The Barnard New Women Poets Prize was awarded to this first collection of enormously imaginative poems written by the winner of a recent fellowship from the Fine Arts Work Center and a grant from the Colorado Council on the Arts. From the deceptively simple title (musca domestica is Latin for housefly) to the poems focusing on such philosophically sophisticated subjects as the meaning of meaning, everyday life is presented as we rarely consider it—skewed and in language and syntax designed to please linguists more than ordinary readers. Hume’s titles intrigue: “Lies Concerning Speed,” “Map Drawn from Memory by My Brother,” “Total Things Known about Motion,” “A Million Futures of Late.” At the same time, the poems themselves are puzzles, the best of them in the simultaneous spirits of Wallace Stevens and E.E. Cummings (“Didn’t you see it sky the sum?”), the least simply confusing, as if the speaker were caught in a world in which all images were surreal (“I shuffle layers of pulp / feathering gossip”) and most syntax was arranged as if to duplicate that of a foreign tongue. Some poems contain striking, meaningful ideas or images (“Because the unadorned always subject the adorned to their proofs”; “from a rock jetty / five monks ease their hems / into the river”), but a reader must wade through too much weedy language to reach these few brilliances. In one of the collection’s most successful poems, “Articulate Initials,” Hume fantasizes actual lives within the illustrations surrounding illuminated letters. Here her description remains singularly focused, with the fine result that she reaches unexpected but earned epiphanic conclusions. Too many poems in the book offer only dispersed images and so many of them per poem that any luminosity is diluted.
An ambitious collection that fails more often than it shines.