Against the Facts: On Allan Peterson’s “Fragile Acts”

By Annie Julia WymanOctober 9, 2012

Against the Facts: On Allan Peterson’s “Fragile Acts”

Fragile Acts by Allan Peterson

“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 strange, the poem then moves into a mixture of unspeaking plaintiveness and stops with the gentle intrusion of a human presence:

The laughing gull that flew behind the fencepost

and never came out was the beginning

and then a hand smaller than my hand covered Wisconsin

with a gesture for explanation.

Here we have our first — and genuinely touching — surrogate for ourselves as readers of Peterson’s poetry. The small hand that reaches out over Wisconsin reads as the hand of a child confronting a visual system of shapes and names (among those names, the word “Wisconsin”). She covers an entire shape, a whole patch of that map, with her small palm as a way both of claiming the splotch of color and asking what in the world any of these bright shapes and colors might mean.

But moving further pulls us up short, delivers us into a kind of horse latitude full of perceptual tricks:

and then a hand smaller than my hand covered Wisconsin

with a gesture for explanation.

In the afternoon there are pauses between the words

through which commas can grow like daisy fleabane.

And while we rest here, Peterson quietly pulls out all the stops. He converts an auditory silence into its own visual notation (“pauses” become “commas”) and then animates that notation with a dynamic analogy that operates on at least two levels at once. Daisy fleabane is a little fringe-petaled white-flowering weed and doesn’t actually look much like punctuation, but it does flourish best in what one might call in-betweenness. Commas come between clauses, between thoughts; fleabane grows between flowerbeds, anywhere in the garden or the yard where not too much else is happening (and where a less observant poet might not notice it at all). And the word fleabane itself reproduces those little black orthographic flecks in a different way, as a visual flicker summoned up by a distant pun not on the flower’s appearance, but on the tiny creature buried in its name.

None of these poetic feats are easy, and none of them are exhausted, not in the least, by the vague explanatory gestures made above. Peterson expresses an explicit desire to avoid or confound even his most attentive critics:

In the afternoon there are pauses between the words

through which commas can grow like daisy fleabane.

A fish with an osprey in its back emerges from the Sound

and nothing can be learned by more analysis.

No doubt he’s right. But we have already learned to recognize Allan Peterson at least two ways: 1) by his explicit and implicit defense of poetry as seeing, as knowing, as means of knowledge inversed and reversed and renewed, and 2) by his insistence on unexpected, sometimes irritating but emotionally laden imagery and close, playful attention to language as a means of dismissing a reductive rationality — as a means of productively, happily, wonderfully staving notions like “The Totality of Facts” way the hell off.

As it turns out, “The Totality of Facts” is a poem very like Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Map,” or Baudelaire’s “L’Invitation au Voyage,” the opening poems of their respective collections. I’ve only quoted half, but like those two opening poems, it furnishes a figurative map of a poet’s aesthetic and philosophical territory, an incomplete guide to an already accomplished voyage-to-come. Most of the poems in Fragile Acts are compelled to recycle the same vocabulary as its first poem — to explore and exploit Peterson’s deep interest in the terms we use to describe the natural world and our place in and outside it. Thus we find the languages of biology, anatomy, philosophy, and popular science — sprinkled, too, with terminology from architecture and the decorative arts (it is worth noting that Peterson is also a visual artist). Call such language the technical-cum-colloquial-cum-domestic, whatever you will, and it’s common enough in a world that can’t get enough hysterical interdisciplinarity and can’t stop announcing how massively, swiftly, and irreversibly science and technology have changed our lives.

More or less unfortunately, very few poets have resisted the temptation to play with fancy science words. In the best cases, to seriously address our drastically changed conceptions of human and non-human life based on the innovations of the last century: the rise of the computer, the cracking of the genome, and so on. And for the most part, Peterson accomplishes that feat. His code-switching appears to be a genuine means of extending and testing his ability to trace with all sorts of different linguistic instruments the contours of the unknown. Indeed “acknowledging the red words in the text: / hemoglobin, oxygen, radium from pitchblende,” as Peterson does in “Down in the Distance,” seems to be an irresistible passion, a circulatory affair, but also less literally, an affair of the heart: “Embellishment is love,” he writes in “Subdivisions within the Idea of Place.”

[…] Elaboration is a lover’s response

To the numinous. Decoration is importance demonstrated

By its flourishes.

Whatever we might think of this kind of verse, of its super-seriousness, there’s something impressively sincere about it. Fittingly, “The Totality of Facts” initiates a glittering cycle of imagery that ranges across the natural, the scientific, the mythic, and the banal, from scenes of domestic and social life to the darkly cluttered interiors of the thinking mind. Across Fragile Acts we are confronted with birds and maps and maritime scenes, botany and bodies, blood vessels, lovers, lightning storms, eclipses, crumpled blankets, unmade beds. And, as with “The Totality of Facts,” Peterson’s tone while establishing those shifting objects and scenes is often querulous, tinged with baffle, uncertainty blended with the secret experiments of a poet at once self-conscious and self-confident.

Perhaps the only aspect of Fragile Acts to which “The Totality of Facts” does not prove an adequate guide is the volume’s structural variety. Some of Peterson’s poems stretch over pages, yawning open across enjambed three-line stanzas, while others fold those same tercets between quartets or, in one or two instances, give in to seemingly un-patterned irregularity. Some attempt is made at establishing an alternate reading sequence by including a series of italicized section-separating poems, which are resoundingly unsuccessful in their typographical and lexical portentousness: “There was an Era of Ashes / It has not passed.” One would hope that the capitalization and the Eliotic apocalyptics might someday pass from his verse.

The most interesting poems of Fragile Acts descend in a single sonnet-ish fall, lines jagged or smooth but often interchanging short for long, as in “Falling Behind”:

The explosion was pure bad taste

though its mum above the desert added another regretful abstract

on beauty to the files.

Here as elsewhere Peterson excels at the short form, in the abstract as in the brief, the compressed — in the standard shape and size of the lyric poetry most frequently included in literary periodicals and anthologies.

However, this is not to say that his work isn’t constructive and idiosyncratic. It is. The shorter lyrics here are downright striking. They fit best with the volume’s overall thematic interests and contain as many hidden pleasures as “The Totality of Facts.” They tend to resemble encyclopedia entries transmuted into bizarrely associative essays, usually presented under a title that would suggest as much. “Famous Canaries,” for example, or “Artificial Light,” or “Modern Communication.” The first few lines of “Evolution” outline an alternative, unfixable history of the human animal:

So our toes and fingers were all roots, once touching,

and a body sometimes grown up

to a standing beast that later came loose from the earth

nails painted red.

The tips of our backbones grew from their processes,

sunbursts, and then receded.

The poem proceeds to paint its own setting around a single speaker who delivers an oddly moving soliloquy on the determinacies of chance, family, and the duller aspects of our communal life, our

[…] presumptions

that everyone is satisfied

and will cheer wildly

if their hometown is mentioned.

Peterson is thus at his best when he is plain, when the difference between an assumption, something we think we know, and a presumption — something we should know we don’t know — is allowed to stand in all its quiet subtlety, in the midst of everyone else’s dumb hurrahs.

He is less appealing when he hews to snippets of popular science, when he allows bits of tenth grade physics to go wildly metaphysical. The fact that we use only ten percent of our brains is no longer interesting (and may be untrue). And there can be something a little gauche in the brick-a-brackery of Peterson’s verse — something a little too wunderkammer-isch, a little opportunistic or even tacky in his deployment of symbolism. Nevertheless, the continuous return of images works in several different ways: to establish counter-narratives, to bind neighboring poems to one another. It also suggests the compulsion, the strangely exhilarating limitedness that denotes a singular poetic voice and lends it a kind of artistic credibility. This is only for the best, given how little — how unfairly little — attention his work has attracted heretofore.

Interestingly and movingly, the last line of the last, untitled poem of Fragile Acts revisits the last line of “The Totality of Facts.” I forbear from quoting either, for the sake of the reader’s experience, but each — like each poem in Fragile Acts — poses a set of new and old epistemological questions, some of them more difficult and more novel than others. What returns, when we shut our eyes in sleep, or when we reach out our hands to other people? What can’t we remember, if we want to? What can’t we forget? Should we trust our half-blind eyes, which tend to see likeness (our own likeness mostly) where it certainly is not? Should we trust our language? Our brains? And what about those eccentric explosive organs we call our hearts? If we learn more, will we love more? Will we then destroy less? What counts anyway, to cite one final title, as “Innocence or Proof”?  

Peterson promises only that no answers will be provided, not today, tomorrow, nowhere in this particular book of poetry. Nothing can be learned by more analysis — which may go some way toward explaining why, if each of these poems poses a set of old and new questions, not a page in this collection contains a single question mark. In spite of or perhaps because Peterson writes (and we read) in the midst of a super-saturated world, all attempts to know or depict — to transform private impressions into public aesthetic expression — take on a certain bareness, an insufficiency. They are necessarily

[…] what if’s, as if’s,

precious, fragile, next to nothing.

But they must be asserted, in what amounts to a kind of compulsory hope.

Poetry is not an adequate map to anywhere or anything. Our bodies are feeble and respond much more readily to pharmaceuticals than to prayer. But among all our bajillion weakly metaphysical images, cut loose from their original religious or spiritual symbolism, some are still worth meditating over: some still speak exceedingly well of our continued investment in the immaterial, despite our immersion in the material. To show such images to us is what poets like Peterson are for; and it’s maybe worth quoting one further example, an echo (one of many echoes) from the first poem in the book. The repeated relaxing of a clenched fist in “As I Understand It” not only shows us the release of some ineffable secret, but also echoes the beating, repeated unfolding of wings. That notion of human anatomy juxtaposed with the avian leads Peterson to see seraphim:

As I understand it

the people with wings on their backs like us

flew out from our fingers

that clench and lax all night […]

Birds again, and hands — but also much more, a repetition and a motion both familiar and fresh. Lines like that are enough to make us appreciate anew that poetry like Peterson’s not only poses questions but provides a way of knowing, its own special epistemology of not-knowing what you can’t know anyway.

In the not-final not-analysis, then, reading Fragile Acts informs us, with great intellectual and emotional persuasiveness, that poetical half-propositions are sometimes better systems of knowledge than rational certainties — and that Allan Peterson is one of our most valuable poet-thinkers and thinker-poets, a writer who can show us how much is within our grasp and how much is beyond it. I for one wouldn’t mind being told, every morning as I wake to the world, something as beautifully encouraging and self-diminishing as these two lines from “As I Understand It”:

[…] the sky starts right outside my fingers

and extends inconceivably far.


Recommended Reads:

LARB Contributor

Annie Julia Wyman is a writer and doctoral candidate in the Harvard English Department. She writes, teaches, and studies comedy and laughter. Her essays are forthcoming in City by City (n+1, Faber and Faber) and Read Harder (Believer Books); she is also the co-translator of philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s The Unspeakable Girl (Seagull Books). Her nom de tweets is @ajwyman.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!