Art is long; life is short. If lyric poets, from Sappho to – well, to Sam Hunt – have one theme in common, it’s surely this. Poems outlive their subjects: “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,/So long lives this, and this gives life to thee,” says Shakespeare. Sam Hunt’s great subject is Sam Hunt, and the poems in his latest collection, Chords, can be seen as memos to the future, “in seventy years, say,/when I’m well up in heaven”.
This poem, the first in a numbered sequence of 45 that kicks off Chords, lightly evokes the way a few details become, in their retelling, a story: “I was carrying up the stairs/a knife in a sheath,/a bottle of wine and two logs.” As a reader, I want to invest these items with significance (why the knife?), but it’s their very lack of significance – their quotidian quiddity, no less – that makes them so appealing. “Just thought I’d make a note of it,” the speaker – let’s call him Sam – says.
Again, why? Because one day “a grandkid could be asking – again – /what was he carrying?” And thanks to the poem, we can answer that pesky kid, with “the tale” that has accreted around these objects.
Anyone who has ever heard Hunt perform his work – which must be most of us – remembers The Voice, which, for all its bardic splendour, sometimes does his poems a disservice. Here, I’m reminded again and again of the subtlety of his touch, the deftness and economy of his language, the unobtrusive craft.
Lyric poems are lyric because in ancient times they were recited to the accompaniment of a lyre. Hunt calls the poems in Part I “Chords”, and it’s as music that they immediately engage the reader: sound first, meaning after. But the meaning is there, too, in the tune, which is increasingly a kind of whistling as evening comes on. Life is, among other things, an accumulation of losses, and these poems memorialise these losses, but with an insouciance that lifts rather than depresses the spirit. In Part II, the poems are more various – perhaps more miscellaneous – but the song remains the same. In Death Notices, the poet observes that “it more than notices – /it scrutinizes”. It does! But he can still make a pun out of it. The burden of that scrutiny is a little lighter.
CHORDS & OTHER POEMS, by Sam Hunt (Craig Potton, $29.99); Hunt is not taking part in this year’s National Poetry Day, but plenty of other poets are in events up and down the country on July 22. See www.booksellers.co.nz for details.
Tim Upperton is author of the poetry collection A House on Fire.