Christine Hume's Lullaby: a review by Taylor Holdaway

Christine Hume will be participating in Poetry Off the Page by performing an audio show, "Speech Talks Back," and by creating an installation of "sound pillows" especially for the event.

Lullaby: Speculations on the First Active Sense (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2008) by Christine Hume is an essay-poem with a soundtrack. The text uses the lullaby to investigate rhythm as innate instinct and drive. James Marks is the musician behind the CD that accompanies the text, which is a collage of found sounds interlaced with a more traditionally composed acoustic guitar instrumentation. The music is meant to give the reader a more engrossed and nuanced sense of the “event” of the text and of the lullaby itself as an all-encompassing, complex sensory experience. [source]

Listen to Lullaby here.


Imagine: a lullaby whispered in the ear of a child. Christine Hume’s Lullaby begins in rhythm, which gives way to an invocation to sleep, an invitation to heavy eyelids. But slowly, layers are added, heaped upon the original soothing rhythm and melody, and it becomes eerie. The intent of the layers is unclear at first, and the duality induces mild discomfort. The intent of the lullaby becomes visible, and it is sinister; murderous desire, but at the same time sorrow and remorse for this desire.

Christine Hume’s audio recording of her poem Lullaby creates a level of reader response that would be nigh impossible with mere text on a page. It could be that the power it holds is simply due to the fact of the spoken word, as opposed to the flatness of the word on the page, but something in the intonation, the rhythm, the vocal layering terrifies and disconcerts. This lends to a frighteningly exciting examination and progression of the concept of lullaby.

This voice is the lullaby, in the traditional sense, beckoning the reader into a sort of sleep, a state of readerly vulnerability.

The different layers consist of rhythmic vocal and lyrical elements, and three uniquely intoned voices. Most of the poem is spoken by a confident and rather monotone voice, a predominantly even and stable baseline, sonically speaking. This voice is the lullaby, in the traditional sense, beckoning the reader into a sort of sleep, a state of readerly vulnerability. There are interspersed interludes of a quieter voice, which shows more emotion, and often takes on an almost menacing tone, or at the very least thoroughly unsettling, as when this speaker, in a sing-song voice repeats, “throw a newborn into the sea.” Most of the rhythmic elements, which include repeating phrases are also in this tone (“Impulsing, hypnogogic. Impulsing, hypnogogic.”) and non-word sounds. Rarer still is the whisper, which adds description to things noted in the other voices, almost as a secret, as a truth the other two speakers would rather you not know. “You take every word with you into sleep,” warns the whisper.

For most of the poem, the voices remain distinct, but are interspersed amongst themselves in tight syntactical mangrove thickets. But at a few unusual and potent moments they overlap and create confusion and disorientation. Sometimes at these points the words become mangled, and their syntactical meaning is lost, and all that is left are the bare words with their individual sonic, denotative, and connotative meanings, free from the tangles and snags of other parts of the line. At other points of overlap, however, the voices do not detract from each other, but create a stronger unified line, as in, “listen toward the fantasy of total comfort and you hallucinate,” where the italics denote the overlapped phrase. This creates a sense of collusion, a sense that the reader is left out of something nefarious that the different speakers are in on, which is an unnerving sense indeed. Still at other points, the overlap occurs in such a way that both voices are still individually intelligible, as when one voice sings, “throw a newborn into the sea,” the monotone speaker is still understandable, saying, “lullaby is porous, scabbing.” This variety of layering induces an ominous, eerie feeling.

As the speakers undergo the process of realizing that their lullaby is more than just a lullaby—that it is a triple-intoned herald of duplicitous intentions—they take on spiteful tones, become almost frantic as they try to come to terms with this.

One of the central threads of discussion in the poem is that of rhythm, and it is also a central device in the recording. There are rhythmic elements outside of the language in the forms of non-word vocal noises and ambient background sounds, but the rhythm of the reading itself exists throughout the piece and provides the reader emotional cues. When the pace slows, the reader is reminded of a typical lullaby, and reacts emotionally in a corresponding fashion. As the speakers undergo the process of realizing that their lullaby is more than just a lullaby—that it is a triple-intoned herald of duplicitous intentions—they take on spiteful tones, become almost frantic as they try to come to terms with this. In accordance with this the pace increases, the rhythm of the emphasized syllables changes, and the layering of rhythmic elements becomes denser and more forceful. This allows the reader to take on the franticness of the content, and of the tone of the voices at these faster-paced points.

The use of different intonations and the duality and contrast this creates, the layering and interlacing of the speakers’s voices, and the dynamically shifting rhythm of the reading all create a uniquely perturbing, disorienting, emotionally immersive, and even terrifying listening experience. Christine Hume’s reading of Lullaby gives new possibilities of depth and potency to poetry through the engagement of just one sense—the aural—in place of the plain reading of the word on the page. Consider the possibilities when multiple senses are engaged: perhaps aural-olfactory poems will be the next big thing.

 


Taylor Holdaway is a high school intern at the University of Arizona Poetry Center. He will be graduating from BASIS Tucson High School, a local charter school, in May of this year. He is currently working on a Senior Research Project to explore the relation of commercial viability of poetry to aesthetic; it is in the course of this research that he finds himself at the Poetry Center. Taylor is both an enjoyer and a writer of poetry, and hopes to, in time, become a better writer. Taylor plans to attend the Poetry Off the Page symposium in May 2012.

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