"It's an old story, need," Sean Patrick Hill observes in the opening poem of this collection. And so it is, but Hill retells it with impressive vigor and grace.
The universe of The Imagined Field is congenitally inhospitable. In poem after poem the poet-narrator finds his need for connection and explanation baffled or ignored. "I was just saying what I wanted. / I knew I couldn't have it," he characteristically writes in "The Hours."
Although many of the poems in the first section of the book, "The Diving Bell," are set in or refer to woods and fields, nature affords little in the way of solace. "If these warbling birds offer any clue, /" Hill laments in "Don't Bother Asking," "It's that there's bound to be nothing / But more clues." In fact, nature is often portrayed as being infected with a strange animus. "Winter geese rise and go uneasy / Into fields that stink of assassins," and blackberries "have a way of fixing / The soil for themselves: They poison the ground."
The social world is, if anything, even less comforting. The final section of the book, titled "White River Junction," recounts Hill's drive across the country for a job interview. The people and scenes he encounters constitute a kind of contemporary Purgatorio: ". . . half-dead motel. / Ice machine. Coke machine, chemical stink in the hall."
While Hill seldom varies his dour tone, he does enliven things by employing a variety of forms and styles, from the minimalist in "Theosophy" and "Ghostwriting" to the prosy in "The pond that wouldn't freeze," a series of interlocking vignettes about his growing up in Elmira, New York. The poem is a signal achievement. Devoid of self-consciously literary tropes and tricks, it is eloquent in its unadorned honesty:
My mother came home every day at lunch.
With a migraine. I'd be the one to give the shot.
A spring-loaded thing that fired into her shoulder.
She'd lie down, maybe throw up. & go back to work.
The headaches went away when my father left.
Much of the poetry published in the small press today falls into one of two extremes, the faux naïf or the purposely enigmatic. Hill, thankfully, avoids both. His poetry is accessible without being simple, meditative without being ponderous. Reading his book, I was variously reminded of William Stafford, Donald Justice, James Wright, and Richard Hugo. If I were Hill, I would consider this a high compliment.