not as mere consumer, but as a producer of the text. Therefore, the reader’s ethical and imaginative sensibilities are employed with the mechanisms of a poem.

In Hull’s exegesis of this crisis — specific to Newark, but useful for cities in general — she does not disagree that the crisis was intractable or had succumbed to sadness; she was not repelled, however. Un-intimidated by race, and drawn to the angularity and chaos in the urban environment, she did not romanticize suburban ambivalence. She sought ways to create a subterfuge to escape that ambivalence, even if it meant seeking the caustic, often painful remains of the urban spaces that ignited her imagination in the first place.

Much of Hull’s work operates along a trajectory of her memory of these urban spaces. Hull was driven by “a deeply ambivalent sense of survivorhood — an awe and astonishment that she endured and emerged relatively unscathed her years on the street…. Memory, in other words, but never in an abstracted or effete sense.”[6] In this manner, the private sectors of her past become inextricably bound to the public knowledge of cities (e.g. “the asphalt jungle, the blackboard jungle — concrete as a cancerous quicksand”).[7] Her poems are the guide through her own memory, even as the tour expands into a collective retrieval for the cities slowly succumbing.

Like Newark, Hull also contains a troubled past. A self-described “feral child,”[8] she was born in Newark on December 5, 1954, and grew up in Upper Montclair. She attended Montclair High School and won a scholarship to Princeton in 1970, but dropped out of high school and ran away at fifteen. As a child, she was always writing or reading, drawing and painting. She was always interested in Newark. Her mother, Christine Hull said: “We would go to Newark and Jersey City once a year around Christmas to deliver food to families in need… she just loved that. Her interest came about with the Newark fires… going to her grandmother’s roof and being totally impressed.”[8]

Hull’s family moved to New Jersey from Pittsburgh in 1963 and lived variously in Montclair and the Caldwells. Her last years at home were “fragmented by drugs.”[8] She lived on the streets,[9] crashed on friends’ sofas, and married a Chinese gambler, an illegal alien. Moving to and from Chinatowns in Boston, New York, and San Francisco, she pursued the marginal, liminal status that would fuel many of the subtexts of her writing: poverty, alcoholism, and heroin addiction.[10] In adulthood, when she’d return to her hometown, she’d often drive to the hills of upper Montclair — a place where she could see both Manhattan on one side of the view and Jersey and its environs on the other.[11]

Jauss elaborates on this: “Much of Lynda’s poetry conveys this essential hunger of hers, this desire to feel and understand everything human, no matter how devastating. Perhaps this is why… she seems to glamorize desolation — after all, it is an essential path toward understanding the riddle, toward immersion in the life she felt separate from.” Mark Doty, in the afterword to Hull’s posthumously published third book, The Only World, wrote: “If the difficulty of personal history is glamorized, in these poems, it is because glamour is a way of making history bearable.”

Hull’s poems show a genius of synthesis that interweaves disparate worlds, juxtaposing moments that Yusef Komunyakaa, Hull’s graduate poetry teacher at Indiana University in Bloomington, says: “allude to public history alongside private knowledge.”[12] These connect to each other in her poetry in several ways: through her compassion for outcasts, mortality, and an understanding that the recognition of human transience is the necessary predecessor to wonderment and a credible appreciation of beauty.[13] With her alternating currents of attraction and repulsion, Hull attempted to connect Newark’s fraught history — she paid attention to the city’s multiple manifestations of race, class, and gender — to her own battered past. She never saw the publication of The Only World, as she died in a car crash on March 29, 1994.[14]

Hull’s lyricism offers an artistic inquiry into artistic inquiry. She exists in a rich cultural context of visual artists, jazz musicians,[15] and photographers who were driven by an impulse to embrace the cities during this period. Wayne Shorter, a tenor saxophonist and composer, perhaps the most famous living musician from Newark said:

“Newark was a hell of a place to learn something about how to survive… a lot of things, whether you were well-off or very, very down in the dregs of poordom. Poordom. There is only a few people from Newark now who are somewhere in the world, imparting their knowledge of survival intelligently, or just daily survival.”[15]

Hull’s “Love Song during Riot with Many Voices”[16] uses inventive methods of language to address the state of the city. Hull’s poems, particularly those with an aim to ethically describe urban space, can help us formulate three essential questions: first, will such methods prove to be transferable or even useful in the classroom or even to the city council or citizens of Newark; second, does Hull’s poetry help us to discover what happened in Newark, maybe cognitively; third, does it help us make discoveries that the scientific method simply could not yield?

Hull’s poems are an ethical response to cities, because their specific, accurate, truthful, lyrical language demonstrates her responsible choice of that language, and her responsibility for her stand on the question of the status of the cities in her imagination. Duke Ellington said that jazz is about choosing to be joyful in spite of conditions: Hull’s poetry makes this choice, by allowing the beauty she saw to intermingle with forces of decline pushing against beauty. This tension, combined with her camouflaged, subversive voices (herself or someone like herself) created a vision of the city unrivaled by other poetry then or now.

The poet’s relationship to Newark tells the reader to think through the urban crisis differently, projected through forms which are themselves tragicomic, the eloquent blues aesthetic; the poems conjure an abiding mystery that speak to tragic circumstances, yes, but also reconciliation:

“She knew how to lift a moment of beauty out of sheer ugliness, and she could touch the bedrock of contradictions embedded in the human psyche. Maybe this is what Newark taught her. When one looks at the body of work, the three wonderful collections held side-by-side, one realizes that hers was a seamless beckoning for an imagistic clarity that is out of this world.”[17]

Lynda Hull was attentive to the memories that often are ignored or overlooked in literary experiences of the urban environment. She felt that there was a vast underclass of the disenfranchised, all of whom were rarely acknowledged by our literature. She gave them voices, not for apotheosis, but to testify to their value, to memorialize them.[18] Her book uses the metaphor of Newark’s newspaper as a guide to the events through which she sifts. The newspaper is “not just a force in city government but a part of the neighborhood and a member of the family.”[19] As an engagement with the subtext of Newark’s present and past, the title Star Ledger alludes to myth or the zodiac, sub-rosa indicators of how to make choices that the daily news doesn’t offer.[20] The idea of Star Ledger, takes on dynamic, multiple meanings for Newark’s cosmic fate, yet the final image of recovery implies hopefulness and fulfilled anticipation.

Star Ledger

Star Ledger
BY Lynda Hull
(University of Iowa Press, 1991)

The most important poem on Newark in Star Ledger, though, is “Love Song during Riot with Many Voices,” with a subtitle, “Newark, 1967.” Hull thought of Newark often. “A particularly striking memory for her was going with her father to hear Martin Luther King speak at a predominantly black church circa 1966 or thereabouts — a year or two before the ’67 riots. Although her father couldn’t exactly be called progressive in his politics, he obviously sensed the significance of that moment, that event.”[21] Although only thirteen at the time of the riots, she must have drawn on her memory of them; she was a teenager during the tumultuous subsequent years when the causes and impact were being publically debated. Her attendance of King’s speech shows a bridge between language of integrationist politics of nonviolence and the sociological scope of her later work, sensed as a seed in her nascent imagination of language.

Combined with whatever trauma Hull was experiencing at home, she ran away from Newark two years later, never to return. “Love Song during Riot with Many Voices” includes many of the rhetorical devices — enjambment, multiple voices, metaphors connecting Newark with the personal body, and recovered voices, especially of women — used in the above poems, though more spectacularly. The poem works to unify the social disturbance outside on Newark’s streets with a personally felt disturbance, somewhat deeper, in the interior of the speaker (Hull herself?) observing it behind boarded windows. Its initial image, the iron mesh of a bridge, alludes to Newark’s industrial past as the light through the mesh cuts and divides the local population into “shadow and pale” and “man and woman”:

The bridge’s iron mesh chases pockets of shadow
and pale through blinds shuttering the corner window

to mark this man, this woman, the young eclipse
their naked bodies make — black, white, white,
black, the dying fall of light rendering bare walls

incarnadine, color of flesh and blood occluded

Again, the eclipse marks the biracial naked bodies as a “dying fall of light” hides the races as they are ironically illuminated. The bodies alternate and reverse their statuses, “black, white, white, black” as if to suggest some equality in their despair. The word “incarnadine,” or crimson, is a racially unifying term and the occlusion of flesh and blood has a stanza break, leading to the surprise of voices. But they are not the voices of the figures behind the shuttered blinds, but are somewhat extradiegetic voices from a radio broadcasting both the news of war and the news of riots:

in voices rippling from the radio: Saigon besieged,
Hanoi, snipers and the riot news helicoptered
from blocks away. All long muscle, soft

hollow, crook of elbow bent sequined above the crowd,
nightclub dancers farandole their grind and slam
into streets among looters. Let’s forget the 58¢

lining his pockets, forget the sharks and junkyards

The colon between “radio” and “Saigon” does much work as a metaphorical leap to Southeast Asia, happening concurrently with the riots. The noun “helicopter” becomes a verb that relocates the action of the Vietnam War to the local war “from blocks away.” Similarly, the nightclub dancers and the looters are connected through the verb “farandole,” a Provençal community dance (a noun). The imperative “let’s” which echoes a technique from Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,”[22] is a way to reduce the psychic distance between the reader and the subject matter, and the plural pronoun “us” creates intimacy between the reader and the speaker. The enjambment at the end of the stanza announces the abject poverty and the egalitarian society the looters were seeking, especially because the 58 cents is “lining his pockets” instead of being “in” his pockets.

within us. Traffic stalls to bricks shattering,
the windows, inside her, bitch I love you, city breaking
down and pawnshops disgorge their contraband of saxophones

That the “sharks and junkyards” are “within us,” assumes the “let’s” from above has taken hold, that the intimacy between the reader and the subject has been manifested. Here, some of the “many voices” of the title are introduced: the interjection of “bitch I love you” is not the speaker, but a piece of overheard conversation. It appears bookended by commas and interrupts the idea of “bricks shattering the windows” and a “city breaking down.” The verb “disgorge” is an interesting choice that displaces the overdetermined burden of theft from the looters, the black residents, and places the responsibility, oddly, on the pawnshops themselves.[23] The saxophones are contraband, a prison term, and are linked to wedding rings, the most basic symbol of marital stability, by another enjambment. Both are vestiges of a former life of artistic and romantic expression, now hocked at a pawnshop. The scene, and its psychic distance, is focused and decreased more sharply. From saxophones to rings, another interruption of “many voices” enters:

and wedding rings. Give me a wig, give me
a pistol. Hush baby, come to papa, let me hold you

The new voices: one female (“give me a wig”) and one male (“give me a pistol”) are further interrupted by another, more romantic voice: “Hush baby, come to papa, let me hold you.” The second person pronoun again opens the general situation to the reader, who also responds to “you” (in the spirit of Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”[24]), and who is surprised by another enjambment as she is held “through” something, “night’s broken circuitry.”

through night’s broken circuitry, chromatic
and strafed blue with current. Let’s forget this bolt
of velvet fallen from a child’s arm brocading

pavement where rioters careen in fury and feathered hats
burdened with fans, the Polish butcher’s strings

The verb “strafed,” a military term, meaning to attack ground targets from low-flying aircraft is employed here to suggest acts of predation. Like the verbs “careen” and “burden” and the pimps’ feathered hats connect again with the imperative “let’s”; the reader and speaker see multiethnic Newark (a Polish butcher) as a victim even as these voices fade into the setting.

of sausages, fat hams. This isn’t a lullaby a parent
might croon to children before sleep, but all of it
belongs: in the station torn advertisements whisper
easy credit, old me wait for any train out of town

The authoritative speaker of the poem returns: “This isn’t a lullaby…but all of it belongs” and announces that the details presented are part of a pastiche of degradation. Like Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” Hull’s poem opens the reader to the possibility of textured, overlapping classes of people in a single space. Thus, the imaginative leap between sleeping children (a quiet, domestic scene), and a train station affected by economics, is made sensible to the reader. Whitman believed in an intimate connection between the reader using her breath and voice to give physical form to a poet from the past, a connection not unlike time travel.

…Hull’s poem opens the reader to the possibility of textured, overlapping classes of people in a single space.

The colon between “belongs” and the prepositional phrase “in the station” leads to a political statement. Newark’s subway is whispered to by “torn advertisements for easy credit.” Mumford’s Newark gives an historical context for this phenomenon. With the increase in credit cards and purchasing accounts for shoppers, African American women in cities across the nation protested discrimination in lending, inflated interest and terms, price gouging in the poor neighborhoods, and inferior merchandise.[25] Thomas Bender likewise addresses the angst related to racial fear and racial guilt that many experienced at the time, but frames it in a common context of commentators who transformed the shame of cities into a human frailty: “Rather than the deterioration of the environment as represented by slums and blight, urban decline became equated with obstacles to the common concerns of the people who choose to live in large central cities…. — looking at the buildings and other artifacts of an urban culture.”[26]

Hull equates the urban crisis with these same bodies and their urban environment:

and these lovers mingling, commingling their bodies,
this slippage, a haul and wail of freight trains

The old men fleeing on outbound trains and lovers “mingling and commingling their bodies” are victimized by “this slippage.” Additionally, the slant rhyme of “haul” and “wail,” like those of “shadow” and “window” in the first stanza, indicate a minor chord. Ending this stanza with “bodies” and “freight trains” suggests more insidious, Holocaust-era implications for the economic and racial permanent underclass brought to bear in the summer of 1967 across America’s inner cities.

The freight trains carried into the Newark the goods that were purchased with “easy credit,” and left during the Second World War with bodies. This explains the unusual choice of the term “this slippage,” a multifaceted accounting or economic term that connect lovers and trains; it has connotations of not only “slide,” but “decline,” “loss of power,” and the “difference in real and estimated cost.” That it appears as a parenthetical line break in this stanza is an interruption of form, as well as an interruption of content. Here, the poem’s speaker becomes part of the subject, rather than serving as an omniscient and distant voice apart from the subject:

pulling away from the yards. With this girl
I’ll recall black boys by the soda shop, other times
with conked pompadours and scalloped afterburns
stenciled across fenders. Through the radio

The first person singular statement looks back to a more peaceful, though still inequitable moment in Newark’s past, the late 1950s of Hull’s girlhood. The foreign haircuts of the black boys and the broad fenders of the era’s cars uses the words “scalloped afterburns” as a way to link the bodies of Newark’s population and the industry, the machines of the cars across which the lye-burned hair is “stenciled.” Here, the radio returns, but in the present moment of 1967 Newark. In Saigon and in Newark, Hendrix plays. Hendrix joined the 101st Airborne Division as an alternative to a prison sentence for riding in stolen cars. Hull’s choice to include Hendrix (instead of any other music of the era) is a way for the allusions, metaphors, and content to merge within the tapestry of the poem. The blues appeared in Mississippi at the inception the 20th Century, a crossroads with other revolutions of human invention: Einstein, Freud, and the Wright Brothers, for example. The word “discord” is musical, but has the extra-musical meaning of strife between people or situations.

Hendrix butanes his guitar to varnish, crackle
and discord of “Wild Thing.” Sizzling strings,
that Caravaggio face bent to ask the crowd

did they want to see him sacrifice something
he loved. Thigh, mouth, breast, small of back, dear
hollow of the throat, don’t you understand this pressure,

The noun-cum-verb “butanes” is an echo of the earlier “strafed” because of its association with industrial or military fire. Hendrix, who was known to destroy or ignite his instruments, and whose style of music was itself “sizzling” is connected to Caravaggio,[27] who was infamous for his swaggering, deliberately fighting, brawling, and finally murder of a young man. The “sacrifice” refers not only to Caravaggio, but to Hendrix as well, and to the criminals of Newark, whose criminality must be tempered with other acts of creation and art.

Something melds with “someone,” and her body (“thigh, mouth, breast, small of back, and hollow of the throat”) is an allusion to the sacrifices of antiquity as well as those in contemporary Newark of the poem. Hull is passing judgment here not on the lovers inside the “hotbox apartments,” but the situations outside, and larger than themselves, which turn love and sex into criminality. Another voice enters and interrupts the couple as it asks “don’t you understand this pressure”? To whom is the question addressed?

It is addressed to the reader, and to the “reader” of Newark’s riot, the historian or layperson who might interpret its causes and meanings. Note the preposition: the pressure is “of” the apartments rather than “from” them. The authority of the speaker again enters: she tells the reader that besides interpreting the causes of the riot in Newark, “there’s no forgetting the riot within.”[28] The statement again connects its two constituencies, like the iron mesh of the bridge, of the personal and the public riots:

of hotbox apartments? There’s no forgetting the riot
within, fingernails sparking to districts
rivering with flame. What else could we do

The unusual verb “rivering,” unique to this poem, is a metaphorical leap from a woman’s red fingernails to the “districts” (27, 28, 29) of Newark that are burning. The voice announces another interrogative:

but cling and whisper together as children after
the lullaby is done, but no, never as children, never

do they so implore, oh god, god, bend your dark visage

The question is one of desperation. There are no responses for the inhabitants in the moment besides clinging to the lullaby (the poem itself?). Another of the “many voices,” a prayer, seeks an outside authority — broader than the authorial device above — to bend its “dark visage” over the “acetylene skyline”:

over this acetylene skyline, over Club Zanzibar[29]
and the Beast of Three, limed statues in the parks, over
the black schoolgirl whose face is smashed again

and again. No journalist for these aisles of light
the cathedral spots cast through teargas and the mingling,
commingling of sisters’ voices in chapels, storefront
churches asking for mercy.

The flammable gas, a symbol of manufacturing, provides an expressionist palette for the colors of the city, but is a violent image. Berman describes the years it took the city to learn how to defend against “the next great collective catastrophe: fires… For years, midnight fires ate up not only buildings, but whole blocks, often block after block.”[30] The statues in the poem are limed, worn with wear. The stanza moves carefully from the pastoral of the park guarded by a Cerberus, who prevents people from crossing the River Styx in Hades, to a black schoolgirl being assaulted by the police. The poem does not shy away from the political indictment it makes. Here, Mumford is again useful to provide an historical context for “the escalating protest against police brutality fostered what might be called the nationalization of the black public sphere, leading directly to rioting.”[31] The battles between minority communities and the police over police brutality in the 1960s did, in fact, yield gradual reforms over the next thirty years.[32]

Yet the authority of the voice interrupts itself. First the people “cling and whisper together as children” but then the voice says: “no, never as children.” The simultaneous innocence of children is precluded or occluded, as the images suggested, by the social conditions destabilizing their lives. The statement that “no journalist” suggests the discrepancies between press coverage of white and black criminality that Mumford describes.[33]

The “mingling and commingling” of the lovers above reappear in the guise of “sisters’ voices in chapels”; it is an ambiguous phrase which suggests black women in revivalist urban storefront churches rather than Roman Catholic nuns.

Beyond the bridge’s
iron mesh, the girl touches a birthmark
behind her knee and wishes the doused smell
of charred buildings was only hydrants flushing hot concrete.

The bridge’s iron mesh also reappears and the psychic distance is refocused locally, behind a girl’s knee. She returns to her memory of the 1950s childhood, when public hydrants are opened so children can play in the water. But the “doused smell of charred buildings” shows an inundated fire department left with the task of putting out the burned buildings after the riot. Yet the poem leaves the charred buildings and pivots to the summer of 1967, itself connected the memory of the earlier summertime.

Summertime. Pockets of shadow and pale. Too hot
to sleep, Hush baby, come to papa, board
the window before morning’s fractured descant,

a staccato crack of fire escapes snapping pavement
and citizens descending, turning back with points of flame

Gershwin’s song from “Porgy and Bess”[34] reintroduces the images of “shadow and pale” from the first stanza as the voice of the lover from earlier in the poem says: “too hot to sleep, Hush baby, come to papa” again as the figures board the windows. The term “citizens” restates the civic indictment the government made against Newark’s citizens, who were consistently blamed, as in the South Bronx in the subsequent decade, for burning their own communities.

within their eyes before they too must look away.
At dawn, when the first buses leave, their great wipers arc
Like women bending through smoke

to burdens, singing terror, singing pity.[35]

The enjambment between “points of flame” and “within their eyes” sends the reader’s gaze to the iris of the lovers who leave via the fire escape, but also “must look away,” since the burden of communal responsibility cannot be necessarily completely borne by victims or perpetrators. The final abstractions of the singing terror and pity arrive through women “bending through smoke,” as if they are transforming themselves, in the style of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, to escape what they must witness.

Hull was writing against detractors who sought to merely dwell on the reasons the cities should be abandoned, such as Edward Banfield or Tom Wolfe. Banfield, an adviser to Nixon, Ford, and Reagan, for example, sought a cost-benefit analysis for racism and poverty, and did not believe the government could feasibly address these problems, or even should.[36] Wolfe, in Bonfire of the Vanities, treats the urban landscape during this period similarly, but without maintaining his affection: “The trains of vehicles inched forward in a cloud of carbon and sulphur particles toward the toll gates;”[37] “His memory had drowned in the night, and he could feel only the icy despair.”[38] Hull instead presents an original way to view the urban crisis. It synthesizes divergent sets of knowledge, activates both classical and contemporary notions of memory, and an empathic mode of questioning her material.[39] Besides the overpowering beauty of her language, she gives a subversive attention to cities that were not thought of as sources for meaning other than defeat. Hull has creatively changed the ways we know what happened to the cities, and what it was like at the moment we were witnesses to it happening.

…Hull’s kinetic sense of rhythm, her searching, meditative narrative, and her unflinching interest in finding beauty in Newark, even at its ugliest moment, all move language to present a fresh way to see the urban crisis.

Reading Star Ledger, it becomes apparent that the poet’s kinetic sense of rhythm, her searching, meditative narrative, and her unflinching interest in finding beauty in Newark, even at its ugliest moment, all move language to present a fresh way to see the urban crisis. Her voice synthesizes private memories of a fraught childhood in the Newark area, the public memory of what happened in the summer of 1967, and an empathic mode of questioning these memories. The empathic person speaking in her poems looks forward and plans ahead with a sense of artistic and political freedom. Imagination is the connection-making aspect of intelligence, and Hull’s allows for multiple, conflicting emotions to coexist. She describes that of what we have been unconscious, while preventing erasure of those fresh sense impressions. Her poems last as beautiful objets d’art, but more than that, they decrease normalized indifference[40] and state her values, her general affection for cities, and her intention to tell the reader: an empathic reading of cities cannot be corrupt. We should care about Lynda Hull because she wards off not only outside messages of defeat, but also those within our own at times shallow selves. The city need not be limited to feelings of defeat, but can be sought as “that thing which shines.”

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References

  1. Hull, Lynda. Collected Poems. Ed. David Wojahn. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2006. 113
  1. Jauss, David. “‘To Become Music Or Break’: Lynda Hull as an Undergraduate.” Crazyhorse 55 (1998): 85.
  1. Sugrue, Thomas J. The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005. 3.
  1. Beauregard, Robert A. Voices of Decline: The Postwar Fate of US Cities. Oxford, United Kingdom: B. Blackwell, 1993. 151.
  1. “unpacking my sequence of crises vanquished”
    Hull, Lynda. Collected Poems. Ed. David Wojahn. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2006. 81.
  1. Interview with David Wojahn. 27 April 2009.
  1. Judah Stampfer, as quoted in Beauregard, Robert A. Voices of Decline: The Postwar Fate of US Cities. Oxford, United Kingdom: B. Blackwell, 1993. 204.
  1. Hull, Lynda. Collected Poems. Ed. David Wojahn. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2006. 227.
  1. “We [Christine and Gene] didn’t see her from her 16th birthday until 1974 or ’75” (Interview with the Hulls, 1 May 2009); “Lynda was the oldest of a family of four children, two brothers and a sister. Father was a businessman, working in various aspects of sales, mostly carpets. Her mother was the head dietician in one of the New Jersey State mental hospitals. Family very dysfunctional during her childhood, for a number of reasons. But later on they grew vastly more stable. After about ten years of being incommunicado with them (from her late teens, when she ran away from home, into her late ‘20s), she reconnected with them, and had an especially close relationship with them in the last decade of her life” (Interview with David Wojahn, 27 April 2009).
  1. Ibid. “From a child on, she always looked for someone who was hurt, different from the norm.”
  1. Interview with David Wojahn. 27 April 2009.
  1. Hull, Lynda. Collected Poems. Ed. David Wojahn. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2006. xii.
    These did not always connect via desolation, however. Coleridge, and other Romantics, for example, made a connection between their private understandings of the artist in an environment with utopian principles in the New World, like Pennsylvania, where Coleridge and Robert Southey had planned a “Pantisocracy.” Frontier America and 18th-century England were affected by the Romantic vision of personal freedom. John Keats’s brother, George, emigrated to Kentucky in 1818. (Manning, Maurice. A Companion for Owls: Being the Commonplace Book of D. Boone, Long Hunter, Back Woodsman, &c. San Diego: Harcourt, 2004. 125.)
  1. Interview with David Wojahn. 27 April 2009.
  1. She was pronounced dead at the scene, Route 3 in Plymouth, Massachusetts, shortly after the 8:15 p.m. crash in the southbound lane. She was driving between 75 and 80 m.p.h. She had apparently tried to avoid an exit while traveling in the passing lane, may have swerved and lost control on the wet and icy road. “She attempted to make a sharp right turn avoiding Exit 4 and she lost control of the vehicle and struck a guardrail, vaulted over it and traveled down the embankment and struck a tree.” (Dowdy, Zachary R. “Poet Dies in Crash on Route 3.” The Boston Globe. 31 March 1994, sec. Metro.)
  1. Many jazz musicians were from Newark: Andy Bey, Better Carter, Babs Gonzales, Scott LaFaro, Grachan Moncur III, James Moody, Ike Quebec, Woody Shaw, Wayne Shorter, Alan Shorter, Sarah Vaughan, and Larry Young. “Years later, Wayne Shorter said he would run into Sarah Vaughan on tour: “I’d say ‘What’s happenin’?’ and she’d say ‘Newark,’ and that was enough, ’cause you know what Newark does to people.” (Mercer, Michelle. Footprints: The Life and Work of Wayne Shorter. New York: Tracher/Penguin, 2004. 22-23.)
  1. This was composed between 1986 to 1991 and published in 1991.
  1. Interview with Yusef Komunyakaa. 2009.
  1. Interview with David Wojahn. 27 April 2009.
  1. Zurier, Rebecca. Picturing the City: Urban Vision and the Ashcan School. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006. 74.
  1. Williams famously said, “It is difficult to get the news from poetry, yet men die every day for lack of what is found there.”
  1. Interview with David Wojahn. 27 April 2009.
  1. “Let us go then you and I, / When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table;”
  1. There is a precedent for this. In Robert Frost’s 1916 poem “Out, Out—”, the title of which alludes to a soliloquy by Lady Macbeth, a buzz saw snarls and leaps at a farm boy’s hand, killing him. The poem places blame on neither the saw nor the boy, and this offers a statement on the nature of “accident.”
  1. This is from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855).
  1. Mumford, Kevin. Newark: A History of Race, Rights, and Riots in America. New York: New York University Press, 2007. 160.
  1. Bender, Thomas. The Unfinished City: New York and the Metropolitan Idea. New York: New Press, 2002. 175.
  1. Caravaggio (1571-1610) killed Ranuccio Tomassoni on May 29, 1610. He then fled to Naples and to Malta.
  1. Hull’s interpretation stands in stark contrast to the conservative view, that “a righteously indignant mob usually consists mainly of working-class people” (Banfield, Edward C. The Unheavenly City Revisited. Boston: Little, Brown, 1974. 216); he also spoke of the “profitability of rioting” (Ibid, 229) and that rioting will occur for many years to come (writing in 1974) “no matter what is done to prevent it” (Ibid, 232).
  1. In the late 1970s, Club Zanzibar was Newark’s answer to Studio 54. (See Jacobs, Andrew. “Newark Loses Unwanted Landmark as Lincoln Motel Goes.” The New York Times. 8 Oct. 2007, sec. N.Y./Region.)
  1. Berman, Marshall and Brian Berger, eds. New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg. London: Reaktion Books, 2007. 15.
  1. Mumford, Kevin. Newark: A History of Race, Rights, and Riots in America. New York: New York University Press, 2007. 114.
  1. Johnson, Marilynn S. Street Justice: A History of Police Violence in New York City. New York: Beacon Press, 2004. 276.
  1. Mumford, Kevin. Newark: A History of Race, Rights, and Riots in America. New York: New York University Press, 2007. 144.
  1. “Summertime” was a return hit in August 1968, when Janis Joplin sang it on Big Brother and the Holding Company’s Cheap Thrills.
  1. Mumford, Kevin. Newark: A History of Race, Rights, and Riots in America. New York: New York University Press, 2007. 76-78.
  1. Banfield, Edward C. The Unheavenly City Revisited. Boston: Little, Brown, 1974. 268-271.
  1. Wolfe, Tom. Bonfire of the Vanities. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1987. 81.
  1. Ibid., 165.
  1. Empathic questioning, as opposed to Socratic questioning, helps writers express their “innigsten Empfindung” — innermost feeling. (Bly, Carol. Beyond the Writers’ Workshop: New Ways to Write Creative Nonfiction. Berkeley: Anchor Books, 2001. 58.)
  1. Ibid., 247.

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