Green Squall

Green Squall by Jay Hopler.
Yale Series of Younger Poets
Yale University Press, 2006 (96 pages)
ISBN: 978-0300114546.

Jay Hopler’s debut Green Squall from the prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets is an invitation to enter an imaginary world grafted from Florida’s lush tropical landscapes. This world is presented in a slow-brewing squall of sensual free verse, with a tension portending of a storm that never really occurs (maybe because it occurred in the past). I use the word “imaginary” to describe Hopler’s narrative landscape because this poetry has been welded out of solitude—then channeled through a powerful, sardonic voice living in the recognizable tropics.

Enter here and enter the hothouse of an ironic mind. Hopler’s irony is not the ironic apathy celebrated all too often these days; rather it is the intentional use of rhetoric that bends, but does not break, with offering sincere expression. Irony here is the difficulty of diving into the wreck, the necessity of approaching things slant, that useful tool which Rilke calls irony in Letters to a Young Poet. Its voice here is clever, humorous, and often self-depreciating. When Hopler resurfaces to the blank page he writes through irony’s self-protecting armor. The poetic voice laughs with an irony of having been changed by the dive and discovery. Occasionally Hopler’s irony thwarts communication. If Hopler needs to do anything for his second book, it is to dive deeper and come back risking more plain speech. With Green Squall, Hopler has written a powerfully inventive and atmospheric debut.

The opening poem “In the Garden” displays this book’s concise, imagistic poetry. The poem traces human consciousness as consciousness interacts with the world. I quote in full:

          And the sky!
Nooned with steadfast blue enthusiasm
Of an empty nursery.

Crooked lizards grassed in the yellow shade.

The grass was lizarding,
Green and on a rampage.

Shade tenacious in the crook of a bent stem.

Noon. This noon—
Skyed, blue and full of hum, full of bloom.
The grass was lizarding.
The technique here bends everyday words and phrases to jar readers into seeing the usual anew. It distinguishes itself through its careful interplay of sound, punctuation, and vocabulary. In the first stanza, notice how quickly the enthusiasm of the first line slides to the deeper, more somber tone of “[n]ooned” in line two. This signals a turning toward darker emotions. This tone expands in line three. It enters a strange image for the sky of an “empty nursery.” The “steadfast blue enthusiasm” in line two also has the odd effect of a forced smile, especially as it turns sour in line three. The earnestness of “steadfast” does not quite marry with the spontaneous passion of “enthusiasm.” Does this “empty nursery” represent the poet looking into nature’s empty cradle of possibility for sustenance—as a Romantic poet would do—but finding nothing? Hopler is a Romantic poet in his love of nature, and how he bends language to describe nature reveals his attentive enthusiasm. Yet unlike his Romantic forbearers, this poet cannot find in nature what will suffice.

Nature may console this poet temporarily, and in the first line the poem exclaims “And the sky!” However, it does not console for long. In the end, the first three lines (as well as much of the work in this book) show the movement of the poet’s consciousness. The poet’s comparison of the sky here to “steadfast enthusiasm” and then to an “empty nursery” reveal just as much about his mindset as about the world. In this way Hopler harkens back to the more complex confessional work of Sylvia Plath’s Ariel and Robert Lowell’s poem “The Drinkers,” where the voice is what in drama is called an unreliable narrator, and the writing possesses dramatic irony. This is quite different work than the more straightforward sympathy-pianos of an Ann Sexton or Sharon Olds.

To borrow a term from art history, “In the Garden” is an impressionist poem; it records the world as processed through a poet’s consciousness. The poet finds experience of nature intense, we can see, in the language: The shade beneath a bent stem is “tenacious.” The grass baking in the sun is “lizarding.” This lizarding is too intense for the poet, and so it is “[g]reen and on a rampage.” Hopler uses very concise imagery, repetition, elision of sentence parts, grammatical transformation of nouns into verbs and visa-versa, and sentence fragments in over fifty percent of the lines above to make this experience come alive for the reader. Importantly, this new language does not travel beyond the edge of expression where language no longer refers to common experience. His skill is evident in a close look at the phrase: “And the sky!” Here we have an exclamation, which is more interesting for its incompleteness, and indented to give the reader some sort of surprise, however miniscule; the line furthermore uses “And” to point offstage before the poem has started to an unknown narrative; lastly it uses an exclamation mark at the end to increase the first line’s vocal basis. This well-crafted, simple phrase works well.

The poem’s sonic tapestry also can be seen in the closing strophe, and this intricate work seen here is typical throughout this book. The poem’s final strophe begins with the low-toned “Noon. This noon—,” only to move to the second line with a high-pitched “Skyed.” Now a tone of enthusiasm is introduced as contrast. Then the second line offers a sensual onomatopoeia for the poet’s experience of noon through a blend of “o” and “u” sounds. It reads: “Skyed, blue and full of hum, full of bloom.” Lastly, the strophe ends with the sensual slithering of the experience of heat sonically represented with “s,” “z,” “I,” and a flat nasal “a” sound, and says: “The grass was lizarding.” The poet captures my attention at least with his creative language and carefully chosen and pruned images and sounds.

Hopler’s poems indicate that they speak autobiographically, but this poet “wears the mask.” The theatrical mask presents on its surface side an ironic, self-mocking drama. On the interior personal side, one finds that solitary silence that Robert Lowell described as a “Sahara of snow now” in the poem “For the Union Dead.” Wallace Stevens in the poem “Metaphors of a Magnifico” describes “twenty men crossing a bridge” in repeated variations—almost to say that facts change with the viewpoint of the gazer. Likewise Stevens himself may be the magician-like “Magnifico” of his own poem, creating magnificent images and sounds. From this latter perspective, it is the poet who creates wonderful imaginary worlds—like a magic spell—that possess both truth and fiction. Hopler takes this latter approach to writing autobiography. Furthermore, the sensual visual work of Green Squall harkens back to the short poems of Wallace Stevens and maybe also to the imaginary visionscapes of Charles Simic. Such magic demands massive skill. Hopler has it. Though compared to Stevens and Simic, Hopler remains a more personal lyricist and equally, self-depreciating comedian. Green Squall is like entering the balmy eye of a storm: The eye is captivating and foreign; the poems allude to a surrounding storm.

The first section of the three-part Green Squall longs for release. This poet’s intense experience of nature may be one reason the poems of the first section embrace solitude. At the same time, the poems point to the idea of living in an innately fallen world, one that teases with its sensual eroticism. In one poem in the first section, the poet looks at a baby picture of himself on the beach and notes behind: “The tide is coming in—. Someone has written HELL / On its last standing wall.” In another, the poet worries about his “grief-crazed mother” as she tends her dying husband, which could be the book’s only image of love—if that is what the image depicts. The poet frets that his mother may, “like Prosperine,” soon divide her time between “the living and the world of dead.” One poem criticizes Wallace Stevens, because Hopler finds that the light of Florida “in a Stevens poem” is not described with the aggressive snaking penetration he himself experiences while living there. Maybe the difference between Hopler’s and Stevens’ depictions of Florida light is one of temperament. Or maybe, as Hopler argues, Stevens only vacationed in a tropics Hopler finds both sensuous and monstrous. Nevertheless in a Hopler poem called “Approaching the Tower,” the opening line yells: “Light! Light! Light!”

This book finds some fulfillment of (rather than escape from) longing in the third closing section through lustful relationships. But the poet rightfully is wary of lust as a means to fulfill deep longings. He smartly does not confuse lust with love. This poet also is weary of the transport of nature, which so overwhelms him in poems like “The Wildflower Field.” Such moments of the sublime, he notes in “Meditation on Beethoven: Symphony 9,” cannot change his day-to-day life. In the long poem of the book’s middle section, “Of Hunger and Human Freedom,” the poet finds restless desire at the core of the world’s ravenous energy. The poet here often seems a man in-between. In “Out of These Wounds, The Moon Will Rise,” he writes of a relationship:

. . . .I’d like a new

Way of experiencing the world, a way of taking
Into myself the single shining light at the center

Of all things without losing the dense, eccentric
Planets orbiting around it.
What you’d like is a more

Attentive lover I suppose—. Too bad. . . .
In the third section of Green Squall, the poet listens to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and on some level feels resentful that Beethoven is booming-forth grandiose emotional and musical gestures concerning the existence of a higher power. In contrast, the poet sees his own life as so much daily humdrum. In the third section of the book, Hopler finds sexual desire more invigorating than the stunned emptiness of the book’s first section. But desire is not necessarily redemptive (in fact for Hopler it is dangerous). For this modern Romantic, neither Wordsworth’s nature nor Bronte’s Wuthering Heights-like passion is even escape, let alone salvation. In “Meditation on Beethoven: Symphony 9” the poet hears the music, but finds that this music is “[a]nother day of hair in my food.” I quote in full:

Another day of hair in my food.
Another day of being cheated, overlooked.

Another day of nausea.
I play Beethoven: Symphony 9.

The violin simmers for an instant,
And the cello simmers for an instant,
And the timpani,
The timpani comes crashing.

The sound says I am the hand of God.
The sound says I am the fist of God come crashing.

I recline,
No stranger to violence.

I survey my field of spiders,
My field of moths, my field of daffodils.
I spread my arms
As though over a great army.

Where is this God I’ve heard so much
On one level the poem presents the problem of the individual who cannot embrace faith, yet whose intense experiences of nature do not let him dismiss it. The embracing of this “great army” of “moths,” “daffodils,” and “spiders” is comic, maybe even painfully so. It shows both Hopler’s abiding connection to nature and his solitude. In this poem, the daffodils likely allude to William Wordsworth’s famous daffodils, which so delighted that poet. The “spiders” may allude to Walt Whitman’s “noiseless patient spider,” where Whitman found the solitude of the spider—and its endless reaching out to find community and faith—intertwined. This poem is not dismissive, but certainly agnostic. It is serious and comic. When it ends, the question-mark points to the silence after the music. While dismissive, at the same time this poem returns, I think, to longing.

On a technical level, Hopler here uses line breaks mostly to emphasize voice. This is in contrast to the image-isolating line-breaks of book’s opening “In the Garden.” This later poem uses repetition, as in that earlier poem, though in this case for anaphora at the beginning of lines (“Another,” “The sound,” “I survey”). The poem also repeats phrases with slight variations to create rhythmic echo in stanzas one, three, four, and six. This technique is borrowed from song; it appears in a number of poems in the book. In the end, I think this poem powers through brief lines like “I recline”—which could ruin other poems—because this poem is so filled with energy and a desire to communicate. Hopler is a romantic poet, full of emotion—but in contrast to the religious Beethoven—his poem embraces a diminished, even comical romanticism of spiders, daffodils, and moths. Maybe its redeeming quality, the hopefulness I find in it, is the poem’s desire to be alive, its vigor of experience, and desire to question and search.

Green Squall is a book casting out its thread, casting and casting not so much to record experience, as to play with it. The play intertwines and sometimes masks its search for sustenance. Green Squall is a powerfully evocative book, comic enough to be truly entertaining, while the comedy also acts as an ironic chaser for the book’s sadness, sensuality, and searching. Surface textures and imaginary landscapes here are dazzling. I hope Hopler’s next book will move more completely into his poetry’s roots, and into new ranges. I bet his next book will offer just as much fun.

Gregg Mosson is the author of a book of nature poetry, Season of Flowers and Dust (Goose River Press, 2007), and editor of journal Poems Against War, including the most recent Poems Against War: Ars Poetica (Wasteland Press). He has an MA from the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, and lives and works in Baltimore, Maryland. His commentary has appeared in The Cincinnati Review, The Baltimore Review, The Baltimore Sun, and previously with the Boxcar Poetry Review. Visit him at

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