What’s Hanging on the Hush
What’s Hanging on the Hush wrestles with concerns that range from race, gender and sexuality to loneliness, madness and grief, and nothing escapes questioning, least of all the position of the poet herself. With humor and slightly off-kilter introspection, these poems disrupt even their own speaking, frequently singing “I.” Collectively, they demonstrate the underlying restlessness of a subjectivity never quite at ease, like the solitary cats who meander across these pages and disappear only to turn up where they are least expected. Operating in a range of modes, from tight lyrics to sprawling, fragmented texts to language experiments, What’s Hanging on the Hush is a tightly constructed interrogation of construction itself. At its heart is an exploration of solitude and a feminist’s existential reckoning—the struggle of being/making in the world.
“Read Lauren Russell’s poem ‘If You Dream You Are Floating in a Hot Air Balloon, A Lie in Your Life Is About to Inflate’ and you will experience one of the myriad wows illuminating What’s Hanging on the Hush. Russell skips nimbly between driving phobias, Robert Johnson, Derrida and questionnaire poems. ‘I believe that solitude has many windows, and I rely on the breeze,’ she writes with an almost melancholy reverie. Every line here radiates charm and lyric complexity. This is a brilliant, absolutely engaging debut.” —Terrance Hayes
“What I especially admire about What’s Hanging on the Hush is the understated dynamism that builds sound by sound & line by line. Lauren Russell’s poems create surfaces out of need & the need for range. They’re infused with humor in the face of inordinately intense and ordinary life conditions. And they drive forward with a slantwise musical sensibility inventing itself via angular rhythms, dense and sparse spaces, and an open feel for texture that is powerfully sensitive, and rare. The poems’ under-rhythm sounds to me like it’s saying, ‘here is a life, hyper-particular, nonetheless coexisting with all other lives, there’s no single way to do this.’ A serious, fabulous work.” —Anselm Berrigan
“Lauren Russell’s What’s Hanging on the Hush brings to mind Anne Carson’s Eros: The Bittersweet because Russell’s poems, too, rely on that necessary and irreconcilable tension between ‘want’ and ‘lack’ endemic to Eros. Her approach to the poetic reorganizes the reader’s familiar relationship to text in a way approximating the core conundrum of Eros—that when we cannot have, Eros is in its fullest being. And we are not far into her beautiful book before we find some indication of this, as the very epigraph (from Murakami)—‘What I think is this: You should give up looking for lost cats and start searching for the other half of your shadow’—calls our attention to the problematic of ‘want’ by invoking Jung’s notion of the shadow, that ‘dark side’ of the self that we refuse to acknowledge. In Russell’s poems, we glimpse the shadow, and we experience Eros’s invitation, its pull, its Barthesian strip tease. ‘Once I fell in love with an absence,’ writes Russell in ‘Dream-Clung Gone,’ an anchor poem in the collection. Russell’s mastery lies in her ability to create not only the space for this enticing invitation to occur but to simultaneously offer us poems that are rendered as a sculptor might render, with such great care they feel like jewels in the mouth.” —Dawn Lundy Martin
Undertow of dive bar juke unboxed
Driving past a rust-red door unjambed
Coin-operated groove side-shimmies, unflung
A seamlessly upholstered stool’s unwound
Once I fell in love with an Absence. It outgrew the apartment and wouldn’t take off its clothes. After we moved it turned taut and slinky, hid in shadows or slid provocatively beneath my coat. Three winters now and the Absence is restless. It’s blown across the river, arrives late when it meets me for beer. The Absence is singing:
..........................................................................................................................This is the song of a dawned dance
..........................................................................................................................This is the dance of a dusk-drawn song
..........................................................................................................................This is the fall of a moaned trance
..........................................................................................................................This is the clang of a dream-clung gong
Copyright © 2017 by Lauren Russell
As I struggle to write a “complete autobiographical statement” at the urging of my editor, I am thinking about my resistance to autobiography, how much spin is involved in framing a life. When people ask me about myself, I always try to deflect the question. How much this is linked to shame.
When someone, usually a therapist, asks me what I am ashamed of, I will say, “class privilege” or “how much of my twenties I was financially dependent on my parents.” I will say, “that I dropped out of high school” or “that I went to school with the children of movie stars.” I will say, “that I didn’t go to college until I was twenty-four” or “for not knowing how to talk to people at parties.” I will say, “the time I spent in psych wards.” I will say, “for my complicity—no, my participation—in the gentrification of Brooklyn.” I will not say but may think, “of my whiteness” (invisible, but not inaudible). I will not say but may feel, “of my blackness” (visible, but frequently mistaken). I will never say “my queerness,” but I will say, “that none of my romantic relationships has lasted for even a year.”
I feel I must write this because it is true. How else can I begin to write a complete autobiographical statement? But testifying to my shame undermines the much more complicated work of the book. The book is not ashamed. A book is not its creator.
I was born in 1983 and grew up in Los Angeles in a family of lawyers, an interracial family in a bourgeois house on an integrated street, somewhere on that stretch of mid-Wilshire between Koreatown and Miracle Mile. I was a happy child, though an anxious one. I started writing poetry in second grade, when the poet Cecilia Woloch began to conduct after-school workshops at my elementary school, through California Poets in the Schools. At seventeen, I dropped out of high school due to serious depression. In pursuit of efficient public transportation, I moved to Brooklyn two years later, after a stint travelling the Southeastern states with AmeriCorps*NCCC. I was educated at bookstores, miscellaneous workshops and writing groups, strange bars, the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery, Joanna Fuhrman’s home workshops, the Individualized BA Program at Goddard College, and the MFA Writing Program at the University of Pittsburgh, where most of this book was made. I am also indebted to the Icarus Project, whose challenges to mental health paradigms inspired me to transform limitations into opportunities. I have received fellowships from the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, Cave Canem, VIDA/the Home School, and most recently, the National Endowment for the Arts. I am grateful to these fellowships and their underwriters for supporting me and my work. At the same time I am grateful, each time I have received a major fellowship, part of me has felt unworthy. After I got the call from Wisconsin, I had an anxiety attack that went on for months. I am not saying this out of some false sense of humility. I am saying it because I want someone to.
I am now a research assistant professor in English and Assistant Director of the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics at the University of Pittsburgh. I have found a home of sorts in academia, an outcome unimaginable to my seventeen-year-old self. My teaching practice has become important to my creative practice, and as we slide into an era of political repression, anti-intellectualism, and assaults against free speech, the work of higher education has become all the more urgent. But as I sit in my office in the 42-story gothic Cathedral of Learning, so clearly built to distinguish who is in from who is out, I know that universities are not sanctuaries for everyone. I was a poet with a GED long before I was a poet with an MFA, and I refuse to buy into a value system that conflates formal education with ability or literary merit.
What’s Hanging on the Hush is not a perfect book; nor does it wish to be. Rereading it after some years’ distance, I can see where it sometimes falls short of its ambitions, but that is a testament to how much it hopes to achieve—however taut or expansive, however diverse and sweeping, however incorrigible, obsessive, or utterly shameless that may be.
I was twenty-four when I first read Alice Notley’s essay “Thinking and Poetry.” It was early 2008, my first semester in the low-residency Individualized B.A. program at Goddard College. I was making a self-directed study of grief and elegy, critiquing my own practice while investigating how others had written into and through grief, which naturally brought me to Notley. She concludes the essay stating, there are “things … I must say in my poems; must not allow any convention of thought or style to keep me from saying. In the face of what must be said, does it matter if one says ‘I’ or not, if one tells a story of not, if one uses certain forms or not? Say what must be said.” I have always admired Notley for her radical honesty and feminist politics/poetics, but what I admire most is her insistence on using whatever tools the work demands. Later that semester I read Notley’s essay “American Poetic Music at the Moment,” then picked up Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, and for the first time “got” it. I began to hear language more acutely, and sound became more prominent in my work. That spring of 2008, I started writing the poem that would become “Dream-Clung, Gone,” the earliest poem in this book, where grief emerges as song.
What’s Hanging on the Hush is “about” many things and concerned with construction—construction of self, of truth, of social identities, of narrative, of language, of home, and ultimately of the book itself. Though the poems range from 2008 to 2015, the majority were written during my three years as an MFA student at the University of Pittsburgh, between 2011 and 2014. As I said in an interview later, at Pitt I had wonderful mentors “who challenged me at every turn while still affirming belief in my writing. For my three years there, I felt like I was always ripping apart and reinventing my practice, as muscles rip when we exercise in order to grow.”
In 2016 I returned to the University of Pittsburgh as a research assistant professor and Assistant Director of the new Center for African American Poetry and Poetics. At the Center, we cultivate a practice-based poetics, where creating is a way of working through questions to arrive at new ideas. That is a useful way of thinking about this book. Over the several years that went into its making, What’s Hanging on the Hush became a kind of laboratory where I worked through questions around race, gender, sexuality, loneliness, madness, and grief, and reckoned with solitude and the struggle of being/making in the world. To some degree I will always associate it with a period in my late twenties and very early thirties when these questions were paramount—not because they will ever really recede but because how I come at them continues to evolve.
I am a core introvert and feel most myself at home with my cat and my books, my quilts and my kettle and my old skipping CDs, and in the three years when I was working on this book most intensely, my solitude held a lushness that would later become brittle. But in those days I reveled in my loneness. Within it, I contained multitudes. As I wrote at my desk in the little turret apartment I now recall with a certain nostalgia, the world entered onto the page, which could host, simultaneously, H.D. and Gertrude Stein, Lady Gaga, Osama Bin Laden, deconstructionist philosopher Jacques Derrida, blues legend Robert Johnson, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and The Art of War.
What’s Hanging on the Hush insists on housing multitudes. It is a book of many borrowed and invented forms. The book’s formal variety is inextricably linked to its content and the spirit of discovery with which it was made. I recall Notley’s question, “In the face of what must be said, does it matter if one says ‘I’ or not, if one tells a story or not, if one uses certain forms or not?” Does it? In What’s Hanging on the Hush, I am interested in what must be said, but I am equally interested in how it is said and what the manner of speaking or not speaking conveys.