MARCH 11, 2015
IN MAKING selections for this column pairing a second book of poetry written over 20 years ago with a recently published second collection of verse, I consider many things. Since second books of poetry often receive inadequate attention, I revisit them to emend critical oversight or to reclaim early work that might be lost to the vicissitudes of time and left out of the anthologizing, or otherwise fall prey to our cultural infatuation with what is new. Or I pick a second book that I feel signals a defining prelude, shift, apex, or development in a poet’s career. My process is usually to revisit that earlier second book and then re-read the poet’s first book, and talk about the second book as hinge, crucible, turning point, or amplification of style and subject, all in light of the work that has transpired since.
In the case of Alice Fulton — whose work I have prized since I encountered her first full-length book, Dance Script with Electric Ballerina, winner of the 1982 Associated Writing Award for a book of poems — the idea for including her in this series occurred to me when I received in the mail last fall an advance copy of her newest book, Barely Composed (W. W. Norton, 2015), Fulton’s first collection of poetry to appear in over a decade. Reading through Barely Composed, which I did at one sitting, I was flooded with somatic memories of my initial immersions into Fulton’s early books, in particular Palladium, her second, selected by Mark Strand for the National Poetry Series and published in 1986.
I should admit right now that I have a short attention span. Ordinarily any book containing poems of more than a page in length will be a volume I need to put down and take up and put down many times before I can make my way through the whole. But Fulton’s poems in Barely Composed, though often running to two or more pages, arrested me immediately and irresistibly. Combining narrative horizontality and forward momentum with lyric verticality and excavation, Fulton’s speakers — imagine Katniss Everdeen meeting Emily Dickinson — assure us with ruthless boldness that to navigate these poems,
[t]here’s no dress code,
though leg irons
are always appropriate.
And if anyone says what the hell
are you wearing in Esperanto
— Kion diable vi portas? —
tell them anguish
is the universal language.
Fulton’s inimitable image-making intelligence, her peerless music, her wit and intelligence, her fearless depictions of suffering and creation of dystopian scenarios, her sidereal jones, her formal innovations, the admixture of the discourses of poetry, science, and slang: these are, as they have always, been, her elements, her pretty words dealt, as Dickinson would say, “like blades.” This new book gave me the same rush — breathless inspiration, envy, the sense of being inside a remarkable, courageous, almost preternatural poetic sensibility — that I recalled feeling when I first read Palladium nearly 30 years before.
In a December 2014 review in The New Yorker of the latest LP by the band TV on the Radio, Seeds, Sasha Frere-Jones traces the trajectory of the band’s decade-plus career, pointing out that although the band is “open to any ideas floating through new music” and has, in the course of time, experienced tragedy — the group, unlike other bands, is “unconcerned with radically changing their sound every few minutes.” Frere-Jones goes on to say that “the group’s career is one that many bands now would be wise to mimic — staying true to an idiosyncratic voice … highlight[ing] their uncanny sense of texture and melody and [remaining] stubbornly unpredictable.”
I think that something similar might be said of Fulton’s work over the course of her luminous career. (She is the author of a dozen books of poetry, prose, and essays, and her many awards include a MacArthur Genius Award and the Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry.) For Fulton, who has worked since the beginning on an impressive range of registers (sonically, politically, lyrically, culturally), refreshing her practice over time has been less a matter of trying new tricks or rehashing old ones; instead it’s been about attending with brutally tender honesty to her flood of subjects (suffering, loss, love, the tongue/mouth/poetry itself), approaching each poem with a mix of finely tuned smarts, imaginative agility, dark humor, and a willingness to be blown off course and surprised. As she writes in a poem in Barely Composed, “‘Make It New’” (with an obvious shout-out to Ezra Pound):
I find it helpful to imagine writing in a blizzard
with every inscription
designed to prevent snow
crystals drifting in.
It’s the opposite of making love to drudgery,
what I do for a dying.
Remove the bitter sediment
trapped in the brewer. Avoid the hive mind.
Go fly a kite, raise a stained glass
window in the sky. It will be new
whether you make it new
Place Barely Composed and Palladium side by side, and the similarities, even just physically, are uncanny. Both are about 100 pages long with cover images in which literal entities — a woman curled in grasses, a “barely composed” book — unfurl and furl into shapes that belong as much to the natural world as they do to the human. Both books are broken into sections (6 in Palladium, 5 in Barely Composed, the latter of which contains a “lobby poem” that might be construed as a section), and each is dedicated to the author’s husband Hank. What is perhaps most remarkable is how fully realized the early poems are, especially for a sophomore effort. Family, the imperiled environment, the dangers of group-think (the loneliness of humans in groups), infatuation with the beauty of rust-belt “ruin,” a sensitivity to “terrestrial magnetism” and other questions and fascinations of science, a sensibility attuned to the tongue (those nightingales, the myth of Philomela), to winter, to the sea, and to a boding apocalypse — these are the obsessions in Palladium as much as they are in the new book. As Frere-Jones said of early and new songs by TV on the Radio, examine these two Fulton books in tandem and the “years separating the two … dissolve.” True, Palladium is a younger woman’s book, and returns to childhood, girldom, and the world of her speakers’ coming of age — specifically, Troy, New York — while in Barely Composed, the narrator’s grandparents and parents are dead and dying, and the book’s sense of “nightness nullsense nilthings / which are not” is registered by one more deeply acquainted with last things and endings.
But Fulton has ever had an “end fetish.” As Philip Larkin said of death in his famous “Aubade,” “Most things may never happen: this one will.” Awareness of this truth cuts through Palladium like a quicksilver, hibernal wind knifing in off of Cape Cod; Fulton’s unflinching gaze into that historical motion gives her poems a bellwether prescience, as in “On the Charm of Absentee Gardens,” in which she predicts the fall of the Twin Towers:
Some say remnants of the World
Trade Center will leave much to be desired.
But isn’t that a ruin’s purpose — to be less
Than satisfactory, only partly-
Knowable, far gone, not fully
Lovely, changing each observer into architect?
Yet this honesty never betrays the poet’s stunned appreciation for the strange, lyric and vulnerable loveliness everywhere, as in this opening from “Terrestrial Magnetism,” with its whiff of astronomy and the zodiac:
Stars threatened you into feeling
negligible while susceptible
to connections, I saw many more
than two dippers riddling the sky.
Nights you’d leap down
from stellar atmospheres, wrap yourself
around me like a sari
as the lead guitar took his
solo. For the first time, I felt
singled out. I know you’d agree
that those letters written from faraway
gigs had the suspect sweetness of breath
mints, leaving me to guess what sour
moonlighting they covered,
and that losing you I lost
a language I couldn’t stand
to have back, with words for need
obsessive as daylight,
a spectra glowing from all directions.
In an elegy for the speaker’s father, “Traveling Light,” Fulton writes:
I can hear him say “Don’t worry,
Al, if the poetry don’t go
I’ll buy you your own beauty shop.”
Death may be, as Stevens said, the mother of beauty. Reading Alice Fulton’s second book, Palladium, alongside her newest, Barely Composed, I am grateful for the beauty shop of her substantial, important, and abiding body of work, its reminder “of the nothing / I will always have / to fall back on.”
On the surface, Beth Bachmann’s poems, both those in her first collection, Temper (2009), winner of the Donald Hall Prize in Poetry and the Kate Tufts Discovery Award, and her second, Do Not Rise, winner of the Poetry Society of America’s Alice Fay Di Castagnola Award (both from Pittsburgh), could not appear more different from those of Alice Fulton. Intensely compressed, elliptical, strafed and mazed with blank spaces, the pieces are ciphers, encoded “narratives” offered without a narrator or by a narrator uninterested in gaining the reader’s trust (or in trusting the reader, for that matter, as in “psyops”: “Bring me / a dog I can punish into a pleasing retriever. / The reader is not unlike the killer; you could be / anyone. Beauty is futile”). What Bachmann shares with Fulton, however, is brilliance and ambition, and a need to turn unflinchingly to difficult subject matter. Like Fulton, Bachmann is concerned, in her own way, with putting language under pressure in order to articulate a Dickinsonian aftermath of great pain, of trauma.
In Ron Slate’s review site On the Seawall I wrote of Bachmann’s first book, which concerns the murder of the narrator’s sister and the implication of her father in the crime:
As the book’s title suggests, a range of psychological temperatures flare in the poems, from blunt ire and outrage (“If you think of a torso as a box, you can see / how someone might want to open it with his fingers” from “Second Mystery of My Sister”) to a mitigating, tempered detachment (“When pressured, the bones also respond” from “Supple”), which even, at times, moves into the realm of consolation, usually achieved by forays into art (perspective, the male gaze, theories of rapture), as in “Colorization”:
Black and white distances the viewer.
A broken crow drops from the jaw of some animal into the snow.
If we were to encounter it, with our chins tucked to our chests to block the blizzard,
we might think of it as shadow, but in truth, the body is red.
There are two ways to define this: restoration and desecration.
It comes down to a question of actuality and intent.
When you enter my room, it is dark. What you can see
are broad patterns, the bars the blinds discard onto the linen.
If this were in color, would you know whether or not to be afraid?
Do Not Rise, which takes its title from John Donne’s “Daybreak,”
STAY, O sweet and do not rise!
The light that shines comes from thine eyes;
The day breaks not: it is my heart,
Because that you and I must part.
Stay! or else my joys will die
And perish in their infancy,
pushes more deeply even than Temper into the dissociation and brokenness of post-traumatic stress, extending its range, in particular, to the PTSD inflicted by wars and “processed” by its perpetrators and its victims. Swerving among a range of expository, interrogative, and imperative modes, the effect of which, as John Cage put it, is to “demilitarize” and at the same time agitate the text, and sampling from a range of army manuals, war poems and letters, wilderness manuals, and (pop) cultural sources like Garden and Gun: Soul of the South magazine and Pierre Laszlo’s Citrus: A History, these edgy, elusive, disturbing poems seem created out of the umbral depths of war’s perpetual shadow (“the day breaks not; it is my heart”). In their fragmented, telegraphic utterances, the poems seem to want to be more than “about” post-traumatic stress; they want to create in words an experience of it, something akin (with their repeated tattooing of blood, horse, mouth, tongue, red, fire, sand, thirst, bite, kill, snow) to Gertrude Stein’s “wallpaper” effect, about which Joan Retallack has written:
When such pieces are read aloud, it becomes clear that this device is temporal—holding time in place, speech act by speech act, moment by moment, with effects similar to the rhythmic repetitions (with subtle variations) of Philip Glass, or the serial frames of Eadweard Muybridge’s motion studies.
Such experiments, Retallack goes on, want “to discipline the eye to work like an ear.” In the case of the poems in Do Not Rise, Bachmann seems to want to train the eye to work like a mind ruptured by violence:
last, the mind is riderless. What is forest for if not
a preserve in which to hunt game? A horse in the forum is illegal:
in the forest, lawless. Always,
you said, lay and wait. Away, I said, all the way over
or through the field. Outside, I am out of doors. Put the horse
It can no longer carry weight. A little longer and it would’ve been
One ancestor of these “American” poems seems, to me, then, to be Susan Howe’s depiction of Hope Atherton’s fugue state in Articulation of Sound Forms in Time. Like those gnomic creations of a disordered mind in Puritan America, Bachmann’s poems, with their concussive, somatic depth charges, can seem relentless, even brutal in their detachments. But it is important to remember that the imperative “do not rise” is not meant, in Donne’s poem, as a command signaling night’s dominion over day; it is rather a gesture of protection (of the lover and of the self) in the face of brokenness. It is a plea to abide, to stay — even if the “stay” is momentary (and inhuman), as suggested by the qualified cease-fire of the book’s last poem, “energy”:
Sometimes, after snow, you find yourself in a field
of laughing gulls shaken and spat in a mass kill
and your boots are the only noise. It’s like a bad joke
I cannot resist telling. Enough. Hunger is plenty.
Everything is dangerous. New moon, the red fox
is out walking. Extinction is nothing to the sea
other than exhaustion. Sometimes, it’s a sand dune,
but even after storm, water’s never silent. Rest
easy. Those sounds can’t be human.
While it’s true that the horrors inflicted by people against people can be, and feel, more terrible, more devastating than those wreaked by inhuman forces, the poems of both Fulton and Bachmann evince a humanity capacious, generous, courageous, and unafraid to make human beings real to one another, which is one great function of the humanities, and of poetry in particular.