On the first reading of Maria Hummel’s “The Unicorn,” it’s as if a beleaguered workshop instructor has said, “All right, you want to write a poem about unicorns, here’s how to do it.” The poem practically embraces some sentimental tropes of bad poetry: a mortally wounded fantastical animal (mermaid, hippogriff); bedside vigil for a sick child; dialogue clearly directed to be shouted; grim, murmuring bystanders with dire prognoses. Here indeed in Hummel’s poem are all the exaggerated and completely implausible materials of a nightmare that hardly ever translate into a good poem, except for here. And why is that? Because it is able to simultaneously satirize and sanctify those tropes while drumming up real pathos. And how about the how?
I’m reminded of Bruce Bond’s commentary in this very blog on Jessica Piazza’s “Strict Traffic,” another fine prose poem in this issue, when I read Maria Hummel’s “Unicorn.” As Bond suggests, prose poems offer the best of both worlds, speech and music, “walking and dancing,” informality and high formal feeling. In “The Unicorn” we find the demotic and the demonic as well, but in a slightly different way than a mix of casual innuendo and intense connection.
If not the direct aesthetic heir of the prose poems of Russell Edson, or something like Charles Simic’s The World Doesn’t End, or even the deadpan gothics of Stephen Dobyns’ Cemetery Nights, “The Unicorn” nonetheless shares their willingness to play out a narrative strand to its fantastical if not logical conclusion. But whereas Dobyns’ dark fables often begin with a quotidian, almost hackneyed premise—a man comes home to find his wife in bed with the milkman—and builds to more outlandish denouements, such as a dog being shot for the sins of the adulterous couple, Hummel’s poem begins with an outlandish premise and brings us down to what should be an unforgivable resolution, that a unicorn will be sacrificed so that an evidently terminally ill child may live.
It has all the hallmarks of good fiction—the introduction of a foreign element into the status quo, which creates conflict and struggle; good pace; the realistic detail (“horn scraped the paint on the wall”) inside of an unrealistic premise; summarized dialogue (lost), which itself heightens the tension toward a climax. These prosaic elements, in fact, more than the surreal, are the poem’s strengths.
I’m even more fond of the poem’s borrowings more broadly from prose, and not just in the sense that the language is “straightforward.” I don’t mean merely poetry that is primarily narrative, either. What I mean is that the willingness to say the ordinary within more nearly lyric poetry is laudable, the rhetoric of prose amid the lyric impulse, the essayistic aside or rumination, a quick characterization, an unapologetic run of 3 or 4 lines dedicated only to setting a quick scene. I think of B.H. Fairchild’s long narratives, loose, blank verse fictions and lyric meditations that are luminous for this very reason, that they transform the ordinary detail and also have the tremendously effective impact of voice, of a human voice assembling the wreckage of memory and experience. Here Hummel has taken a jeweler’s approach to story, but still I’m attracted to its use of prosaic gestures to make something compressively poetic.
Paul Bone is the author of Momentary Vision of the Assistant Meteorologist (Uccelli, 2005) and Nostalgia for Sacrifice (David Robert Books, forthcoming). He is chair of Creative Writing at the University of Evansville and co-editor of Measure. His poem, “Moment of Dante,” appears with Maria Hummel’s “The Unicorn” in 32 Poems 10.1.