Northampon poet James Haug cultivates surprise. His poems leak the stuff, overflow with it. The fun of reading his poems is akin to the joy of careening down a twisting road.
In "Nostalgia for the Finite," he says:
...Gas was cheaper
then because it was miniature gas
and we never seemed to have to go
quite so far.
And in "Gardner Exchange":
In a field I was overtaken by a conviction
that another field lay just beyond it.
Haug was born in Brooklyn and came to the Valley to attend the UMass MFA writing program, from which he graduated in the '80s. Before coming to the Valley, he led what he describes as an "itinerant" life, doing a stint as a taxi driver after high school, and working in a record plant for a while. In upstate New York, he discovered that a local library possessed a large selection of contemporary poets, and making his way through the library's volumes offered him a broad overview of the world of poetry. He came to UMass in part to work with poets James Tate and Dara Wier (both of whom still teach in the MFA program).
Haug is now a visiting lecturer at UMass, and has authored several volumes of poetry. The most recent is 2009's Legend of the Recent Past, from which the above examples are drawn.
When I asked about influences, at first Haug laughed and said, "I'm too old for influences." Then he offered, "I started off reading [William Carlos] Williams."
But in addition to Williams and a long list of other 20th-century poets, Haug drew inspiration from another discipline entirely. "I was influenced by painters, especially the Surrealists and Cubists."
Though he was drawn to painting, Haug says, "I can better make an image with words. It's more unfettered."
As he talked, sitting on the couch of his rambling Northampton house, the wandering strains of Marc Ribot's sleepy guitar playing underscored the conversation. The kitchen calendar offered an image from Edward Gorey's The Doubtful Guest and the sentence, "All at once it leapt down and ran into the hall, where it chose to remain with its nose to the wall." As with his poems, there's a sense that the door is left ajar.
Cubism, especially, makes a lot of sense when you read Haug's poems. Often what might have been merely close observation of a small moment instead becomes a starting point, an observation joined by a host of seemingly unrelated images, all of which add up to a moment of jittery lucidity. Something has happened, but not something couched in the more common poetic progression of observation followed by epiphany.
And indeed, Haug says, "I'm not a storyteller. I don't think of my poems as telling stories in a complete way. Narrative moves you along, but it's an illusion. It's there to be corrupted."
All the same, Haug says, "I trained myself to observe faithfully."
Haug's manner is easy, sometimes animated. You get the impression he's always at the ready, that a good line or just-right detail won't escape notice.
That way of seeing means some parts of his poems read like notes on reality. Again from "Gardner Exchange":
In a town I sat like a clerk on a municipal bench
pretending I knew exactly where I was.
The streets long and straight.
I could see far away. I could see Orange.
For ten minutes I watched a woman approach by foot.
Yet Haug isn't aiming for the poetry of the real. "I tend to like poetry that's going to dwell in the imaginary world. I like poems that seem to take pleasure in being a poem, in the heightened language and compression, poems that are comfortable living within mysteries," he says. "Poetry can have that kind of authority, illuminating, peeking into that area between what's real and imagined, what could be."
After skirting so near poetry of observation, "Gardner Exchange" departs for the in-between after the approaching woman offers the poem's narrator a pamphlet on the manufacture of chairs:
A siren reconfigured an old complaint.
How little I knew about rattan.
How perfectly useless the world's smallest chair looked
in my open hand.
I was the chair's chair.
That kind of left turn, that corruption of narrative is just what makes for the best moments of surprise, and poetry that avoids the pull of easy expectation. The mood evoked by Haug's often straightforward, declarative lines is a peculiar mix. It's funny, but its humorous moments often arrive with a single word (see "rattan" above). Images seem faithfully observed, but when they're added up, something surreal emerges. And the narrator of his poems somehow stumbles into melancholia with the accrual of so many closely observed moments, as if epic tragedy lurked in the most mundane of details: "My sandwich was gone."
When I asked about a poem that reads like a collection of oddities occurring in Albany, Haug said something that illustrated the beautiful collision of everyday and sublime that fills his poems: "My study faces west. Sometimes I think, 'Somewhere out there is Albany. I wonder what they're doing now?'"