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by Raphael Allison
Who speaks in a Robert Farnsworth poem? Whose voice is it that draws from the daily trudge such an attentive texture of observations:
Sunwashed haze brings up the ruined river’s smell, slashed
with mown grass and diesel smoke. I get words in edgewise
closing them inside storm doors. In one window a few still
waxy leaves, a Romanesque wooden radio, doilies, a brackish
light upon the massy furniture.
Plumbing the shades of experience and wringing from them as much light as they’ll yield, these are lines of a meditative observer, a careful learner who draws from the details of his experience an equivalently rich set of reflections on it. That is to say, the poles of Farnsworth’s attention, in his new book Rumored Islands, are clear: a rendering of the poem’s events on the one hand, and the writer’s reflections on those events on the other, recollections of experience reproduced in relative tranquility.
Take the above lines, from “Referendum,” about the canvassing of a poor neighborhood and distributing pamphlets before a vote. The buildings are tenements, the tenants are poor, and if not suspicious, then at least impatient with the intrusions of this do-gooder upon their daily lives. As the poem opens, we’re swept into the speaker’s exterior world, knocking on doors and having them closed swiftly in our faces. The lines amass observed details—a woman who “narrows / her eyes in skeptical greeting,” “the round / of beers a small, sallow elder woman swings between her knuckles”—before obliquely plunging inside the psychic and moral space of their creator’s consciousness to work out these concentrations of attention. Here are two samples of the plunging:
I smile at them. I have
information here, refutations of hysterical rumor, invitations
to consider every person whole and human, equal before the law.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I don’t know about convincing. What is this dread,
for those the light cuts down, or for the stubborn valiance
some develop to survive, a tremendous effort surmounted
by a gilded plaster eagle, a crucifix, a flag?
“Referendum” is, in fact, concerned with the gap between Farnsworth’s own “invitations” to engage in these political ideals and the tenement-dwellers’ wary distance. After each description, the poem backs off. “I smile at them”; “I don’t know about convincing.” It’s that logic of impassioned interiors knocking at the doors of the world’s impassiveness that gives this poem, like many of these poems, its tension. Can Farnsworth bridge the gaping gulf that separates his “smile” and their “rumor”?
Perhaps another way of saying this is that Farnsworth is a poet in the great tradition of Romantic lyric. In this volume he’s fond of alluding to and quoting Williams and Stevens, but at least one eye is cast back to the crucible of the same European consciousness that formed the Romantics’ imaginations, its growing sense that the human mind is engaged in some mighty struggle with the brutal World. Thus it’s no coincidence that one of his poems is a reworking of Wordsworth’s “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802,” which famously begins, “Earth has not anything to show more fair.” Farnsworth’s intentional misprision is only comic at first: “Earth had plenty to show more fair, / but the tour launches hadn’t begun / guzzling upriver.” The poem is really a modernized Wordsworthian mediation: Wordsworth looked out over London in order to locate an internal, compensatory peace in a natural world under threat (Wordsworth’s description of the “smokeless air” suggests just how clearly he understood the threat of industrial smoke and how pleased he was at its absence). Farnsworth, however, looks out over Wordsworth’s world, the one enshrined in the sonnet, searching for that poet’s confidence in the “mighty heart” that can be found there. Perhaps it doesn’t exist? “Oh yes, I knew the poem testified / to no fact, just to his capacity for vision.” And yet, in the end, he finds “fixed beneath a torrent of traffic, / as a noble instance of clarity, the place / where all that mighty heart is lying, still.” For all the speaker’s self-consciousness, of which there is a lot—“I’d been / for several days a tourist, composing / a self in which collected novelties / might cohere”—there is also a deep commitment to what Wordsworth himself understood of the poet’s task: to animate and plumb the struggle of a mind confronting experience, the “self” in colloquy with the world around it.
In Structure and Style in the Greater Romantic Lyric, M.H. Abrams, who wrote influential 20th-century studies of the British Romantic poets, defined Romantic lyrics like this:
They present a determinate speaker in a particularized, and usually a localized, outdoor setting, whom we overhear as he carries on, in a fluent vernacular which rises easily to a more formal speech, a sustained colloquy, sometimes with himself or with the outer scene, but more frequently with a silent human auditor, present or absent. The speaker begins with a description of the landscape; an aspect or change of aspect in the landscape evokes a varied but integral process of memory, thought, anticipation, and feeling, which remains closely intervolved with the outer scene. In the course of this meditation the lyric speaker achieves an insight, faces up to a tragic loss, comes to a moral decision, or resolves an emotional problem.
One of the key attributes here is the dichotomy Abrams describes of a “determinate speaker” and a “particularized, and usually a localized, outdoor setting.” Here is the opening of Farnsworth’s poem “Unforgivable Landscape”:
Near New Haven the landfills wear pathetic
green fringes beneath their gull-infested buttes,
where tiny yellow tractors crawl in a fine drizzle.
Above the junkyard leach ponds and the piles
of old tires, stare the incurable windows
of the valve factory.
While the speaker isn’t mentioned in a particular way, the perspective is stable. We are situated in space—we are “near New Haven” and the phrase “tiny yellow tractors” tells us we are gazing at the landfill from afar—and that space is a subject for reflection. We’re already getting the sense that something is amiss, as the title word “landscape”—an unavoidably bucolic word—seems decidedly at odds with this “incurable” world. And then, from this set of situated observations of a palpable and problematic world, we plummet back into the mind of the perceiver, who will wring from this scene some “insight,” as Abrams would say, some manner of truth: “All those rusty coils, filthy / corners, ferrous mud—who’ll say how we’ve / arrived at our nature?” This is the poem’s difficulty, the great question it sets itself to answer: how can we wrestle from a fallen world some sense of ourselves? Is this world of filthy corners adequate to the belief in our own humanity? What do we do, the poem asks, with such a scene?
This writing is serious. It takes up its task with urgency and a great trust in the reader’s thoughtfulness. Farnsworth’s poems are after something, working with what American English offers them to investigate the world. According to Abrams, such a colloquy should result in an insight, and “Unforgivable Landscape” does offer one, though it’s not what we expect. Rather than condemning the bleakness, the speaker realizes its essential completeness, its representation of the totality he understands is his lot: “Thisnature we have made or acquiesced to, / which is no mere backdrop, but the whole of life / as it must be taken.” And by the end of the poem, after we realize we’re driving down a highway and moving through this landscape, having ridden these troubling observations for a page’s worth of lines, the poem ends on a surprising moment of repair: “And while neither of us turns, exactly, having / plumbed the silence, we do at last begin, / slowly, as after love, to talk more tenderly.” One might say, with Abrams, that an “emotional problem” has been finally resolved.
This isn’t to say that every poem in Rumored Islands is a contemporary version of one of Coleridge’s conversation poems. Farnsworth is deeply rooted in the present, with all of its tell-tale crises and catastrophes, and at times, the situation of the speaker and his sentiments is not so easy to place. “Eminent Domain,” for example, describes the demolition of a house and its brutal act of exposure. (It might seem that this poem stands in trenchant relation to the current housing crisis in all of its forms, except for the fact that the poem first appeared in The Hudson Review in 1994; Farnsworth’s two previous books appeared in 1982 and 1989, so this book draws on literally decades of work published in a range of journals since). After gaping at the wreckage for a prurient moment or two, long enough to register the foulness of marauding this home’s erstwhile privacy—“A closet / door (with a porcelain knob!) dangles / from one hinge,” “How the bucket knocks / thoughtfully on a window frame until / it shatters, then digs intimately away / at the wreckage for a while”— the poem makes an unexpected swerve away from simply recoiling at the exposure of intimate spaces. “Catastrophe doesn’t / hold me here,” the speaker says. “No, it’s the performance, the stylish wag / and swing and grasp of that iron arm / that fascinates.” How tricky it is, the poem discovers, to be sentimentally driven by the sorrowful exposure of intimate life in this spectacle and simultaneously horrified by the “hopeless” interior the wrecking actually reveals. The end of the poem is oddly ambiguous: “Down with it. / Untraceable motive, terrible claw, down with it.” Is the poem condemning the destruction of the house? Or the keen pettiness of life its raping reveals? Is it cheering “down with the house!” or shouting “down with destruction!”? We may not know, and the poem leaves us caught as the speaker was caught, configuring ourselves.
Many poems in this volume reveal Farnsworth is of the Elizabeth Bishop school of publication: don’t publish a lot, but what you publish, make perfect. The lines here reflect careful sculpting, the vocabulary thoughtful minting. Syllables can fill up the mouth with a pleasing voluptuousness to match their subject: “mustard-colored, / scrotal strands of rockweed swirl like mops / in the tide swell.” Imagery is rendered with arch visual precision to create crystallizing similes: “The seal’s slick head slides from cold, / polished water like the recollected portion / of a dream, into sunlight.” Farnsworth’s fascination with Stevens shows up not just in numerous allusions, but even as the subject of an imitative villanelle, which captures that poet’s looping rhythms and emphasis on contemplation: “Read late a winter’s night. Feel the rooms around, / The rooms within the mind resist the dark. The fire burns as the novel taught it how.” There are numerous other poems of note here, including “Snow,” a poem about work and writing; “The Shutters,” a spare scrutinizing of a long ago creative act; the moving “Long Light,” which opens the moments after Farnsworth has dropped his kids at school; and the revealing, comical tableau of “Why I’ve Never Bought You Fishnet Stockings.” These are poems of precision, grace, compression, and wit. This poetry is gratifying, intelligent, and thoroughly of the moment, steeped as it is in a consciousness of the past.
Alex Lemon’s poems in Fancy Beasts present an altogether different picture. Lemon’s are poems of immediacy and effect, not meditation. If Farnsworth projects shades of Romanticism, Lemon echoes the New York School brand of casual, glittering brilliance, characterized best by a writer like Ted Berrigan. Lemon is far more concerned with leaps of language and consciousness and less obviously worried over contemplative depth. Here is “Bling Ding Bling” (the title might tell you something of this already), in its entirety:
The oven is left on all night,
so the cupcakes turn into
twelve blackened fists,
& being that we are hoodlums
& thugs, we go outside & hit
the rock-hard treats into the air
with aluminum bats, golf clubs
& tennis rackets. It’s beautiful
really, watching the dark specks
rocket over the shingled roofs.
& we won’t admit it when we’re
caught, but of course we’re aiming. All
of us know whose windows they’ll smash
through. The hands that’ll pluck up
the shards. A triangle of glass arrowed
upright into the hardwood floor. Glittering
in the sunlight as we laugh & jab each other
in the mouths. Glittering & upright,
like the birthday candle on your last cake.
Upright & glittering through your cataracts
& Alzheimer’s. Glittering & glittering, that candle,
that last sweet, that something
you’ll never remember.
It’s not just that this poem is loosely arranged, full of ampersands and casual phrasing and line breaks (“It’s beautiful / really”). More importantly, Farnsworth’s Romantic poles of attention—the seeing eye at work in an objective world—has turned to this inside narrative of a long-ago event: as a child, the speaker and his friends chucked burnt pastry through the windows of a local old coot, some man or woman. Only now, in the apparent present, does he realize the poignancy of this callow act of terrorism. It’s the direct address to the Alzheimer’s patient that tells us the most here: the broken shards of glass turn into birthday candles in the man’s mind, a moving recognition of the codger’s confusion and an almost sentimental image—candles on a birthday cake—of time’s passage that he won’t even understand. So the poet’s memory of this event becomes a kind of memorial to a man with no memory left.
Perhaps it seems too obvious to point out how this is no Romantic lyric. The mind of the speaker seems to look upon its subject with decisiveness, and seeks not to wrestle from the memory some resolution but to palliate it with an image. Of course, the Romantic mode is historical, except in the various ways it still resurfaces (Stevens, Farnsworth, etc.). Still, it’s worth pointing out how much Lemon’s poetry is driven by the urgency of his interior mind and its finding of itself in language. Here is the opening of “There’s So Little To Do in a Hospital Bed”:
Although tiredness whirls
All the while, the hive
Of my head shines with love.
Inside my chest, umbrellas
Open warmly—the last
Vacancy where I might
Get it right. My under—
Thighs have stopped
Bleeding. Even though
My skin has God’s stamp
Of approval—USDA Choice—
Fear comes & the sheets
Look lightning struck.
The irony of the poem, of course, is that it details how much there is to do in a hospital bed. The poem presents observations of oppositions: on the one hand, there’s what one might expect (that “tiredness” would create torpor, that fear rises despite other assurances) and on the other, there’s what actually occurs (love, fear). The voice articulating all of this, however, is hermetically sealed, like one of the doctorly instruments or syringes this body must submit to. It’s a willfully opaque voice, and because of this dichotomy there’s a blend of intimacy and disengagement. How else to square the admission of bleeding thighs with the vagueness of “God’s stamp / Of approval.” We learn elsewhere that Lemon has tattoos, so perhaps that’s what he means; or perhaps it’s a reference to a doctor’s positive assessment of his physical condition. In any case, the angle and pith of these clipped couplets tell us not to strain too hard.
The most arresting poems in this book occur, however, when the language does ask us to strain a little and the voice extrudes from the self, imagining itself into the world that constrains it. Perhaps the book’s best poem, “Verde Vista,” opens with the speaker in line at the post office. An old coot (there are lots of coots in this book) tells him, due to the tattoos on his arms, “You know, Hitler would have / Made a lamp out of you.” And here begins a train of fantasies that Lemon can’t quite control. After finishing his business, he winds out of what we now learn is a mall, stalking the old man by waiting in the parking lot, ready to toss a shopping cart through his Cadillac’s windshield. But when the man comes, clacking on his walker, something shifts. Perhaps the man will collapse? And it’s here that the poem lifts off, working through his anger and frustration to achieve a moment of clarity:
He stops at the curb, heavy breathing, & inside
Him, I imagine his heart dropping the white
Flag of surrender. That he is about to crumple
& the next thing I know, my piled hands
Will be compressing his sternum & lips, tender
As the crust of a burnt loaf of bread, will open
Against mine & as the air I just breathed into him
Returns, the taste of mayonnaise & his aftershave
Fills my mouth, & I realize that in the end it will
All work out, brilliant with dirt & light. Cryogenics
& biogerontology & pregnant men & clones
Of our favorite Chihuahuas. & if the old man, still
Kicking around, vigorous with his fourth
Or fifth different baboon heart growling within
Him, wants to stay up a little longer to finish
The terrific book he’s reading & tugs on
The bedside lamp & is illuminated by the patchwork
Of colors that had, years before, covered
My body, well, I guess, that’s fine with me, too.
How did we get here? Suddenly, the poem moves from the desert of the real into the science fiction future, where the man himself has become some emblem of the Nazi order, the specter of which he threateningly raised just moments before. And yet instead of revenge upon this blighted near corpse, the poem breathes, considers, and drops back to acquiesce. What does it matter, it wonders, and who cares anyway? The world of this poem—decrepit, perfumed, and mayonnaisey—conspires to keep such a depleted life living, with its wrong-headed science of “biogerontology” and cryogenic creepiness. Perhaps one way of confronting the world is not to care so much about its judgments. So what if the old man’s grossness wins out and Lemon succumbs to his body’s frailty? Well, that’s fine with him, too.
And so Lemon’s poems in Fancy Beasts are small acts of resistance to something gone inexplicably wrong. There’s no sincere attempt to work out a bargain or resolve the problem, as Farnsworth would. In the face of The World, Lemon’s poems seem to suggest, the best repair is attitude. It’s a pitched battle played cool, and it’s exciting to watch effortlessness take the role of David against the Goliath of our civilization. “One must gird the loins / When approaching // Considerateness—that little / Gnashing beast. It might not // Cost much, but the way I see it, / We really know nothing about // Each other. Civilized schmivilized.” There is no contending here with the thatch of real experience; rather, there’s a self assuring itself—no, not assuring, “girding” itself—against the sallies of What Is. “The most troubling thing is everything,” begins “Tick Tick Tick.” “It’s all happening / At the same time. Interpreting dreams while watching Let’s Make / A Deal. Eating tofurkey & Cherry Garcia while practicing / Yoga.” And so on. The poem itself becomes the path of resistance to the maelstrom of our junky pastiche of American life. Without the poem, we feel, Lemon would be lost.
One of this book’s most powerful undercurrents is a daring, Cid Corman-like minimalism. For all of Lemon’s garrulousness and cheek, an intensity of focus runs through it all. The second section of the book is, in fact, a series of thirteen tiny lyrics, and it functions as an eye in the hurricane. In some ways, these stripped down, spare and bare needles of language are the book’s life-force, providing a core of mandarin quietude:
It in old
Jars. She will
The perverse museum of cat fur in jars is charged with affect, a magical gesture rebuffing the tide of death.
Be a missile
The opposition is entrancing. Of course, it’s power, sexuality, experience, and sweetness rather than reflection. This is poetry of attitude rather than contemplation. Perhaps, Lemon’s poems suggest, that’s all one needs.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010