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Muse in the Machine : Essays on Poetry And the Anatomy of the Body Politic

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Music, race, politics, and conscience. In these eight essays written over the span of a decade and a half, T. R. Hummer explains how, for him, such abiding concerns revolve around the practice of poetry and the evolution of a culturally responsible personal poetics. Hummer writes about the suicide of poet Vachel Lindsay, the culture wars at the National Endowment for the Arts, the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the divided soul of his native American South, and the salving, transcendent practice of musicianship. Inevitably entwined with a personal or cultural component, Hummer's criticism is thus grounded in experience that is always familiar and often straight to the heart in its rightness.

In one of those statements of "poetic purpose" that goes hand in hand with a residency, guest editorship, or lecture tour, Hummer once wrote that "poetry inhabits and enunciates an incommensurable zone between individual and collective, between body and body politic, an area very ill-negotiated by most of us most of the time. Our culture, with its emphasis on the individual mind and body, teaches us very little about how even to think about the nature of this problem. . . . E pluribus unum is a smokescreen: what pluribus; what unum? And yet this phrase is an American mantra, as if it explained something." This is a quintessential Hummer moment: a writer has just given himself a good reason to quit. What Hummer knows must happen next is what The Muse in the Machine is all about.




Useless Virtues, T. R. Hummer's seventh book of poetry, is a wide-ranging series of forays into metaphysical territory. Its presiding inquiry concerns the dependency of our consciousness and our spirit on the untrustworthy powers of language. How often and how deeply is our faith -- in words, if not in gods -- misplaced, destructive, glorious, redemptive? How can we know? This powerful collection is fueled by the desire to answer these impossible, indispensable questions.
The centerpiece of the book, Axis, takes as its terrain the thought of Martin Heidegger, and through this brilliant and controversial figure the nature of identity, of humanity, is contemplated. The poem is, finally, a lyrical farewell to the poet's father and to his generation -- the generation for which World War II was the great defining destiny -- and hence to that century we called 19.
In these poems we find the almost sensual allure of direst possibility. From a woman who, during lovemaking, envisions strangling her lover, to a Pernod drinker whose dark imaginings recall the absinthe addicts of an earlier era -- mortality and loss, as well as human failing, are hovering presences.
Philosophic and searching, traditional yet bold, Useless Virtues is the work of a master poet at his best.