Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Psst.

That's a sort of come-hither sound, not an evocation of anger, friends. Not a vowelless cuss.

Sorry for all the radio silence here. I'm coming back with reviews--it's summer, after all, and I have time to think of else but grading comp essays and filling out assessment paperwork. (The word assessment deserves to be strapped to a sheep's back and trotted out of the City. Is that a thing? It is now.) Meanwhile, will you settle for my review of Traci Brimhall and Cole Swensen's newish books in the current issue of Beloit Poetry Journal? Check it.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Tenants, Continued

Just a bit more on this one before I turn my attention to the next book on my pile of slim (and slimmer) volumes--

I am hungry, as a reader, for a certain kind of image, a particular turn of phrase--one that feels both inevitable and strange, that clicks shut as it should but opens onto a music or landscape or feeling somehow new to me, delicious and haunting or evocative and surreal. I want this mixture of freshness and familiarity that connotes that I am perhaps a member of a club I don't remember joining, that the password has been erased from my mind but the twitch of the secret handshake lingers in my fingers, a kind of muscle memory. I want the words to feel true/True but I want to trail that truth like someone who doesn't quite speak the language or who has just woken up from a dream. I want to follow the crumb path, still rubbing sleep out of my eyes...you know? 

There are so many moments in Tenants that hum with the readerly electricity that turns me on. In the poem "Clocked," lines like "[S]weat / greasing my half / sleep. That dampfur stink" (lines 41-42) sizzle with sound and with the kind of viscerality that does it for me--note, too, the verbal compression, the making of two words into one, that recurs frequently in Fisher's book and that she uses most often to create a single sensory detail. (Fisher didn't invent this tactic, of course, but her use of it seems particular, called for, and often fresh.) Here "fur" is fused with its dampness, the thing and its quality, its scent--combined because its quality is, here, what's important. In other words, Fisher gets rid of a bunch of business language (imagine "when I wake from sleeping badly, I'm sweaty and smell vaguely like a dog who's damp"--blech!) in order to rapidly infuse this moment with another without sacrificing even a teensy bit of now, of momentum. She earns "dampfur," by the way, partly because this metaphor follows the evocation of "dogs fucking behind / the house" (40-41), which in turn follows the speaker's mention of having had sex herself last night. Click

In "Detonation," I adore the phrase "the windowpane factory" (7-8) so intensely I want to live in it, lick it, write it a thousand times on the cover of my notebook like a lovesick eighth grader. The poem, which pulls off a powerful mixture of vulnerability and bravada, also contains these lines:

I am leaving for nowhere
with a star for a heart
that sharpens its tips
            against the ivory 
of my ribs [...] (36-40)

And it ends with these: "I will unlock my suitcase. / I will blow the place up." The imagery in this poem feels to me imagined by that magic part of the poet-brain that turns off "no," that wanders at will (or without will?), that winds up on that foreign planet that spins its orbit around the human heart. I believe the voice; I crave the slight, heated distance between the real and the invented, the true and the True and the truly new.

There's a word in German, unheimlich. We translate it as "uncanny," but the English word doesn't contain the etymological layers or the delicious doubleness of the German. Freud uses the term to connote that which is both frighteningly unfamiliar and oddly familiar--something eerily novel tinged with something we feel we know intimately but on which we can't put our finger. In German, heimlich turns out to mean "homey," friendly, familiar, hospitable, something that, as we say, feels like home. The word can also be translated as secret, private, concealed. For Freud, then, the heimlich also connotes that which is concealed from oneself--unconscious. Unheimlich, with its negative prefix, translates literally as "unhomey," unfamiliar and--thus--strange, weird, even scary. In Freudian theory, the uncanny is the revelation of that which our psychic structure intends to keep hidden, private, unspoken, unknown--because we'll basically go bonkers if we know it. (Note: I am aided in my understanding of what I'm about to say by the brilliant Elaine Scarry's brilliant book The Body in Pain.) The single word unheimlich contains both the comfortingly familiar and the dirty secret, the home and our essential existential homelessness, the bourgeois dream of privacy and safety and its underbelly, danger, turmoil, nature, chaos. In Alicia Fisher's book, the speaker of "Detonation" prepares to travel to the yearned-for location, the place where she'll find "a man who'll carve / out [her] fear" (9-10), but love, she tells us, "is not / a life sustaining planet" (4-5). Still--she intends to go there; she packs her suitcase "with terror"--suggesting both the attitude with which she packs and the cargo she'll take along, which reads for me something like a terrible psychic trousseau. She tells us she seeks "her own murderer," her dream man; despite her apparent prescience (her own, steadily dark vision that turns at the end toward the future tense), she is irresistibly drawn to a home so jagged, so "nowhere," she has to destroy it when she arrives. What could be more un/heimlich

I write in books--in pencil--and at the end of "Detonation" I quite unselfconsciously wrote, "Boom."

* * * 

Clearly I can't stop reading this book, writing about this book. Fisher writes (in the collection's title poem), "all my neighbors live in me," and I believe her. I know what she means. It gets crowded in such a heart, such a mind. Sometimes (lucky for us, dear fellow-readers), the landlady has to open a window, and a few of the sad, sexy creatures are bound to climb out, onto the roof, smoke a cigarette, moon bathe, make out. As I read, I'm just a roof away, looking on, listening. I'm thinking--despite the evident danger--of laying down a plank, crossing over. I'm thinking of moving in.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Where Alicia Lives

Tenants, by Alicia Fisher
Finishing Line Press
ISBN 978-1-62229-015-4


Seems right to begin with a chapbook—because I have written two (but only, so far, published one), because I own several, because my friend Alicia’s is hot off the presses. Yup, I know this poet—and several of the poets about whose books I’ll write here. It’s weird. But it’s also awesome. And I will trust my poet friends to trust that I love them and their work and that even my picking will be tender, an act of affection and attention.

It seems worth noting, though, that I knew Alicia’s poems before I knew her—and I’ve only seen her in person once, but we are pen pals, “language sisters,” she says—like blood sisters, only less messy (at least in a literal sense).

Alicia Fisher’s book, Tenants, out from Finishing Line Press, is 27 pages of spitfire, sex and blood and, well, kind of a lot of piss. It’s like if Ginsberg (who can’t stop saying cock and balls) and Sylvia Plath (who can’t stop picking the sticky suicide pearls off herself) had a baby, and then that baby read Dickinson and James Wright and Adrienne Rich, and maybe listened to Fiona Apple. And that baby burned to write.

The poem that keeps staying with me perhaps most of all is “Tattoo,” which opens the collection. In it, the speaker gets a tattoo, “the Chinese character / for compassion” (lines 1-2) to—what?—commemorate? elegize? exorcise?—what seems like a brief affair with her husband’s friend Mike. This poem could go wrong in so many ways—it might get merely ballsy (in the way work is often called “merely confessional,” leading with its dirty laundry and never really delivering anything else); it might diminish the husband, the lover, the self. It might become a thin drizzle of shame or a falsely defiant (because too easy) moment of triumph. “Tattoo” is ballsy—but in its complexity, in its bald willingness to reveal, yes, but more so (and more importantly) in its steady empathy, in the sharp but loving gaze it turns on every poor soul in the poem. She tells us that Mike “loved [her] underground” (29-30), but that she’s sure he’ll forget the work of his mouth on her body, “too busy / muting all that sad laughter” (26-27). When she might distance herself from her guilt by blaming or vilifying the man with whom she cheated (a ready strategy), instead she reveals both his capacity for tenderness and his vulnerability.

The speaker’s empathy extends even to the tattoo artist, whose face, Fisher writes, is “rugged with mercy” and who “understand[s her] need for symbols” (7-9).  The speaker calls her own shoulder (where the symbol is inked) “a silent hazard” (13), one that her lover, Mike, marks with his mouth in “eager concentration” (15) and which she had to hide from her husband while the mark faded. In some sense, then, here’s a woman who attempts to conceal for a time this betrayal—and then decides to make the mark of her “sin” permanent. She refers to the ink as a kind of “shivering glee / shoved under the rug” of her skin; this sounds to me like a combination of confession and hiding—I tell you what I’ve done but in a language you may not understand—a tattoo in Chinese. Doesn’t this poem, then, become not a confession but a meditation on the very nature of confession—how we are drawn to the relief it promises, how we are selective about what and how we tell, understanding that the symbol isn’t the thing itself, the story not the act?

We understand, as the poem concludes, that the tattoo (the process of being tattooed) hurts good, what Fisher calls “the gorgeous ache” (37), and in the final two lines, the speaker tells the tattoo artist (to whom the poem is addressed) that the speaker’s body is “absolved by the meaning / of [his/her] painful hieroglyphics” (41-42). I’m captivated by the grammar here—the subject of this sentence is not “I,” not the speaker as a whole person but her body. This seems a conspicuous limiting of that absolution. The poem expresses her desire for compassion—to grant it, ostensibly (as she does consistently in the poem), but also to receive it; I think, too, that it accepts the possibility that such compassion will be withheld, denied her; the tattoo artist handles only her body, his/her mercy primarily physical—he doesn’t know her. Mike’s “love” seems real enough but again physical, fleeting, erased (or faded?) by his own painful inner life.  And we hear very little about the husband—we can’t know, as readers, how he’ll react, how much he’ll know (the speaker only telling herself that his “good friend took me from behind / that handprint on the wall is mine” (32-33), whether or not he’ll forgive. Hence, while I read the tattoo as both a mark of experience (a claiming of her own life and body) and an effort on the part of the speaker to show herself compassion without denying her culpability, finally only her body has been absolved—as though only her body committed the act? Or—an idea I like better—as though marking the body (a trope for the page—and a satisfyingly feminist turn of this trope, given that both the writer and the body are female) is a first step, the way the writer often writes first and is then transformed by having written, by what she writes…

Turns out I have a lot to say about this little book, so I’ll be back with more. Wait for it.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

in which I explain myself

In its other life, this blog hosted a surfeit of poems-in-progress, and its thereness, its bright, blinking cyber-insistence, helped me birth a book. And then it didn't help me birth another book. I had to make poems in a different way it turned out.

What I want to do now is read poems and write about them, and here's where I'm going to do it. Instead of buying new collections of poetry, for the next year I intend to reread every collection I already own (and then, fellow poets, I promise I will buy more)--it's a surfeit of a different sort, a mix-tape mashup of a pile of slim volumes most of whose spines have not been cracked nor pages dog-eared--pristine, I'm saying. Unacceptable. 

I want to know about the poems I own, other people's poems, and I suspect this reacquaintance will tell me something about my own work, may bring on an upswell. Anyway, I'm going to find out, and I'm going to tell you. Lucky.