The Gauguin Answer Sheet
University of Georgia Press ($15.95)
by Daniel Sumrall
More than ten years ago Alice Fulton introduced the concept of fractal verse, however few have been the poets willing or able to implement such a poetics without falling back into techniques more akin to language poetry, neo-confessionalism, or post-modern bricolage. Fractal verse reveals itself as a more necessary form as our contemporary age moves closer and closer to a viewpoint expressed by Fulton in a recent interview: "Who needs more reality? There's enough of that around us everywhere. What I like, and what we need, are forms that go beyond or extrapolate reality." Far from being escapist or transcendental, Fulton posits following through the myriad possibilities of the present tense. Fractal verse doesn't ignore the present or the past, but has a grander approach to historicity. The fractal poet seeks to demonstrate, through the poem's "varying densities," a "modulating depth of field" which would allow "us to experience the poem as a construct of varying focal lengths." Therefore, fractal verse "is interested in that point of metamorphosis, when structure is incipient, all threshold, a neither-nor."
It makes sense then that Dennis Finnell should choose as his threshold Gauguin's painting Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? This painting is merely a point of reference; the resulting poem-suite, as Finnell says in an end-note, "does focus upon the painting, yet not at every moment; it also considers my origins and identities and considers whether any individual's story is a mutual story." However, The Gaugin Answer Sheet is hardly a sort of hyper-ekphrasis or confessional springboard. Finnell views the painting from right to left while coupling this exegesis with an intimate chronology moving "backwards to Mary Keenan, my nineteenth-century great-great-grandmother." In effect, Finnell is 'plugging-in' the factors of his non-linear equation, resulting in a creation of "dimensions--time and space, painting and history" that, to use Finnell's word, "interlocute."
Fulton has suggested that before we declare a poem fractal we ask "whether comic, bawdy, banal, or vulgar lines are spliced to lyrical, elegiac or gorgeous passages" that we may cross-reference with these fractal precepts: "Any line when examined closely...will reveal itself to be as richly detailed as was the larger poem from which it was taken; the poem will contain an infinite regression of details, a nesting of pattern within pattern...; digression, interruption, fragmentation and lack of continuity will be regarded as formal functions rather than lapses into formlessness; all direction of motion and rhythm will be equally probable...; the past positions of motion or the preceding metrical pattern will not necessarily affect the poem's future evolution." The last three precepts are perhaps what we may most clearly recognize in a poems' form and content, and Finnell's poem certainly embodies these, engaging the notion that "the search for a style is a search for a language that does justice to our knowledge of how the world works."
What comes to the forefront immediately upon encountering fractal verse is the prevalence of flush-right margins which halt "the eye abruptly, almost rudely, stranding the gaze in an unbidden white surround before deflecting it leftward and into the next line." This formal device stresses the poem's constructedness, yet while such a device tempts the reader to assume a different speaker has arisen, "the speaker doesn't necessarily change when lines are indented. It's more as if another part of the self, another subjectivity, breaks in." The poem/section entitled "Come, Endure" illustrates this (while also providing an example of mixing the bawdy with the comic and elegant):
We've migrated from the bed that orphans us to the next cushioned chair that adopts our shape. We trail the harvest of desire or necessity, all because someone's eyes or our stomachs make us take just one more step, or because a voice says, "I can't live without you."
then later in the poem:
But he undrapes himself, his hard-on
under a tiny straw hat, fitted up like a village idiot,
a smile in mascara just under its crown.
"April fool's," he says.
"Who's the idiot?" she whispers.
"Take that stuff off, love me good."
Soon they are mouths, kissing--
(We at this window know their pleasure,
how touching is always
untouched, as if yesterday's caress left no residue.)--
An ambiguity arises concerning the proper mode of interpretation: "is the use of white spaces mimetic, abstract or temporal; do such effects serve to emphasize or to defamiliarize the line?" The maneuver changes the manner in which we read the lines, both aloud and silently, leading to the posing of the question which stresses the necessary occupation by the reader and the poet within the space of interpretation, effecting what Fulton terms "the orchestration of verse through echo."
Also, by paying attention to techniques like refrain and repetend we may grasp fractal verse in a somewhat more 'tangible' way. Making use of these techniques, Finnell introduces the symbol of the coin in the opening of the book:
A coin is a guess with somebody's face on it.
This penny flashing Lincoln's face,
then Lincoln's Memorial in midair
is a fatalist's stab in the dark, no matter
how it comes down on the back of my hands: heads, tails.
Whose in our indivisible nation
is more legal tender, its face of dirty copper,
my freckled one?
(from "Some of you look into this, my mouth")
Alluding to commerce between individuals, the symbol of the coin through its passage from hand to hand in anonymity problematizes, in its real presence, the relational lines from one to another. Finnell links this sentiment to Gauguin's work implying the ethics of the face crouched in post-imperial/colonial terms:
A coin is a guess
with someone's face on it, and whose on our indivisible globe
is more legal tender, your faces of Tahitian
dirt at the end of Gauguin's hand and brush, or my freckled one?
Your face is as good as mine.
(from "Out of Mouths")
At this point the nationalist currency of the coins has faded, or obscured itself through attention leaving only the call of the other's face, which in "Ultimata" is re-inscribed as
ŠŠ.A face is a guess
and whose is more tender, yours of Tahitian
dirt at Gauguin's hand, my freckled one?
My face is as good as yours.
Reciprocity is established through this repetend: one's face for the other's, the other's for one's own in such a way as to cast the individual's responsibility to the other in immediate terms. A coin has a face upon it, a coin is anonymous, a guess toward identity and is exchanged (sometimes given) to another whose face is a real presence although still a guess. All that may be concluded is that commerce trades on contact, possessing within its procession the act of recognition that at any moment may call an individual up to address, just so:
A coin is a guess,
and whose is more tender, yours of dirt, my freckled one?
Your coin is a good one.
(from "'From, from...'")
The symbol of the coin here becomes a 'souvenir eye' embodying the moment of contact and its memory, but also the casual novelty of interest that at any moment may turn to disinterest. This would seem the tentative fact of human relatedness.
Finnell's application of repetend parallels his use of refrain. Speaking for two of the painting's characters, "Gauguin's two skeptical girls still cock their heads. / 'But where do we come from?'" This chorus not only mirrors but coalesces the sentiment of the repetend, appearing more regularly. This device illustrates the fractal form's structural replication in which "Increasing detail is revealed with increasing magnification, and each smaller part looks like the entire structure, turned around or tilted a bit." Because Finnell applies these devices in a manner that fulfills the fractal precepts, because the structural surface of the poem is so fluid, and because the "poem's growth and resolution are activated by self-determined imperatives rather than by adherence to a traditional scheme" we may identify his poem as fractal. Fulton admits to us, and it is an admission of proper involvement by the reader, that fractal verse may only exist if "readers imagine or build, identify or locate, the representative works themselves." Finnell factors out a fractal poetry, but does so in order to address the concern "If parents give us two genetic legs to stand on, / grandparents make us quadrupeds.ŠI am a spider, I am a millipede" (from "Aorta, keeping the white caps white"). This concern appears only able to be addressed through a fractal poetics, which Finnell has spun out quite well.