A review of
Here Lies: Poems
Paperback: Stephen F. Austin State UPress, 2018
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Reviewed by Aarik Danielsen
We encounter two sure things in life. Once Tax Day comes and goes each April, we’re left with plenty of time to think about the other one.
There are nearly as many ways of dealing with death as there are living people. My soon-to-be 5-year-old, facing the death of a family member for the first time, asked scores of questions. Some were quite innocent, others surprising: “Do you want me to die?” he asked on an occasion I met with immediate reassurance.
Some work hard—busying themselves to avoid the thought, or trying to buy a little more time through exercise. Others still suppress any whisper of death, changing the subject whenever the word passes another’s lips.
Tom Hunley, the contrarian he proves himself to be, chooses to dwell on the matter. Here Lies, his new poetry collection, boasts a bigger body count than most summer blockbusters — but the body always belongs to him. Hunley fakes his own death dozens of times within these verses, presumably taking the sting out of death by challenging it to a staring contest
Saying the poet, musician and professor at Western Kentucky University possesses a gallows humor qualifies as a true understatement. Based on the supremely fascinating ways he kills himself off, it might be more accurate to say Hunley owns an accidental poisoning humor, a stampede humor, even a shower drain humor—which he drips into during one set of stanzas.
The first 22 poems in the collection fall under the heading “Here Lies Tom C. Hunley.” Each of these numbered pieces assumes that opening line, leaving it off to dive right into the cause of death, extenuating circumstances and attendant emotions.
Some of Hunley’s ends are quite grisly: cut by a broken glass while doing dishes, poisoned when he drinks bleach instead of beer, stampeded by bridesmaids chasing a bouquet. He dies at the hands—sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively—of bees, snakes and muggers.
In other verses, the cause of death is far more esoteric or existential: Hunley dies of laughter, of happiness, after being written up by superiors for a lack of hard work.
In one poem, the coroner determines he “held traces, in his blood, of somethingwrongwithhimhardtosaywhat” (14). Taking the diagnosis into his own hands, Hunley clarifies his condition:
and if you had asked him,
he would have said he had a chronic case
of feeling like a guitar string that busted
and came to think of itself
as a strand of white hair that floated away (14)
Threaded through these poems are an understanding of what Hunley would leave behind, namely a family he clearly loves, and hints of the life he lived. In one example, he notes that “as a professor of literature,” he “refused to acknowledge popular books about vampires, wizards and especially zombies” (16).
Not all of Hunley’s near-death writing takes on foreboding qualities. The title of a poem in the book’s more lyrical second half, “The Grand Pause,” informs readers “Tom Made It to Eighty” (47).
Often, as he lays dying, Hunley examines death with such nearness as to see the beauty in last breaths and warm surrender. In one such passage, he finds death’s embrace like that of a mother’s:
Dying, Tom C. Hunley saw moonlight
as soft and pale as a breast
muttered moonlight as soft
and pale as a breast
felt the mouthful of syllables
and suckled (31)
Elsewhere, distracted by the rays of a rainbow, he collides with “a wealthy widow” and is mesmerized at how “thousands of raindrops typed strange poems on their bodies” (32).
Hunley approaches death through the lens of a writing life, treating words both as spiritual guides ushering us between worlds and things with a life of their own. In one poem, Hunley dies in a library, “the thud on the floor indistinguishable from a dropped book to those who didn’t look up from what they were looking up” (18).
In another, he is reincarnated as a word “pressed against other words in the pages of a closed book,” enjoying a sense of closeness and community humans often go without (33).
Hunley grounds his sense of humor in the stuff of the cosmos as well as the specific. He both dies and gives life to the famed gorilla Harambe in “A Gorilla Killed Tom, Then Got Shot, Then Had a Heart Transplant” (67).
“Tom’s Death With a David Bowie Soundtrack” uses his name as wordplay fodder:
Somewhere out there, like the truth
floats Major Tom C. Hunley
helmet on, engines on
thrilled to star in a David Bowie song
but why couldn’t it be Ziggy Stardust
or China Girl or even Let’s Dance (51)
“Here Lies” contains little explicit theology, but astute Christian readers will identify two ways Hunley subverts and seasons his tales with spiritual truth.
He acknowledges the comfort and presence of the divine; in one of the collection’s best, “Silence Sang Tom to Sleep,” “God’s silence, so maddening in this world, becomes, in the next world, a caressing wind that infuses everything with its music” (53).
In other moments, “the voices of angels” become “the song that finally made sense of everything” (55) and Hunley finds fresh tongues and a joyful new heavenly language (62).
More compelling is the way Hunley imitates a God who, if Christ’s resurrection is to be believed, made a down payment on the death of death. Jesus exercises a victory over the grave we will one day realize in full. He refuses to grant death the final word or the last, best laugh—and neither does Hunley.
The poet will not accept death’s terms and conditions. Coldplay once penned a pop hit containing the defiant phrase “I don’t want a cycle of recycled revenge / I don’t want to follow Death and all of his friends.”
Hunley won’t follow along either, interrupting our accepted narratives with death-defying words that tickle, comfort and embolden the rest of our living.
Aarik Danielsen is the arts and music editor at the Columbia Daily Tribune in Columbia, Missouri. His work is concerned with the intersection of faith, culture and human dignity. Follow him on Twitter @aarikdanielsen and find more of his work at facebook.com/aarikdanielsenwrites