Heavenly Bodies is a recent collection of poems, and a 2012 National Book Award finalist, by Post Mills poet and Dartmouth College professor Cynthia Huntington. Much of it reckons with the repercussions and lingering effects of the upheavals of the 1960s. Huntington writes, “It is 1967 late in the empire of America / Years pass, and it is always this time / we wait listening / for the silence after things stop falling.”
Huntington’s preoccupation with that tumultuous era is echoed in the lyric material of a new book by Guilford poet Verandah Porche, Sudden Eden. Both books broach the territory of memoir, as Huntington, born in 1951, and Porche, born in 1945, narrate trajectories that include abandoning their hometowns for counterculture experiences, having affairs with ideas and comrades of the 1960s and ’70s, and eventually finding their way to present day in the Green Mountain State. Both books portray a woman’s long experience of living through — not just in — a state and a body.
In Sudden Eden, Porche’s first full-length collection since 1986, many things “keep falling.” The book, divided into five sections, reveals the breadth and variety of Porche’s life, including the tune-in, turn-on and drop-out events that prompted her move to Total Loss Farm, a commune in Vermont, in 1968. While the “falls” she describes evoke Genesis, they are also lived physical realities. In “Law of Falling Bodies,” there’s a windfall of apples: “…the Baldwins / patter among the Merinos.” “Daughter and Waterfowl” explores impediments to rising back up: “Baby weighs me down / like a gallon of milk.”
Porche also hints at love’s rises and dips in lines such as “My wrist inside your hand feels like a feather / falling from me. Your arms will not pursue / the only way to stay” (“Neighbors”). “Blue Seal” evokes sweet surrender: “Did you ever fall open / like a hundred-weight / of Blue Seal Dairy Ration?” Finally, Porche heralds the autumn season of a human life in lines such as “Leaves flap away. You / sit beside me on the sofa now that you’re old enough to” (“My Mother’s Fall”); and “That antique mare / lets her folk song hair hang down / like water over the dam.” (“Decades and Acres in Stride”).
Sudden Eden also showcases the beautiful fallout from Porche’s “alternative literary career”: She facilitates collaborative writing projects in nontraditional settings such as crisis centers, hospitals, nursing homes and factories. Her book’s penultimate section, titled “Poet in Residence,” offers readers a glimpse into her playful duet with second graders such as Jeremiah, whose words she records in “Lies About Excellence”: “The wrmth is odd / becus it is stil wintr / but I lik it. / I fel esy on myself, / rel esy on myself.”
In another poem, “September at the Home,” Porche, the last of the 10 original founders still residing at Total Loss Farm, becomes a “writing parter” for an elderly farmwife, and together they imaginatively revisit past bounties in their communally composed verse:
tomatoes from their skins easier than
children, shuck and strip cobs’ milk-
sweet, sticky silk. We tackle pickles:
bread & butter in pints, dills in brine
kept crisp with grape leaves, cool in the
crock held down by a plate and rock.
You have no idea how much we had!
she cries. Harvest holds us in place.
Both Porche and Huntington begin their volumes with their first places and people. With “In Claire de Lune: 1945” Porche relates that she was “the manufacture” of an industrious father and a musically inclined, homemaking mother, made amid “The War.”
Huntington’s Heavenly Bodies begins, with “Bastard’s Song,” which we might mistake for the poet’s own creation story. However, instead of a specific and probable mother and father, like those Porche offers, Huntington provides a funky mythology, a kind of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” The Rolling Stones’ lyric “I was raised by a toothless, bearded hag” has its counterpart in her line “my mother was a whore, a midget, a human sacrifice.”
The poem begins with a long citation from Ezekiel, and then continues with:
My mother was a Hittite and my father an Amorite.
My foster uncle was an albatross
and his brother-in-law ran a gambling joint in Altoona.
My cousins were stockbrokers in Scottsdale before the crash.
I was sold to strangers for a bag of wheat…
From this — and the next 71 pages — we may infer that Huntington’s allegiance is to emotional, not literal, truths as told by the poet’s various voices.
Despite the heavenly title, and the luscious bloom on the book’s cover, Huntington’s fourth book of poems is no bed of roses. There is a poem titled “Whole House Gone to Hell.” Another begins, “I woke in bloody sheets, the bandages undone, / the body’s dream of pain unwound.” Many pages are devoted to medications wanted, needed, acquired, ingested, detested and wanted again.
Huntington, who can tune a lyric any way she likes, has written exquisite poems, some of which turn tragedy into transcendence, as readers of her previous collection, The Radiant, are well aware. (That book won the 2003 Four Way Books Levis Poetry Prize.) But in this book, we suspect that Huntington is tired of rapture and redemption, and that her real subject is disobedience. Her poems in Heavenly Bodies resist transcendent turns just to please the reader, offering instead the body of the poem as it is, without lipstick or peignoir.
If anything on that sensual cover delivers, it’s the one-eyed snake slithering from the bloom. Scattered throughout this collection are disappointments and eloquent outrages. “Do not invite him lightly to your bed,” Huntington warns in “Coyote.” This lowdown on the male and his member continues baldly in a poem from the book’s center section: “Yes, and wasn’t it all tight pink flesh, your cock standing up so hard it nudged your navel.”
Heavenly Bodies is divided into three sections: two thematically dark ones bracket a suite of poems that stun the reader with their clarity and prowess. This middle section, titled “Shot Up in the Sexual Revolution: The True Adventures of Suzy Creamcheese,” could have earned a National Book Award nomination on its own.
This astonishing sequence, complete with endnotes and attributions for quotes, takes its name from Frank Zappa’s fictional teenager, portrayed as sexually desirable but clueless. It reads like an X-rated transcript of public radio’s “StoryCorps,” in which a now-adult daughter learns the reality of her mother’s heyday.
Here is one of the milder passages from Huntington’s virtuosic, vitriolic, gonna-give-it-to-ya-straight testimony:
The cities were burning
and the streets were more dangerous than ever
but no one would walk you home. Weren’t we
liberated? Upholding class solidarity: it was
a compliment if a man yelled at you on the street
or even grabbed your ass, and if he followed you home
and you couldn’t get rid of him, well,
that didn’t even have a name. It wasn’t rape
unless he had a gun and you fought for your life.
I only wanted to walk with my eyes up
ready to meet every gaze, wanting the streets to be mine
as they were anyone’s. But it was still a boys’ game
“The movement hangs together on the head of a penis.”
Sudden Eden and Heavenly Bodies are very distinct collections, each wrought by a unique woman in full command of her art. Yet each book concludes with the author making a truce with the parts of life that are neither of her liking nor of her design.
The final poem in Heavenly Bodies, “Cut Flowers,” is a steadfast appraisal of the way the bodies of flowers are lovely even as they wither, a fact that consoles and disturbs the poet as she watches their diminishment, and her own. Huntington’s speaker admits to “A wish that I might be, not spared, / but taken back into this / night garden, made part of something.”
Porche’s final poem also depicts a cycle coming full circle. Wisdom harvested from the orchard floor in “Law of Falling Bodies” — “Gravity draws equally on light / and heavy apples” — is resolved in the last line of “Farewell.” Here Porche suggests that the soils of final diminishment are also the origins of a sudden Eden. Her parting words: “Earth is our remaindered heart.”
The original print version of this story was headlined “Sages of Aquarius: Book reviews: Heavenly Bodies by Cynthia Huntington, Sudden Eden by Verandah Porche