There are many ways language can be broken down. Some poets choose to slice and slaughter, neatly debriding and deboning, turning metaphors into meat. Others prefer to dissolve aggressively, as if by acid, or gradually, through a more subtle yet inexorable process of lyric decomposition.
With The Small Nouns Crying Faith, Phil Hall chooses a more sensual and intimate approach to demolishing language: he eats his words. Hall, whose book of poetic essays, Killdeer, won a Governor General’s Literary Award and the Trillium Book Award, is less glib and more vulnerable in his latest collection. He may self-consciously ask, “why do I still write shitty little poems like this,” but it is exactly this insecurity, closeness, and hunger that make the collection exceptional.
Though he laments he has “no lip to give,” each word he deploys has a carefully considered flavour and texture. The reader is suddenly, even abjectly, aware of the muscular power and dexterity of lips and tongue around lines like “those dolphins / goggle-eyed / elbow-blue … horn-snorts / this / dithyrambic slather.” Elsewhere, words are held in the mouth until they dissolve like sugar candy – “the floor / the flour / le fleur” – tracking the slow and lovely melting of language into liquid.
Where Hall succeeds most avidly is when this approach becomes more violent, the words sliced by canines and ground beneath molars. There is a snarling ravenousness that glints like bared teeth in lines like “a fake forced innocence / atrociousness pinched silly / as if awareness were twee.” Words are considered for their sharpness and weight, in the manner of utensils or teeth themselves: “Tenebrous / virid / spear.”
Like any good meal, this text is not only about the pleasure of devouring, but also of digestion. As the reader absorbs Hall’s words, the words also transform the reader. Syntax folds into itself, and is transfigured: “hallucinatory / Hall loose in a story.” As the language becomes softer, more fluid, less sure of its shape, and closer to visual representation – such as in the last piece, wherein finches become “his black hover-gold / flit near” and “her tawny-veneer / whirr-by” as they “seep-seep / blurtip”) – they also become more immediate, vital, and shiveringly alive.