Shape Notes: On “Fossil Sky” by David Hinton
Reading David Hinton’s poem “Fossil Sky” is no simple matter. This “lyrical map,” as the author calls it, spirals its way around a 54 square-inch sheet of paper. There’s no up or down, no left or right or beginning or end—following the poet’s train of thought entails twisting the paper, or yourself, to follow the sinuous lines of print like tracks across a wilderness of white space.
The first time I read “Fossil Sky,” I spread it out on a bed. The second time, I lay it on the grass, which seems more appropriate to the poem’s imagery of field and sky. But my cat decides to use the poster-sheet as a blind from which to attack me, and besides, the grass is getting dewy. Draping “Fossil Sky” across a patio table, I wonder if I can ever be sure I’ve read the whole thing. Without the usual orientation points, it’s hard to know when you’re “done” with a poem. And maybe that’s Hinton’s point.
“In 1988, I remember my wife and I looking at this big star map we had spread out on the floor,” Hinton says in the living room of his East Calais home. “And it just struck me: I could write a poem like this. But it took 14 years to figure out how to do it.” He ended up designing “Fossil Sky” using the graphics program FreeHand 4 on his 10-year-old computer. What is the poem a map of, exactly? Hinton suggests that it’s the human mind. “Poetry, for me, at its deepest level is about consciousness,” he says. “Consciousness is spatial, and inside it is the flow of language, which is linear” —like the lines on the page.
If Hinton’s description of consciousness recalls the Zen Buddhist notion of “empty mind mirroring the world,” it’s no coincidence—he earns his bread translating classical Chinese poetry and philosophy. In 1997 he received a Landon Translation Award from the Academy of American Poets for his renderings of Li Po and two other poets.
Although “Fossil Sky,” put out by Archipelago Books this April, is the first verse of his own he’s published, Hinton says that poetry originally led him to translation and not the other way around. “Chinese philosophy always made a lot of sense to me,” he explains, citing the impact of Chinese literature on 20th-century American poets like Ezra Pound and Kenneth Rexroth. Graduate study in Chinese at Cornell led Hinton to a two-year stay in Taiwan. Later he found himself translating poets he admired, like Tu Fu, whose power he thought vanished in dry scholarly renderings.
Still, when it came time to return to his own verse, Hinton tried to avoid creating “Chinese-sounding poems.” As he tells it, “I wanted to do something that came out of that world-view that seemed accurate and deep to me, but that was also innovative and added something to poetry.”
“Fossil Sky” describes a landscape: the south of France, where Hinton spent a grant year in 1998-’99 with his wife, poet Jody Gladding, and their daughter. But it’s a portrait we receive in fragments—a tatter of sky here, of water there, with images of bright summer fields blurring into ones of frost and “the wordless ink-dark clarities snow brings to lakewater.”
Hinton compares this to the way people “slowly build up ideas over time. I used to tend to write on walks. So you go out for a walk, and maybe something happens, you see a bird or something and maybe you have this idea, and you go out for another walk and add something to it. It’s this slow accretion.”
While most lyric poems present the finished, polished product of a “slow accretion” of thoughts, Hinton says he aimed in “Fossil Sky” to recreate “this whole more immediate life-experience, so you can sort of wander around in it“—again, like a map. He stresses that there’s no “right” way to read the poem. “If somebody comes to it with some intelligence and assuming that they’re empowered, whatever happens is the right thing.”
Wandering around in “Fossil Sky” is a bit like navigating a maze that has no center and no exit. Starting from one of the poem’s six “entry points,” you may come to a fork where it’s up to you how to continue the thought. You may meet a crossword-puzzle-style intersection of two sentences, or a sentence that simply frays out into white space, like thoughts as you doze. While the poem definitely isn’t “meaningless”—as one Internet reviewer puts it—its meanings can be hard to pin down.
Take, for instance, a pathway where we read what sounds a lot like a thesis statement: “The particular is meaningless… against the fierce and ancient abstractions driving human history.”
“Aha!” we may think. “Hinton’s talking about us puny humans being dwarfed by the universal.” The stream of conscious-ness that follows seems to support this idea, juxtaposing the image of a “long-legged skitterish cricket”—a puny creature if there ever was one —with glimpses of the timeless, terrifying night sky. “[L]ooking out from earth, we gaze back through starlit time to its very beginnings,” writes Hinton.
“But the long view is a mirror,” we read as we follow the spiral—words that later repeat themselves. And the cricket keeps popping up, too, its importunate summer chirp interrupting the Deep Thoughts about origins and eternity. Mirroring the world, the poem mirrors itself in these repeated phrases and motifs. And it suggests that the “particular”—the puny cricket, or the “I” who some-times narrates the poem—isn’t so meaningless after all. Maybe the “long view” always leads us back to our own backyard.
“Fossil Sky” has presented Hinton with some unique challenges—for instance, how do you give a public reading of a poem with no beginning or end? For appearances at various New England colleges and universities, he and Gladding worked out a solution: Give the floor to the audience. Five people come up one by one and read pieces of “Fossil Sky,” starting wherever they want. If they accidentally cover the same ground, “it still sounds different,” says Hinton.
Hinton isn’t done experimenting with funny-shaped lit. For his next project, he’s staying “outside of the book” with a translation of the medieval female Chinese poet Su Hwi, which takes the form of a grid.
“It’s fun to have this different relationship to language,” Hinton says of “Fossil Sky.“ “You can get outside of it and move it around.”