Greenhouses, Lighthouses, by Tung-Hui Hu. Copper Canyon Press, 2013.
Reviewed by Shannon K. Winston
Tung-Hui Hu’s Greenhouses, Lighthouses deftly explores the intersections of worlds: the visible and invisible, text and image, land and sea. The collection begins and ends with history: with the story of the violinmaker, Henry Whiteside, who built the Smalls Lighthouse in Wales in 1772. This section, “Invisible Green,” thematizes different architectures and what it means to shape things (from a violin, to a lighthouse, to a clock) in the world. Yet, far from imposing these connections, Hu’s fine, lyrical style gestures more than it points; his poems probe the convergences of history, intimate reflections, and Whiteside himself whose story exists “at the center” where “the world comes to him, wrecks/ itself on his shores” (4). Moving in concentric circles, the collection traces different geographies, both literal and metaphorical; from the universe’s soil, to images of maps, to “the busiest ports of the transatlantic trade” (6). The poems have remarkable through lines, figured here as actual trade routes, which build off of and echo one another in a series of palinodes.
Vision permeates Greenhouses, Lighthouses, which also explores degrees seeing and the limits of sight. Its poems examine forms of transparency, including glass ceilings and windows. In describing a photograph in “Exposure,” for example, the speaker’s eye catches “the translucent deposits that cast/ shadows as they pass through the eye’s vitreous humor” (5). This line is characteristic of Hu’s attention to detail as he explores not only what is seen, but also how objects are seen. Several of his poems allude to visual technologies such as the camera and the telescope to highlight the act of seeing as always relational and ever shifting. No detail is too small, as the poem’s speaker explores the liminal space between blinks, for “there is not enough darkness between eye blinks to separate out/the park from its memory” (9). It is in the negative space of the blink, or “in the occasional spark of the body/lunching against body in the dark” (19) that meaning emerges.
Degrees of separation and interconnections are thus also central to this collection. In “Cosmos Revealed Behind a Dense Curtain of Poppies,” for example, the speaker begins by asserting: “And each planet has an equivalent/star in the sky” (15). The poem, however, is re-grounded in the human body, only to be related back to the sky when the speaker addresses the addressee: “your insides/dyed alizarin of planet Mars to help/find each other in the dark” (15). From sky to land, and back again, this poem shifts registers in order to capture the connections between the material world, our inner being, and the histories they carry. It is from this poem that the collection’s title “lighthouses, greenhouses” emerges (ibid). One signifying maritime life and the other botany, these two constructions frame the collection’s investment in different ways of knowing, seeing, and being in the world with others and in our bodies.
Like compasses, bodies “smelling /sweet-sour” (57) radiate and redirect meaning. Not unlike Whiteside, they constitute a center in many of Hu’s poems and become the site of layered meanings, so that, for example, in “Years of Following People,” the speaker conjectures:
Perhaps the explorers
in Antarctica who followed the Scots to their deaths
looked at the emptiness of south
and their bodies turned to compasses,
legs bending south into south. (17)
The word “perhaps” here is key; it captures Hu’s flexibility in exploring the hypothetical and in taking risks with every poem. Suggestive rather than declarative, it also reveals his desire to understand poetry as a form of discovery, convergence, and rediscovery. Hu’s poems are unfoldings, processes of mapping and remapping that are always open to revision, reinterpretation, and re-envisioning. In this re-envisioning, Hu draws on many allusions and intertextual references; from film to photography, and from union slogans to Levinas, Hu’s ability to draw on vastly differently materials is not just impressive, it is rare. Rather than obstructing Hu’s own poetic voice, these materials allow him to limn comparisons, and engage different registers. In so doing, his voice shines through.
Greenhouses, Lighthouses is Hu’s third book of poetry. He is also the author of The Book of Motion (2003) and Mine (2007). He is an assistant professor of English at the University of Michigan where he specializes in poetry and media studies.