The poetry in Humanophone, the third volume from award-winning poet Janet Holmes, celebrates composers and creators such as Harry Partch, Raymond Scott, Leon Theremin, and George Ives, who had to invent new instruments to capture the music heard in their “mind’s ear.” Taking its title from a George Ives invention—an instrument made from a group of humans, each of whom sings a single note, arrayed like a xylophone— Humanophone appears on its surface to be about music. But its real subject is the artist’s creative dilemma—how to deliver a new idea, whether it be a song or a poem, through existing media.
Holmes works language into a variety of forms both familiar—syllabics, couplets, villanelles, sonnets—and engagingly new. With everything from kumquats to abandoned wedding pictures, Clara Bow to Bill Robinson, Keats’s belle dame to Dante’s Francesca, feng shui, to a recipe for octopus, Humanophone celebrates how the body shapes art from the world it is given.
In Humanophone, Holmes not only chronicles events such as Harry Partch’s transformation of glass chemical containers from the Berkeley Radiation Lab into the melodious and beautiful Cloud-Chamber Bowls, but also traces a playful path through the familiar, as a trombone’s upwards glissando becomes “a backwards pratfall/in brass.” Engaging a broad array of subjects, Holmes’s poetry is as delightful as it is thoughtful, as simple as it is complex.
“I was immediately taken by the true originality of conception, the inventive audacity, the subtlety of phrasing and vocabulary of Janet Holmes’s poems. Music in these pieces becomes a metaphor, a true metaphor that cannot be paraphrased but sends out its illuminating beams over the singularity of our lives, our life. The delicacy and subtlety of her work have grown with each reading.” —W. S. Merwin
“Witty, learned, bedazzling, bold: the poems of Janet Holmes’s new book veer before our eyes from clarity and good humor into aesthetic mystery and a darker irony. This poet is beautifully unpredictable as to subject and mode, the variety of her purposes winningly enlivening the forms they invent. For her, music is more than metaphor. It is the characteristic shape of her breath, a way of beholding. As _Humanophone_testifies, the idea of a human-voice instrument is enacted, again and again, in the notation and perfect pitch of these poems.” —James Applewhite
“_Humanophone_is a meditation on sound: shaped by the body, received within the human ear, and woven from the brain into musical compositions. The musical subjects of _Humanophone_are not only well-researched and explored in varied forms and tones, but braided into a brilliant design. With Humanophone, Janet Holmes enters and extends the dialogue on poetics for the twenty-first century.”—Sandra Alcosser
“Holmes is a wonderful poet—one of the best of her generation now at work in America.” —John Matthias
“Holmes makes moving and amusing poems . . . A most memorable concert.” — Booklist
“Holmes borrows her project from history, mining lives to find a single tone to convey the creative experience, its daily trials, its processes, its awe. Holmes masters the broad metaphor, sampling stories ranging from a man beating an octopus against a counter, to the reinvention of sounds by Raymond Scott. . . . The result is a book unified by a central conceit: how to catch life, with its beautiful, funny, and regrettable sounds, and replicate the experience for readers and listeners. Perhaps what is most intriguing about this collection is the sheer eclectic nature of its subjects and the varied mind that connects them. Sirenic . . . Holmes parallels the protagonist of her poems, leaving readers with the certainty that this compulsion is toward something brave.” — ForeWord Magazine
“These poems surprise, they are carefully crafted, intelligent first-person lyrics—the line-breaks alone are a lesson in poetic craft—but often untraditional, despite the appearance of some recognizable forms. . . . Having come to respect how words are made new in this book, I went back to my dictionary to find ‘ferment’ is not only a cause of agitation or intense activity, but also a living organism. Humanophone has forever changed the word for me.” — Women’s Review of Books
“Holmes’ . . . pursuit of new methodology invigorates and vibrates throughout the book. . . . Throughout Humanophone, Holmes continues to develop her always musical sense of the multiple voices within the writer, and proves herself to be, as Partch said of himself, ‘a profound traditionalist, but of an unusual sort.’ ” — Boston Review
“The book is full of various delights.” — Beloit Poetry Journal
“These are not poems built to thunder—nor is the book itself constructed this way, but rather to create a space for us to hear those slight, nearly invisible sounds and moments that all but get lost—not a flute, but ‘the echo of a flute,’ that sound ‘the unborn listen . . . to . . . conducted through bone, through fluid and dark’ before, in the face of unfiltered reality, ’it’s different now—harsher.’ ” — Poetry International