On this episode of Terror House Reviews, Matt Forney discusses Hymns from the Whipping Post by Gabriel Hart.
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This is Terror House Reviews. I am your host Matt Forney, the founder and editor-in-chief of Terror House Press.
Episode number one: Hymns from the Whipping Post by Gabriel Hart.
A brief note on the purpose and format of this podcast. Terror House Radio, our flagship show, will be returning at an undetermined point in the future, as soon as my co-host Bryden and I are able to better coordinate our schedules. The show has been on hiatus since January due to a number of issues, namely the fact that I’ve been traveling across the U.S. and Europe extensively and dealing with a extensive backlog of work.
Terror House Reviews is a new podcast, a weekly series in which I discuss books both past and present. Each episode will be exactly 15 minutes long and dedicated to discussing one book. The short length is in part because I recognize that you all have busy lives and there’s plenty of podcasts and livestreams out there already, so a 15-minute podcast is something that you can easily add to your schedule. Additionally, capping the length of the show at 15 minutes is a challenge to me to edit my thoughts on each book down to what’s important. No nitpicking about a typo on page 69 or any of that crap. Additionally, each episode of Terror House Reviews is scripted and written in advance, so there’s no dead air, no uhhhhs and ummmmms as I try and figure out what to say next. This is a deliberate artistic choice; I don’t know about you, but I’m personally tired of low-effort live streams where hosts do nothing but mine drama and read donations.
I’ve had a lot of people who’ve been kind enough to send me review copies of their books over the years—cough Expat cough—and while I’ve read many of them, I’ve been too busy to sit down and repay the favor by actually writing the damn reviews. With Terror House Reviews, I can finally start on that big stack of books I’ve been hauling around the world, talk about some more obscure titles that have influenced me, as well as present my own ideas and discuss my own writing process, since I’m nearing completion of my first book. On with the show!
It’s time for me to make a confession: prior to starting Terror House in 2018, I didn’t read much contemporary poetry. It’s not that I disliked poetry per se; it’s just that I didn’t find it interesting. When I thought of poetry, I thought of someone like, ugh, Joyce Carol Oates or Sherman Alexie, careerists who live off tenure and whose book sales are artificially inflated by college students being forced to buy their drivel for English 101 courses. As it turns out, that’s just because I was looking in the wrong places, and since then, I’ve read enough poetry and learned enough that I’m writing my own chapbook.
From my perspective, at least part of the issue with modern poetry is that the rise of pop music drained out a lot of the talent. At heart, poetry is just music. The epic poems that serve as the foundational myths of our culture—your Iliads and Odysseys and Beowulfs and so on—were meant to be sung by bards hanging around campfires, not lazily glossed over by bored freshmen in cramped dorms. The further poetry and music diverged, the less interesting it became to the general public; when audio recording became a thing, legions of youngsters figured out that it was easier to get laid when their verses were accompanied by a bass beat. Granted, a lot of pop songs will sacrifice lyrical quality in service of commercial viability or making the lyrics fit better with the music, but I’d still argue that some of the greatest poets of our time are not poets at all but musicians: St. Vincent, Jennifer Charles of Elysian Fields, Florence Welch, and so on. Hence my joke that as a poet, I’m just a failed musician.
And yet, while I wouldn’t go far as saying the world needs poetry—we’re just writers, let’s not get full of ourselves—poetry still has value in a post-pop world. The key is that while the best contemporary poetry has shed many of the limitations of classic verse, it still retains a musical spirit, a flow. Poetry and music are about using an economy of language to evoke emotion. Are you trying to make the reader feel sad? Do you want to make them laugh? Do you want them to feel disgusted? Doe you perhaps want them to feel a mixture of emotions? It’s this economy of language that makes poetry beautiful to me, cutting out everything but the bare essentials, getting to what actually matters.
The back cover of Gabriel Hart’s Hymns from the Whipping Post advertises the book as containing “themes of solitude, severance, and psychic persecution.” That’s as good a description as any, but the overwhelming sensation I got from reading the book was paranoia, that peculiar brand of West Coast paranoia you find in Charles Bukowski, Philip K. Dick, John Dolan, and Delicious Tacos. Poems such as “Avoiding You in a Small Town, Pop. 2900” have this energy on full display:
[Excerpt omitted: buy the book to follow along.]
Hymns from the Whipping Post steeps the reader in the psychological quicksand of external and internal oppression, physical and metaphorical isolation, themes that are easy to relate to in a world where science and technology are eroding basic bonds of human connection. While it’s not specifically about any one place, Gabriel’s specific imagery and style evoke, for me at least, the atmosphere of 21st century California, a place that for all its merits, fills me with dread whenever the plane starts to descend. Maybe it’s just my nature as a New Yorker, but I don’t think I’ll ever understand California. I’ve lived in or visited two dozen countries over the course of my life and LA seems more alien to me than Sarajevo or San Salvador. I don’t know if it’s because of the drivers who treat pedestrians like roadkill, or the weirdness of being complimented on my suit by three strangers in 20 minutes while walking down the street looking for a Whataburger, or being randomly smacked on the head by the guy sitting behind me on the Metro—which, as I found out after the fact, is only frequented by people too poor to afford a car, as opposed to the comparatively egalitarian New York subway—but one weekend in LA and I finally understood why Dick couldn’t stop writing about the government being out to get him.
There are other flashes of sadness and torment in Hymns from the Whipping Post. Failed relationships form another recurring theme, such as in “Flesh in the Ether”:
[Excerpt omitted: buy the book to follow along.]
One detects a vitalistic element in Gabriel’s verse, a taste of the erotic bringing the reader close to satisfaction, then yanking you back to sad, lonesome reality. Like trying to restrain yourself from drunk texting your ex by shutting your eyes and jacking off to your memories of her.
A particular aspect of this book that I enjoyed is how well the poems flow, perhaps influenced by Gabriel’s background as a musician. Of course, one doesn’t need to be a musician to write good poetry, but it helps. Thankfully, reviewing and analyzing poetry is a lot easier than reviewing music. I was part of that grift ages ago, and music is the most difficult art form to review because you either have to do it from a technical perspective, which is uninteresting to non-musicians, or a fan’s perspective, which is just a more elaborate version of “me likey.” Hymns from the Whipping Post flows smooth like a torch song; it’s not a book you need to cram for. It’s not homework. You can read it in an afternoon, though I found myself doubling back from time to time to think about certain poems and lines. Gabriel is also one of the few modern poets I know who can write good rhyming poems. I’ll take the ticket for that ride.
Intermission: Lucky Strike ad.
Hymns from the Whipping Post by Gabriel Hart was published by Close to the Bone in 2022. You can purchase the book via the link in the description.
Thank you for listening. For more information about Terror House Press, please check the links in the description or visit our website, TerrorHousePress.com. On the next episode, I will be discussing Ruthless Little Things by Elizabeth Victoria Aldrich. Until next time, I am your host, Matt Forney, and this has been Terror House Reviews.