edited, with an introduction, by Gerald Fleming
Sixteen Rivers Press ($22)
by John Bradley
If there’s one line that best captures the spirit of Lawrence Fixel’s poetry and prose, it’s this one from “Truth, War, and the Dream-Game”: “The closer we look, the more massive the ambiguity.” Fixel (1917-2003) is best known for his prose poems, in particular his parables, which were often mysterious, paradoxical, and philosophical. (While Fixel tried to differentiate between his prose poems and parables, he confessed that the two really “shifted and narrowed” until they were indistinguishable.) Fixel’s Collected Poetry and Prose (a hefty 571 pages) firmly marks him as one of the most unique and accomplished practitioners of the prose poem.
Before discussing Fixel’s prose, the reader would do well to review a parable by Franz Kafka, a major influence on Fixels’ writing along with Borges, Kierkegaard, Brecht, and Heralictus. Kafka’s “Leopards in the Temple” can conveniently be found in the Collected (no translator is credited) as Fixel uses it as an epigraph to a poem with a near-identical title:
Leopards break into the temple and drink to the dregs what is in the sacrificial pitchers; this is repeated over and over again; finally it can be calculated in advance, and it becomes part of the ceremony.
If a parable is meant to be “a usually short fictitious story that illustrates a moral attitude or a religious principle,” as Merriam Webster says, Kafka, and subsequently Fixel, turn it on its head. In their hands, the parable becomes an instrument of creating uncertainty and ambiguity. As Fixel puts it, “The ancient and modern parable often involved the overthrow an expectation: the reversal of some deep-grounded assumption or explicit belief.” We come away from the parables of Kafka and Fixel more unsure of the world than before. Here’s the closing line of Fixel’s “The Leopards/The Temple”: “Is it any wonder then that—whatever we desire or fear—we can no longer tell whether a Leopard, a Unicorn, or the neighbor’s child is even now standing before the door?” This conclusion undermines even the identity of the leopards.
Fixel’s originality, however, stems not only from his use of ambiguity. His parables almost always utilize a number of sections, each with shifts in perspective. This constant shifting often feels dreamlike, as in his parable “The Career of Hands,” which consists of three parts. The first section seems to be rather mundane:
Seated at the desk, I wait with hands poised above the keys. Usually I get a signal, a clue on how to proceed. This time, however, only some vague suggestions, impossible to follow. My choice then to lower the hands and make contact is arbitrary, without direction. But for a while, just the sight of letters becoming words is reassuring. . . .
It appears that a writer, waiting for a “signal,” has yet to feel inspired, and yet the feel of the fingers on the keyboard offers some consolation. But, as in a dream, the setting shifts in section two:
. . . Under a shaped beam of light, I see the bench, the polished, curved wood of the piano. The stage is immense; the audience a silent, weighted mass. Coming forward, I resist the impulse toward panic and flight. Since I am here, I tell myself, my destination is also my destiny. Yet I cannot be sure whether I am worthy of the instrument, or whether I can perform the prescribed music. . . .
How quickly the writer has gone from reassured, in section one, to anxious. It seems the awareness of an audience has led to this anxiety. The third section makes an even more surprising leap, though the focus on hands continues:
. . . As I enter the crowded chapel, heads are turning, being raised toward the huge panorama on the ceiling. Bending back to look there, I find the familiar images of God and Adam somehow distorted, out of focus. . . . I turn then toward the walls, the curved arches that support the ceiling. What of the mason, the laborer, who put the stones in place? No clue as to what brings the urgent question. No possible answer. Above us the extended arms, the groping fingers continue to miss connection. . . .
The speaker seems to be in the Sistine Chapel, in this last section, looking at its most famous facet, though the image is “somehow distorted.” Rather than focusing on the artistic image of hands, the speaker wonders about the hands of the anonymous laborers who built the chapel. Though there’s “No possible answer” as to who these workers were, the answer is not necessary. For Fixel the question is all-important.
While Fixel’s work contains a strong sense of the absurd and a wry sense of humor, there is no real comparison with the prose poems of Russell Edson. They exchanged many letters, Gerald Fleming states in his introduction, and they must have enjoyed each other’s work. Edson’s prose, however, pushes absurdity to the fore, while in Fixel’s prose it lingers in the air.
Another writer who promoted the prose poem in the U.S. early on, along with Fixel and Edson, is Robert Bly. Fixel’s The Scale of Silence: Parables was his first major work, a chapbook published in 1970 by George Hitchcock, the editor of the celebrated poetry journal Kayak; Hitchcock also published Bly’s prose poem chapbook The Morning Glory that same year. Rooted in sensory detail, Bly’s poems offer metaphorical transformations, with associative leaps that seemed to gain power from the close observations. The leap from the caterpillars legs to “nine soft accordions,” for example, in his poem “A Caterpillar on the Desk,” makes a surprising comparison, and yet feels grounded in physical observation at the same time.
Fixel’s Collected may surprise readers who know him through his prose, as it offers over 130 pages of Fixel’s verse as well. The poems, much more concise than the prose, demonstrate Fixel’s versatility as a writer, yet display at the same his fondness for myth, paradox, and ambiguity, as can be seen in “Notes on a Doppelganger,” here in its entirety:
Mister it was you
whose face stalked through endless windows
in the city of bronze horsemen:
white hands and bony head
the gift of race and culture:
that privileged intensity
at home among the books—
while I ate bitter bread on dusty stairs.
The reader is not told where this event takes place, other than it’s a city with “bronze horsemen.” In a Fixel poem, whether in verse or prose, specifics drop away for the more important mythic situation to be limned. It’s the doppelganger that commands the speaker’s attention, this double who is fond of culture and who contrasts with the speaker located on the “dusty stairs,” and who apparently isn’t comfortable with privilege. And yet, the poem leaves the reader wondering if this “double” isn’t the other side of the speaker. The influence of Borges can be felt.
Like the parables, Fixel’s poems move “beyond the cage of reason.” It appears, however, that the poems came before the prose. One poem in this collection, “What the Wastebasket Tells,” was composed in 1940. In another poem dated 1954, “Assault on the White Frame House,” the prose voice can be heard emerging in the verse: “We sent a small force to isolate the garage / and reduce the strongpoint of their sandbox; / then with gophers encircled, we began / the frontal din of our synchronized watches.” This is only a short step away from the parable.
In addition to the prose and poems, the Collected features a section called “Words on Lawrence Fixel.” Short essays by Peter Johnson, Christina Fisher, David Lazar, Donald L. Soucy, Edward Mycue, Sharon Coleman, and Peter Money praise Fixel’s work and provide personal glimpses of the man and his workplace. One of the most insightful comments comes from Coleman’s “Parable, Parabola, Possible: On Lawrence Fixel,” where she states: “There’s never a lesson or a truth [in Fixel’s writing] but the dream of the pursuit of truth—and the questioning of the pursuit itself.” Any certainty only creates more possibilities and more questions for Fixel and his reader. While the essays on Fixel justly praise this talented writer, they raise a larger question: Why not use these pages of encomiums for excerpts from Fixel’s correspondence? Gerald Fleming mentions there are letters to “more than a hundred writers,” including Andrei Codrescu, Jack Gilbert, Michael Heller, Raymond Carver, Jack Marshall, Mary Randall, George Oppen, Laura Ulewicz, and Russell Edson. The reader can only hope that Fleming or another editor will soon publish a volume of Fixel’s correspondence.
The prose poem has become so popular, so ubiquitous, that it’s hard to remember a time when it was frowned upon by many editors. It’s also easy to forget who the pioneers of the prose poem were. Lawrence Fixel was one of those early practitioners, and as the Collected shows, his work still resonates decades after they were composed. With humor, with wonder, with paradox, Fixel’s parables seem ageless.