The Exterior Is Not What It Seems in “Blessing the Exoskeleton”

Though we typically think of the line as the unit of meaning when discussing poetry, Andrew Hemmert’s works excels at the sentence level as well as at the more traditional technique of lineation.

His latest collection, Blessing the Exoskeleton, contains wonderful sentences like, “Some people seem so comfortable / in their bodies / you’d think they were / never teenagers” in “Clothing Theory” and, “I became an adult / when I realized airports were awful” in “Cathedral Theory.” In both cases, he uses enjambment to control the pace of revelation leading up to something akin to a poetic punchline. Such a technique, and many others, is on display throughout this excellent collection.

Section two opens with “Driving Theory,” one in a host of “Theory” poems that allows Hemmert to explore and expound on topics ranging from the phoenix to telemarketers to alcohol, among others. “Driving Theory” begins with one of his recurring themes: misperception. He writes, “What I thought was the squeaking of the season’s first bats / was just a rust-gut van idling outside the store. / What I thought was the future was just more of the same.” The poem continues by considering the impossibility of gratification: “Constantly I feel stationary and in a state of undress / like a fountain statue, keeping watch over nothing / but a hoard of coins I can’t touch.”

Such a statue is surely more benign than the Kindlifresser, as described in “Childhood Theory.” “In Switzerland there is a statue // of a man wearing a ridiculous pointy hat / and nonchalantly eating children.” The tension Hemmert creates between line and sentence is on display in both cases due to the false sense of finality each line offers before taking a surprising turn in the succeeding one.

“Film Criticism in the Age of the AR-15” isn’t just Hemmert’s timeliest poem, but also one of the strongest in the collection. Like the surprising turns of the lines noted above, this one begins as though headed in one direction — “I am tired of sequels, / of remakes” — only to grow far more serious than a mere contemplation of Hollywood’s excesses, as he writes a few lines later:

                             So now
we must consider not only if a film has merit,

but whether it merits sitting in the dark
with our backs turned to however many strangers

have likewise not been searched
and who likewise may desire nothing

but story, pictures stacked on pictures
spurred to action. 

The sequels Hemmert is “tired of” in the first line go beyond Hollywood’s recycling of superheroes to include the dangers of a culture that does not view even a movie-theater shooting as cause for gun control. For this reason, though, “Art was never muzzle flash, / just camera flash, powder flash, someone under a hood / flattening the world into something foldable. Its audience has grown more dangerous. Hemmert concludes the poem with a brilliant conflating of Hollywood and the serious, hypothetical scenario he has created:

And if there is a man in a long jacket
beneath which many black tools hang

like bats waiting to fly out and gather up our names?
I am tired of sequels. But someone believes

there is money to be made from this machine
that does one thing, the same thing,

time and time again.

These are not the bats Hemmert’s speaker thought he heard in “Driving Theory.” On the one hand, they allude to the all-to-real shooting during a Batman screening, but these “black tools” aren’t just an illustration of the caped crusader’s ingenuity. They are a reference to the threat posed by an AR-15’s power, as noted in the title. The repetition of, “I am tired of sequels,” from line one, complicates the concept of entertainment, as do the ensuing lines which reference the money to be made by Hollywood and gun manufacturers and, presumably, the gun lobby.

For all of the seriousness of “Film Criticism in the Age of the AR-15,” the collection ends on a beautifully captured moment of calm, demonstrating Hemmert’s awareness of the ways the smallest details open out into the universal. In “Oranges in Michigan,” Hemmert’s displacement from the South — which he writes about in poems like “Freezing Fog” and “Postal Theory” — is evident in the need to “brush off the snow” from the outdoors in order to enjoy a box of citrus fruits from, presumably, Florida. He notes:

The navels were the sweetest things. 
I halved one, twisted it onto the point
of the juicer, and gold overflowed
the little collection bowl. 

Even as he collected the juice in “the little collection bowl,” with its echoes of religious ritual, “Outside snow / still fell on snow, fell like a year of bills / and bad news.” These oranges, “a door to anywhere / kinder,” allow the speaker to end the collection “Drinking the light that fell on distant groves.” Here, Hemmert displays his range.

Hemmert is a poet whose work I greatly enjoyed spending time with and look forward to doing more of in the future. He is able to write slyly witty, yet meditative poems like “Cocktail Theory” and “The Warmth of Toilet Seats in Public Restrooms,” but also more serious ones like the aforementioned “Childhood Theory” and “Film Criticism in the Age of the AR-15.” Regardless of subject matter, these are poems that reward the reader’s attention for their technique and thoughtfulness.

Blessing the Exoskeleton: Poems
Andrew Hemmert
University of Pittsburgh Press
Published November 01, 2022