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John Hildebidle

By Frank Dabek

John Hildebidle read from his latest volume of poetry, Defining Absence, last night as part of the poetry@mit series. Absence is the third collection of poetry published by Hildebidle, a professor of literature at MIT.

Hildebidle, eschewing a podium or microphone, read a dozen or more selections to an audience of around 25. The (mainly) free verse poems were delivered in a comfortable, conversational tone that barely distinguished them from the stories and personal recollections that Hildebidle provided as background to his work. The selections drew effectively on these personal recollections and Hildebidle exploited his highly descriptive verse in a number of poems inspired by photographs. A professed influence of Thoreau was also evident in a number of works centering around nature -- vivid descriptions of natural environments (even in urban or suburban surroundings) were present in nearly every selection.

Despite his professed desire to write about the “real world” instead of “reciting ... precious impressions of leaves...” many of the most effective poems were based on the poet’s life. “Walking Him Home” relates the experience of creating original tales with his son Nick, then six.

“Remembrance” was written in Ireland on the occasion of the anniversary of the birthday of the poet’s daughter who died in infancy. It’s battling tenses (the child “is” and alternately “would’ve been” 10 years old) capture the ongoing struggle of living through such a painful absence. “To Accompany a Gift of Flowers,” which received the most enthusiastic reception from the audience and which Hildebidle described as his favorite in the collection, is an elegant love poem addressed to the author’s wife.

A confessed “photograph freak” a number of the poems featured at the reading were inspired by scenes captured on film. Hildebidle’s highly descriptive verse not only captures the pictures but also finds ongoing stories and dynamic personalities in the static images.

Many of these image-inspired works take nature as their subject. “Lampost and Child in Autumn...” takes place in a town but focuses on the trees (and the poet’s aforementioned “precious impressions”) that line the street. “Botany of a Kind” which Hildebidle described as “my version of Keat’s ‘Autumn’,” renders the traditional autumnal nature scene but again connects it to urban civilization -- the poem describes trees seen through a bedroom window.

Defining Absence (paperback, 64 pp.) is published by Salmon Publishing, Mosher Ireland and is available exclusively at the Grolier Poetry Book Store, Harvard Square for $12.00. The next poetry@mit reading will take place on November 18 in 6-120 and will feature Michael Gizzi reading from his new collection Too Much Johnson.