Underground Singing, by Harry Humes

Underground Singing cover

I would’ve liked to read this book to my grandfather, the one born in a coal patch town a few miles from where Harry Humes grew up. He too struggled to find the proper names for the things in his memory which he knew as well as he knew anything, like the “long-legged bird … dark blue with a drift of feathers hanging from its neck” that landed for a moment beside the coal slurry pond, while the coal miners’ children “went on putting our ears to the slush, but had no name for what we thought we heard.” When I met Humes at a reading ten years ago, I was shocked by how much he resembled my great uncle, Pop-pop’s younger brother, especially around the mouth. Maybe there’s something to the Eastern Pennsylvania way of expressing oneself that shapes the face, the easy laughter and self-deprecating manner concealing hard truths.

Though his family left The Coal for Pottstown when he was a boy, Pop-pop loved poetry all his life, and his imagination had no trouble filling in gaps in his knowledge, most notably in the genealogy that preoccupied him in his later years. He would’ve chuckled, I think, at the story of Harry’s father telling the future by reading pigeon bones, or the three circus elephants dancing to polka music that prompted the narrator to think of “the old Polish women … of Ash Alley/ and Raven Run” dancing at wedding receptions, “suddenly girls again.” He certainly would’ve understood the impulse to return for a class reunion like the one in the book, where the Master of Ceremonies’ genial, unsettling question — “How do you like all this?” — ripples outward through the other poems. Did any of Pop-pop’s Mahanoy City aunts favor blue flowers as houseplants, as Harry’s mother did, and if so, would he have remembered what they were called? I wonder if he would’ve agreed with the sound of coughing as the one sharp memory from that time and place.

I daresay he would’ve recognized something deeply Pennsylvanian in Humes’ combination of plainspokenness and circumspection, in his avoidance of the melodramatic. I remember asking Humes after that reading ten years ago whether he had written anything about Centralia, the town that famously had to be abandoned because of the slow fire burning in the mine beneath it. “Nope. Too obvious,” he said. I know of at least five poets who evidently thought otherwise, including W. S. Merwin. Merwin had to move to Hawaii before he found his true voice, though, while Humes stayed close to home, as Pennsylvanians so often do, and sharpened his hearing.

Humes’ poetry may avoid the most obvious ploys, but that doesn’t mean it lacks in emotional impact. It just means that it’s impossible to predict at which point in a book of his poems I’ll find a lump forming in my throat or my eyes growing damp; it might be a different place each time. And as he suggests in “The River of Eyes,” even such an innocuous thing as moist eyes can be a portent of death, “the eye that it in a year would be gone,/ and in another year my sister gone after great pain” — unlike the indelible scar on his left knee from a fall on a coal bank as a child, “pale blue/ and unblinking after all those years … an oracle of sorts, always sighing or weeping…” (There are so many blues in this book, both of the literal and figurative kind. Kudos to Ron Mohring for designing the perfect cover.)

Memories are always a bit uncertain, but what about our perceptions of the present? Are the trees in heavy winds really as full as they seem of “floor creak,/ and water splashing a sink, plate rattle, hymns”? What about a dead father’s voice in an old trunk full of his things, or the “Underground Singing” of the title poem, the miners’ songs that seem to permeate the world above? The same man who reads pigeon bones carries a special lamp into the mine “to check for gas,/ the flame inside the glass turning color/ at the least trace” — and emerges from the darkness giddy after such a scrying, “almost dancing” home.

These poems are set in a time a couple decades more recent than my Pop-pop’s childhood, but I’m sure he would’ve appreciated the numerous references to a well-loved natural world, a familiarity borne of a boyhood spent largely out-of-doors. If he were still alive, I’d ask him if he remembers people keeping homing pigeons, “direction imprinted on each feather/ and pulse of blood and muscle.” As a life-long gardener, I’m sure he’d understand the impulse to plant trees behind the house, “a little like boats/ moored to the hillside,/ at any moment ready to take us.” I can picture him climbing a steep slope through laurel and huckleberry to descend into a hidden ravine with an abandoned mine tunnel, a secret place all his own, and before leaving it for the final time, maybe even “eating/ a little dirt so [he] would never forget.”

This is a book of mysteries, set in a place with a mythic yet all-too-real underworld that swallows men alive and re-creates itself in the tunnels of their lungs. It would be easy to focus just on that darkness, I’m sure, and neglect the singing. And Humes writes as often of the nearer dark in his family’s dirt cellar, not to mention the hills and rivers beyond. Perhaps the greatest mystery of the book is how a mere 17 poems, so full of hesitations and uncertainties, can conjure up so a complete a world.

(I’m reading a book a day for National Poetry Month, with a special focus on Seven Kitchens Press, a Pennsylvania-based publisher of limited-edition chapbooks. Click on the book cover to go to its page in Open Library.)

2 Replies to “Underground Singing, by Harry Humes”

  1. What a wonderful response. The best books do take us somewhere else but also lead us back to ourselves. I think I may have to go pay a visit to Seven Kitchens’ site.

    1. You won’t regret ordering this one — it’s as satisfying as any of Humes’ full-length books, and a good introduction to his work.

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