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Quick Lit Review: 'Hexagrams' by Anna Blackmer

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Hexagrams by Anna Blackmer, Fomite Press, 154 pages. $15.
  • Hexagrams by Anna Blackmer, Fomite Press, 154 pages. $15.

In his introduction to the Richard Wilhelm and Cary Baynes translation of the I Ching, psychologist Carl Jung wrote, "Even to the most biased eye, it is obvious that this book represents one long admonition to careful scrutiny of one's own character, attitude, and motives." For Essex Junction poet Anna Blackmer, that scrutiny has taken the form of Hexagrams, a collection of poems based on the 64 hexagrams of the I Ching that forms an impressionistic, opaque memoir.

The I Ching is an ancient Chinese divination tool that, like tarot cards and tea leaves, generates meaning out of apparent randomness — in this case, the outcome of a three-coin toss, which determines the configuration of six stacked lines. Each of the 64 possible line arrangements, or hexagrams, corresponds to a particular reading that, ostensibly, addresses the question at the top of the coin tosser's mind.

In the Wilhelm and Baynes edition — whose introduction by Jung lends it the most street cred of any Western translation — these interpretations contain such inscrutable Germanic gems as: "Thus the superior man receives people by virtue of emptiness. The superior man is compared to the mountain, the people to the lake. The relation is formed through the initiative of the mountain, the superior man."

Blackmer composed Hexagrams in response to the Wilhelm and Baynes translation, using the 64 hexagrams as an organizing principle. Each chapter consists of a six-line stanza and its mirror twin, the inverse of its original — a mimesis of the bottom-to-top direction in which the I Ching's hexagrams are meant to be read.

Blackmer, a California native, moved to Vermont after dropping out of the University of California, Berkeley in 1972. Eventually, she completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Vermont and earned an MFA in poetry from Goddard College, where she studied under Stephen Dobyns, Faye Kicknosway and Barbara Greenberg. For a time, she wrote arts reviews for the local altweekly Vermont Vanguard Press and owned a used bookstore. Most recently, she taught writing, literature and feminist studies at Burlington College, until it closed in 2016.

Hexagrams, published by Burlington-based Fomite Press, is Blackmer's first book. Part autobiography, part homage, her poetry, like the I Ching, doesn't describe situations so much as juice them for metaphysical content. In "Limitation," Blackmer writes from a vantage point that feels both apocryphal and specific: "There's more water in the sky than in the lake. / More money in heaven than in the bank. / You sat in the booth drinking rum and looked at me / without measuring from here to there. / I was laughing like a fool — well, wasn't I a free spirit? / Hadn't I learned what looking and looking could do?"

The "you" to whom Blackmer refers never coalesces into a recognizable character, nor does the consciousness narrating her poems assume a stable form. She often shifts pronouns in the mirror poems, which begin with the last line of the original and end with the first, creating a parallel universe of sorts: "I" becomes "we," "their" becomes "our." It's frequently unclear who, or what, she's talking about, which creates a strange intimacy: Are we supposed to understand the symbolic vernacular of her brain? Does it matter if we don't?

Blackmer's language has a sibylline randomness, which makes everything she writes seem dreadful, important or both. One of the more delightful examples of this tendency occurs in the first line of "Modesty." Here, she writes: "The hooligans limited themselves to three kinds of squash." Has there ever been a more tantalizing portrait of hooligan self-restraint? To which varieties of squash did they limit themselves, and why only three?

Of course, examining those particulars would break the spell. Like the head-exploding insights into the human condition you might scribble on a napkin while stoned at 3 a.m., Blackmer's verse makes the most sense from just outside your skull.

But the real power of her work lies in the way it confronts its own reflection. By turning her poems literally upside down, she exposes the tenuous relationship between language and meaning — and how, with a heads-or-tails flip, everything could suddenly get weird.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Quick Lit: Heads or Tails"