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.