What Just Happened
(Winter Editions, 2023)
The title of Richard Hell’s new collection of poems and prose, What Just Happened, can be taken in several ways. It could be referring to some very recent occurrence (as in “Did you see what just happened?”) or it could be pointing to an event that appears to lack all cause or reason (as in “I didn’t mean to break the cookie jar, it just happened”). With the addition of a question mark, which though absent may be implied, “What Just Happened?” becomes an expression of shock or wonder or puzzlement. Intentionally or not, elements of all of these meanings run through the collection. Several poems offer a strong dose of dailiness, taking off from immediate incidents or observations in the poet’s quotidian existence: “A man lounging in an ancient / bathtub. . . of his tenement apartment on East 12th Street” [Reflection”]. “Coming upon the word ‘I’ in a Bill Knott poem / I felt him still alive” [“Poem”]. (This is very much a “book of days” in the vein of Robert Creeley’s A Day Book, and, like Creeley’s 1972 effort, a substantial part of What Just Happened takes the form of aphoristic journals.) The poems also worry about life’s innate meaninglessness: “people can’t do much about themselves that they / haven’t been designated to by powers they don’t control. / We’re puppets” [“The Words”]. Lastly, having mostly been written during the 2020-2021 pandemic, they reflect the degree of disorientation that we all felt as our world changed overnight (“Unable to travel, or even leave the apartment / much, I wonder how close I can come / to traveling in my mind” [“Unable”].
Those circumstances may account, at least in part, for why the subjects of death and aging pervade What Just Happened, published by the recently launched Brooklyn small press Winter Editions. At the height of the pandemic in New York City, which has been Hell’s home for over 50 years, death did indeed seem to be stalking the streets and subways, with the elderly being most at risk of dying. Hell’s much-possessed-with-death mood, however, has more to do with his own aging—in 2020, he turned 71—than with Covid 19. In the 13-line poem “Advanced Age,” he finds himself reviewing his past behavior “in light of knowing there’s scarce, if any / chance left that it’ll improve.” An even shorter poem, “Assertion,” confronts the futility of hoping to “make a mark” on the world that will survive one’s own death. In the longer “Untitled,” the only poem to dwell on Hell’s relatively brief but hugely impactful time in the music world, he imagines sitting around with his dead friends Sabel Starr, Elliot Kidd, Robert Quine, Johnny Thunders and Anya Phillips. “It’s / crazy, my feelings now, lockdown / has released them,” he writes to explain this uncharacteristic surrender to nostalgia. Never one to go gently, Hell fumes in one of his notebook entries (#14): “Fucking time. Now I feel like I’m at the end of my life, when from forty-five or so I’ve been wrestling with not being young, all the way till now, when I’ve become old.”
The moments when language misfires fascinate Hell; “I’ve always been drawn / to misunderstandings,” he writes in “Drawn.” The poem “Assumption” hinges on him confusing the Christian concepts of Assumption and Annunciation. “Poets” ends with Hell correcting a typo on the fly: “I’m sacred now / I mean scared.” His ability to wring meaning from mistakes—not unlike Malcolm Lowry’s wonderful short poem “Strange Type”—is of a piece with his gift for aggressive vulnerability and naked honesty. An example of those qualities is his readiness to admit the gaps in his own knowledge. In entry #38 he wonders how visible his “auto-didacticism (or whatever you call it)” is in his writing. Hell dropped out of high school at sixteen “to become a poet,” and acquired his substantial literary education in the cafes, bars, and bookstores of downtown New York. Hell’s intellectual range is on display in the wide-ranging essay “Falling Asleep” about hypnogogic revery and in his numbered notebook entries (“List”) which bristle with perceptive observations about Cubism, Cézanne, Phillip Roth, Chekhov and Claude Levi-Strauss. But not all the entries engage in high-minded discourse. In #48 he confesses, “I love the smell of my sweaty balls” and in #20 lashes out at a New Yorker writer who he dismisses as a “petty square.” Hell also finds occasions for moments of joy: “Sudden feeling of exalted well-being. I’m bathed and on a New York street, it’s springtime and a taxi is coming for me.”
The strength of Hell’s poems, their primary claim on our attention, is not to be found in the crafting of scintillating lines or in the wielding of some super-charged vocabulary. Rather it is through the movement of his consciousness—always surprising and frequently disarming—that Hell achieves a subtle form of beauty. The clarity with which he can convey his ideas and emotions may seem insufficiently “poetic” to some readers, but Hell’s poetics evoke the no-frills style of Objectivist poets such as Charles Reznikoff. Despite his oft-acknowledged connection to the Second-Generation New York School poets who gathered around the St. Marks Poetry Project in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Hell rarely employs a recognizably New York School style. There’s a gravity and melancholy to his verse that most NYS poets, draped in layers of irony and camp, avoided at all costs. Often, his work feels closer to the deliberately understated style of postwar European poets such as the German Günther Eich and Italian poets of the Linea Lombarda like Franco Fortini and Luciano Erba, though, it must be admitted, Hell has a fearless candor (especially about sex, drugs and his often-rocky relations with other people) that would have been unimaginable to poets such as those.
Many poems find Hell pondering the meaning or resonance of a particular word, but the language he uses to do so avoids any extravagances. I suspect he keeps his surface style as plain as possible in order to foreground the overall thought-shape of the poem, not unlike painters who avoid color in order to emphasize the structure of their paintings, not unlike, in fact, Christopher Wool, whose black-and-white drawings featuring string-like lines meandering among stray typographical fragments elegantly punctuate the poems in What Just Happened. The long-standing dialogue Wool and Hell have enjoyed makes this an ideal pairing.
What’s refreshing about Hell’s poems is their modesty of means, how they refuse to clamor for attention. This might seem surprising for someone who posed bare-chested for his first album cover with the phrase “You make me ______” scrawled across his chest, but so it is. Compared to Hell, many other contemporary poets in the U.S. can come across as over-anxious to impress their readers (or simply snag their attention) through heavy-handed rhetoric, literary cleverness, and a reaching for sublime effects. One wonders how much this has to do with the MFA-based professionalization of poetry, with the fact that most poets in this country are either ensconced in academia or trying desperately to become so. That’s not Hell’s problem, nor has it ever been. His copious learning notwithstanding, he might justly be called an “outsider” poet. Yet whatever Hell may think of the Creative Writing industry, he seems not have lost faith in his chosen art: “One of the beauties of poetry,” he asserts near the end of “Falling Asleep,” is that “it’s the place of fewest false values.” And so it is, at least within 140 pages of What Just Happened.
(A note to Rail readers: my name appears in one poem in What Just Happened but only because it caught the poet’s eye, not because of any personal connection.)