Down Where the Hummingbird Goes to Die
by Justin Hyde
Tainted Coffee Press, 2008
Down Where the Hummingbird Goes to Die is a fine title for a fine-looking 58-page book. There is a striking painting by Andrew Lander on the back cover that captures the sense of the poems well. It’s an image of a tiger, startled and rearing back at the close flapping of a green bird. That picture alone is worth the cover price, available for $6 from Tainted Coffee Press at www.zygoteinmycoffee.com. The picture is like the poems written by Justin Hyde inside the book: they are tough, fierce, narrative things like a tiger, but offset by something smaller, quicker, and more sensitive.
It's clear that Hyde takes Bukowski as a starting point. This always seems like a bad idea. The cantankerous old master is stigmatized from being copied by so many other young-dude poets that it's difficult to read their work with an open mind. Justin Hyde, too, is of this ilk; he's a thirty-year-old blue collar guy who loves his cups and boasts about it. In most of the poems, though, he manages to transcend the unfortunate milieu, and with good-guy sensibility and junk wisdom approaches something closer to what Bukowski managed with grace.
There are two paths to a poem that works; one is good ideas and the other is good language and it's best when the paths join up. Hyde shoots for the former, and there aren't many surprises that come from his pen, good or bad. He writes fluently in the plain language of the working class. Sometimes its harsh—women he calls bitches and Bukowski he calls an asshole in "fuck Nietzsche"—and sometimes there's a beautiful meter, like "i knifed him/with all my/hurt turned hate" (from "twenty-eight years old and five days sober") (so, um, does that mean every other day in 28 years was spent drunk?).
Hyde works for ideas when he writes. Many of them he pulls down from his messed up elders, like in "my first deer season," a poem that will horrify animal rights activists: after a group of men come back having killed twelve more deer than they had tags for, they burn them in a heaping pile. The poet's grandfather squeezes his shoulder and tells him "men did whatever/they could get away with/when no one was/watching." The poet knows this "since dad’s friend/did what he did/to my little/sister." Wrench. And in "my mother in law" Hyde’s wife's grandfather teaches "women need a/knife in their gut/to make them whole." It's clear that the man is speaking metaphorically to illustrate that women need to feel spurned, but it isn't clear if Hyde is writing about it to advance the point or describe his world.
This confusion isn’t mitigated by the uncharacteristically capitalized poem, "I Stole My Wife’s Smile." Instead, the piece indicates that it isn't even clear what Hyde thinks about his wife. One day he tried to kill himself, and she found him. Now there is a disconnect: "It comes back to that/so many times/why would I not leave a note/if she was my one true/love?" In "a drunkard feeds his son bananas from a jar" he says he could leave her. In "in laws over for dinner" he hates dining with his wife's family but finding relief in his sister-in-law’s low-cut tank top, he leaves to masturbate in the bathroom. In "steinbeck at the river" he calls his wife "mundanely sane" and notes that all she wants it to get the bills paid while he's drinking forties in the basement and "wishing to hell/i’d of stayed/to myself."
The poet has his flaws, and if there is an argument to be made through all of his Henry Miller baseness and Hank Chinaski misanthropy, it's that this is human experience, too. And in spite of it all, Justin Hyde comes out of the book seeming like a pretty decent guy. In the first poem, "at the wet shelter in dubuque iowa," a drunk man tries "to crawl/into my bed,/bawling shamelessly,/calling me kathy and/apologizing/for something." Hyde tucks the man into his own bunk. With kindness he humors his wife's grandfather’s delusions, allows him to call him Jason, and shoos away the specters that haunt him. He tells a hitchhiker she needn't give him a handjob. He exposes himself to hepatitis C to help a crippled woman. He's hospitable to a kid who’s parents are fighting.
Hyde lays out his justification in "what have you done in the real world," when he contrasts himself to his wife:
she thinks there is a purpose
to this mindless suffering
we pass off as life,
whereas I take the thing straight on
no bullet proof vest
down where the hummingbird goes to die
grown men huddle in the corner
talk to their hands
figure things straight.
This is capped with the book's last lines, when he wonders with great pith "if the fresher hell/is being saddled with the desire for money/or flattened as i am/by the numbness/of wanting nothing." Hyde balances his hardness with sensitivity, making Down Where the Hummingbird Goes to Die a skillfully rounded book. I finished reading it this last time on the stoop of my house, when a down-and-out, mustachioed bum walked past me and said, "Enjoy it while you can." I handed him the book and felt good about literature's ability to help people.—Adam Robinson
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