“THE TOTALITY OF FACTS”; “Facts of Life”; “As I Understand It”; “Knowing What I Know Now”: a mere handful of titles from his fifth and most significant full-length book makes clear that Allan Peterson’s most pressing poetic concerns are still epistemological. How do we know what we know? What things can we know, and what things can’t we? What systems of knowledge — systems necessarily riddled with falsehood, silences, and lies — will nonetheless carry us in and through the full flickering stream of human experience, through our lives together and our lives alone? What do we need to know, and how will that knowledge shape and guide us as we both explore a heightened awareness of material selfhood and feel an undiminished yen for the spiritual, for the imaginary — that is, for immaterial things? These are the complex preoccupations of Fragile Acts, expressed in fittingly elaborate if slightly predictable forms.
From the very first read, there is no doubt that Fragile Acts is excellent. But given the extreme self-consciousness of Peterson’s undertaking — and its familiarity, since Western poetry has defined itself as a question-poser par excellence for, well, millennia — the book proceeds just as one might expect, with as much obscurity and cryptic counter-statement as bright imagery and bold assertion. Its literal beginning is therefore as good a place as any to start to answer a few important questions of our own. How do we as readers know how or learn how to read and recognize Allan Peterson, one of our least read and surely most interesting older poets? (His work has been nominated for the Pushcart ten times, but almost no one, even the most enthusiastic fans of contemporary poetry, seems to have ever heard of him.) What can be said, concretely, about the craft of a poet who excels at beautiful rushes of specific detail but whose foremost interests are so very abstract?
These are the first two lines of “The Totality of Facts,” the book’s first poem, a poem against totalities, against finalities, against facts:
The laughing gull that flew behind the fencepost
and never came out was the beginning
As an initial image, a “laughing gull” is charming, if a little too kitschy-seaside-café-ish. And the initial line as a whole is tongue-twistingly fun to say, out loud or in one’s mind. Like many of Peterson’s lines, it is a near-perfect five-beat iambic, and it plays on its three f sounds, the first of them perversely produced by the letter g.
But a fencepost is a thing at least notionally too narrow and short for a gull to fly behind, much less entirely disappear behind. And it never came out? The mind knocks up against the fencepost on its heretofore untroubled search for sense. At the level of both sound and image, then, Peterson’s language already feels happily ebullient — but also purposefully vague, imprecise. Certain rules about accuracy have already been broken or have started to waver. Shapes and spaces shift, entire life forms evaporate, object permanence no longer applies. (Indeed the next time a laughing anything turns up, it will be in an extremely weird, semi-surrealist image: “Water’s face is laughing on the ceiling of the porch next door.”)
Still quite stran...read more