The subject matter itself is often grim. And in their way, these lines can take on a bleak dimension of their own, a nihilistic push off the cliff of linguistic certainty. But silence, once it has been confronted, must be pushed out. — Patrick O’Reilly
W.W. Norton & Company
112 pages ($25.95)
Robert Pinsky once wrote against “the stupid, defeatist idea that poetry, especially modern or contemporary poetry, ought to be less ‘difficult.’” After all, he argued, “people still read the poems of [Marianne] Moore and [Wallace] Stevens because they don’t wear out, because they surprise and entice us—and maybe, in part, because they are difficult”. Difficulty takes on many forms, and comes with its own rewards.
Barely Composed is a difficult piece. It is Alice Fulton’s first new book in more than a decade and in some ways I am still waiting for it because it continues to reveal itself in increasingly exciting ways. Employing virtually every linguistic trick there is, and lighting on themes from art to love to death to time, the poems of Barely Composed demand the reader parse the lines again and again in new and creative ways. In that sense, the book’s title is a taunt to the reader, a challenge: catch me, if you can.
The most striking feature Fulton’s writing is her maximalist approach to language. Barely Composed is built on a fragmentary style where shrewdly broken lines constantly heighten ambiguity. As they go, Fulton quotes Shakespeare and Celan while dropping in the occasional emoticon or snatch of Esperanto; puns and nonce-words abound. Repetitive artificial forms and meandering vers libre are equally welcome. High and low language coexist harmoniously, but not peacefully. One result of this approach: there is not a single page of this book in which I couldn’t find an astonishing line or image. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a poet who adventures through language so broadly and enthusiastically. Lines like these, from “Wow Moment,” exemplify the book’s usual tone:
……………………………..The gentle interface of yawn and nature.
It would soothe us. It would soothe us. We would be soothed
by that slow looking with a limited truth value. See
how the realtor’s lens makes everything look larger
and there’s so much glare the floor looks wow
under the smartificial xmas tree.
A Fulton line seems as effortless and thrilling as a Muhammad Ali spar session, but it can be just as dizzying if the reader is not paying attention. A tribe of disembodied pronouns roam across the landscape, and the purposeful ambiguity of the phrasing can send the reader on the wrong track unnoticed for lines at a time.
This difficulty isn’t frustrating if one is willing to be taken wherever the words lead them, and find an individual meaning in every line. Even a passive reading of this book offers more than the usual amount of surprise. This play-impulse becomes a powerful argument in its own right: what is poetry for, if not to test the limits of language, to bend things to the point of breaking, then cobble them back together? And certainly, a number of poems, such as “The Next Big Thing” and “’Make It New’” attest to poetry’s inherent value. As a defense of poetry, or of “art for art’s sake,” Barely Composed would stand just fine on its own. However, as Fulton writes in “Triptych For Topological Heart,” “Without ardour, / theory suffers” (19), and there is a more stable bedrock below the swift current.
Barely Composed is not merely a case of style in lieu of substance; the dense verbiage can occasionally obscure, but not replace or negate, the somber contemplation at the book’s core. For example, the longer poem, which begins the book’s second section, “Forcible Touching,” questions the ability of art to respond to trauma. True to form, the poem weaves a variety of narrative voices together, including the advice of a children’s grief counselor, a children’s story about death, the anecdote of an animal control officer whose voice is “Un-American,” and a modern re-telling of the story of Philomel. Throughout, however, more conscious poetic voice lurks within the text:
……………………………….The voice of the shuttle = =
as on a clumsy native loom she wove a brilliant fabric,
working on words in red. When the child colors One day
…………Chipper’s mom told him his sibling
…………had died it is all right
…………to suggest crayons for the blotchy insides
…………of the ears and the blank circles in the eyes
…………that indicate reflection. Unmellow Yell-
…………ow Cool and Crazy Blue. The Animal Control
guy trembled in the one tongue
…………that must do for all his days. I hear the animal soundings.
…………Cage cage scream scream. So pain.
…………In this point I scared. I sad
…………I’m gonna lose job here after.
The blend of clinical jargon with broken English, and the application contemporary language to an ancient narrative, plays to the imagery of the Philomel story, while also conforming to the established style of the book (at least in the sense that one can “conform” to a style the strength of which is constant motion, incorporation, and evolution). More importantly, these stylistic jumps enact and reaffirm the impenetrability of narrative, forcing the reader to interrogate just how well narrative can convey trauma, let alone repair it. Nonetheless, the poem concludes “It is a good idea. It is quite surprising” (34).
No subject is explored more thoroughly than parental death and abandonment. The image of a dying mother recurs throughout the book, and especially in the fourth section, which deals with the topic most directly, and which is comprised mainly of elegies; the linguistic experiments, while present, are more restrained here than anywhere else in the book. These poems become a record of the mother’s passing and the child’s anxiety, a perspective in which “the future is a room / so small you can sit in the middle and touch / all the walls” (“Doha Melt-Down Elegy,” 73-74), and where the speaker passes time in the waiting room, editing “a sweat of student essays, changing is to was” (“Still World Nocturne,” 66). The language here becomes conspicuously scientific, making allusions to nuclear energy – a slight tonal shift which emphasizes the cold, post-traumatic space of the clinic. The grief swells and warps, reshaping all previous imagery; by the time the book reaches its ending, the “quietude” and “snow crystals” invited in the opening poem (“Because We Never Practiced With The Escape Chamber,” 11), are invaders, colonizing forces, best kept at bay by writing (“Personal Reactor,” 60); “Make It New,” 83).
The subject matter itself is often grim. And in their way, these lines can take on a bleak dimension of their own, a nihilistic push off the cliff of linguistic certainty. But silence, once it has been confronted, must be pushed out. The “gift” imagery which appears throughout the book reassures the reader, and the speaker as well. A continual appraisal of what a gift is, its purpose and reason and significance, begins in the very first poem and lasts to the very end. It is often mirrored by a self-reflective discussion of writing itself. Having spent the book refining the idea of “gift” – “Love is a gift” (“Triptych For A Topological Heart,” 19); “A gift cannot be cynical / unless the giver is” (“Triptych For A Topological Heart,” 21); “giving it away / doesn’t make a thing a gift” (“Malus Domestica,” 37) – Fulton concludes this thread with the lines “and when you said I gave you what I wanted / myself I gave you what I didn’t want” (“You Own It,” 92). That gift is grief, repurposed into language. Writing becomes a response and a salve for pain, “the fire / that burns fire” (“A Lightenment On New Year’s Eve,” 88). Seeking solace in reading, the speaker of “Doha Melt-Down Elegy” remarks “It was a good book to be lost with. I began taking notes / and by the end realized I’d transcribed every line” (76); that statement is such an accurate description of reading Barely Composed, one cannot help but see it as an anecdote about writing the book, as well. This book, more than most others, has not been completed until it has been read.
The fifth and final section of Barely Composed is fixated on newness – the newness of poetic language, and the newness that defines aftermath. One poem takes its title from Ezra Pound’s famous modernist axiom, and declares “New / breaks the reckoning frame and rests / in pieces,” before requesting “Let me collect its DNA / from the tears on your desk” (“’Make It New’,” 84). “End Fetish,” the last poem in the book, is made up of that DNA – the final line of the previous poems. Taken together, the end-lines serve as an inventory of what it took to crawl through grief, and an index of the gift now being given.
It happens sometimes that a reviewer encounters a book which is smarter than he is. He knows it’s good somehow, but articulating the reason or root of that good-ness is beyond his capability; he is overwhelmed and hyperactive, leaping from one highlight to the next, never pitching down anywhere just long enough, and must be satisfied to say “trust me” until he finally learns his way around. I’ve read Barely Composed a half-dozen times now, maybe more, and I like it a little more every time – each time, the darkness becomes a little more palpable, the structure more instinctual. But the language never becomes less surprising; I plan to reckon with it a few more times at least. Whatever work the reader puts in is well-rewarded here. Trust me.
— Patrick O’Reilly
Patrick O’Reilly, from Renews, Newfoundland and Labrador, is pursuing an MFA in Writing at the University of Saskatchewan. He earned his BA at St. Thomas University (Fredericton NB), where he was a three-time winner of the Robert Clayton Casto Prize for Poetry. His poetry has appeared in Qwerty, untethered, and Numero Cinq.