As those familiar with his poetry may expect, T.R. Hummer’s participation in the Kenyon Review Reading Series was somber and introspective. The green-shirted poet was quiet as he prepared to share his work the morning of Saturday, Oct. 20 in Cheever Room. It was Family Weekend, and as a result, the audience seemed to primarily be made up of students and their family members.
Before reading any of his poems, Hummer prefaced his work with a slightly gloomy statement: “In my lifetime,” he said, “the poetry world has grown increasingly smaller.” Although he went on to speak positively about how essential Kenyon’s engagement is to the shrinking poetic world, the specter of his previous statement continued to inhabit the room.
Hummer read primarily from his most recent book of poetry, After The Afterlife, published in January 2018, and began with a poem that had appeared in the Kenyon Review, “Prehistoric.” The poem reflected Hummer’s perception of a shrinking world, one with both too many and too few words.
“Of the time before I could speak, I cannot speak,” Hummer read from the poem. “I was prehistoric, doing the dinosaur lurch / Across my crib. The world was there, worlding away, / and I was in it, being worlded.”
Hummer’s words seemed to take an emotional hold on the audience. The last line of “Prehistoric” — “Vacant, fertile, pure, and flowing forward, speechless with loneliness” — was clear and striking. As effective was Hummer’s line from “Anger Management”: “It was my favorite book, I’d owned it for decades, / its marginalia traced the history of my conscience,” referring to Friedrich Nietzsche’s On The Genealogy of Morals.
When Hummer read this line, a puff of a sigh escaped the mouth of one of the women in the audience. It was one of those sighs that is an award. One might imagine that a sigh of this kind is more of a compliment to a poet than one spoken aloud.
Instead of holding a Q&A at the end of the hour, Hummer stopped for questions in the middle. This was prudent, as there were enough questions to last nearly until the end of the reading’s allotted period of time. The audience was unafraid of asking Hummer tough questions, both political and personal, and he seemed taken aback by their intensity.
“Today, we have a president who doesn’t read, what do you think about this?” One audience member asked.
“That is a great question,” Hummer said, as he did with almost every question he was asked. “I don’t know if I’m sure how to answer it.” Hummer then went on to speak about the significance of speech and reading and its impact upon one’s ability to be self-aware.
“How did you escape the bigotry of your Southern-small-town childhood?” another audience member asked. Hummer replied with details about his childhood and how he had to distance himself severely from his family to escape their racism.
But by the time the window had closed for questions, there were still more. The audience purchased every available copy of After The Afterlife once the reading came to an end. The buyers may have found no more answers to the immense questions that Hummer left them with, but it is possible the poems let them, at least, define those questions– for the time being.