on Barely Composed, poems by Alice Fulton (W.W. Norton)
At the moment, I can’t think of a poet more consistently motivated by – and dependent on – her antagonists than Alice Fulton. In a 1990 essay, she writes, “If people notice an idea, they can argue against it, thus undermining it. But a more secluded assumption won’t be disabled. It will be absorbed and work its stowaway changes.” A stowaway hopes to arrive elsewhere via surreptitious means, but Fulton likes to threaten the vessel itself. To counter the dominant culture’s concealed intentions, “I use recondite structures to say subversive things.” Or maybe she simply calls out provocatively from her lair while shipmates go crazy trying to find her.
The opening poem in her selected collection, Cascade Experiment (2004), puts everyone on notice, the “friend” addressed and her reader:
WHAT I LIKE
Friend – the face I wallow toward
through a scrimmage of shut faces.
Arms like towropes to haul me home, aide-
memoire, my lost childhood docks, a bottled ark
in harbor. Friend -- I can’t forget
how even the word contains an end.
We circle each other in a scared bolero,
imagining stratagems: postures and imposters.
Cold convictions keep us solo. I ahem
and hedge my affections. Who’ll blow the first kiss,
land it like the lifeforces we feel
tickling at each wrist? It should be easy
easy to take your hand, whisper down this distance
labeled hers or his: what I like about you is
In another early essay, she stated that “the search for a style is a search for a language that does justice to our knowledge of how the world works.” Because Fulton’s world works invidiously to undermine itself, her stylistic response is to counterpunch with aural and intellectual jabs delivered to revive and reinvigorate.
Spelling out her method, she described a fractal poetics which “has dispensed with fidelity to the ‘normal’ and the ‘natural,’ to ‘simplicity’ and ‘sincerity.’ Instead of reproducing speech, the poem makes a sound-unto-itself.” The dispensations call attention to themselves, drowning out the simple and sincere poem that she intends not to write. That nefarious, “narcissistic,” self-credit-reflecting poem, even in its unwritten state, is the inspiring adversary. Adam Phillips has remarked that “the most compelling voices in American poetry now have a kind of inspired complicity with much of what also dismays them,” and Fulton is one of them. Her work has compelled me to sit up and pay attention since the first of her seven books, Dance Script With Electric Ballerina, appeared in 1981.
If I say her new collection, Barely Composed, is her best, it is because the book arrived just when I most needed to read work like this – for selfish reasons, to be reminded that this profession may entail long excavations of what Robert Duncan called “things-which-have-been-buried.” Taking a selfie while posing with a shovel won’t suffice. Fulton’s sense of alterity, the other awareness and the awareness of the other, emerges through torqued assertions, tilted admissions, mockery, inflations, obscurities, quasi-intimate asides, wordplay and flippancy.
From the guts of the house, I hear my mother crying
for her mother and wish I understood
the principles of tranquility. How to rest
the mind on a likeness of a blast furnace
framed in formica by anon. A photo of lounge
chairs with folded tartan lap robes. An untitled typology of
industrial parks. 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.
After studying Comparative Reality
I began Die Polyvinylchloride Tannenbaumserie.
Turn off that tiny tasteful star, I commanded.
While you’re alive there’s no time
for minor amazements. Turn off the sallow pages of
your paralegal pad. I don’t need a light to think
of you. I don’t need a god to pray.
Some things are glow alone. I said one thing you said
you remembered I said. Was it will you be my
trophy friend? Or are you someone else’s
difficult person? I mean the more myself I
become the less intelligible I seem to otters.
I know what you mean you said.
It’s like the time I was compelled to speak
on hedonism to the monks and nuns.
Did I say most religion is devotional
expediency? Or religion doesn’t worry about being
religious, its wisdom corrupted by its brilliance as light
passing near the sun is deflected
in its path. Deep in its caprices,
the whole body thinks it’s understood.
To think otherwise is isolating. When I said
hedonism stressed cheerfulness,
there were disappointed groans. Look, I’m sorry
I gave you an ornament shaped like a hollow look.
I liked its trinket brightness. Just don’t give me
a water tower dressed up as a church steeple.
See how those teardrop lights make every object
jump? The memory does. You made me love.
Was it exile in honey is still exile? Am I the fire
or just another flame? Please sell me an indulgence,
I begged a monk. And tell me what creature, what peril,
could craft that sound that night
dropped like a nubile sliver in my ear.
There is no freedom of silence
when morture forces us to speak
from organs other than the heart.
It was something about love. A far cry. It was come to me
unmediated, go to god lengths. In great things,
the attempt alone is sufficient. I think this
’cause I’m finite. That’s an understanding
to which reason can only aspire
though an entire speech community labored
for generations to say it in a fair hand clearly
dated and scented with lavender. My one and only only
a crass color orgy will see us through
the dusk ahead, the months gray as donkey.
See how it grows its own cross of fur
and bears it on its back? I showed you that.
“The principles of tranquility” are not behavioral standards one associates with Fulton’s verse, nor does it even seem fitting that her speaking-device would wish to understand them. But the antitheses of her manner always lurk at the edges. When one’s dying mother is crying for her own mother, it is usually the moment one may want to “be soothed / by that slow looking with a limited truth value.” But a stubborn allegiance to the limited truth of oneself is an alienating habit: “I mean the more myself I / become the less intelligible I seem to others.”
Fractal poetry, she writes, “splices satiric and lyrical, elegiac and absurd lines without casting a unifying tonal veil over the mélange.” Although Fulton is more attuned to pitch than tone, there is most certainly a tonal veil in “Wow Moment,” one which avidly smothers its own discredited, diaristic impulses. If tone is the indicator of how one wants to be taken, then the poem’s speaker is a raconteur of intimacies in question, baiting a prospective “trophy friend” with strange come-ons and turn-offs. There is a holiday, religion, death, perhaps a house to be sold – in short, a specific and familiar situation. However, “There is no freedom of silence / when morture forces us to speak // from organs other than the heart.” That’s what we’re hearing – both the gut-speak and comments upon it. The sound of a liberated mind wondering what to do with liberty. Although the speech also contains the knowledge that to negate understanding “is isolating,” there is a refusal to succumb to expectations. Preferring “morture” over “death,” Fulton jostles what’s left of the poem’s emotional base with resonances of the technical, the classical, and the creepy.
It has been fourteen years since Fulton’s fifth collection, Felt, was published. Barely Composed bears the composure of crucial, complete work. Each of its 30 poems suggests an idiosyncratic cause; each has waited for its context. Sometimes the trigger is a scientific or philosophical concept that ultimately becomes stained or carried off by intelligently odd speculation. Even if ideologies and laws have lost their franchises, Fulton enacts the compulsion to bang our craniums against the conundrums. Her poem may start with cold material to keep the heat of self-ness from undermining itself with given significance. Still, the goal is to appear -- but on one’s own terms.
MY TASK IS NOW TO SOLVE THE BELLS
They are here to perform. How can I
make them my co-creators, salve
their interruptions of air?
What words will they upstage
with their verdict tapestry? Time needs them,
the way anything large that moves only forward
and cannot stop needs a warning signal.
As a train needs a whistle. The train here sounds annoyed,
but the bells sound patient, as if they are stapling time.
They roll through your thinking saying torn,
torn, until your thinking goes like this:
But I == torn == petually in flux which I thought == torn ==
in a tornpacity of singing more at length.
Their sound is leaden, they are so laden
with torn. If you trace a bell to its source,
you'll find a human trying to trap a magnitude
in bronze. Because a bell's task is to snag:
to holiday or moan. When bells begin,
it's best to collaborate with them, to translate them
as best you can. The translation goes:
Don't get too close, I am time made loud.
There is not enough god to go around.
And what I assume you shall assume.
And there is no peace, no silence, after bells.
The air is too infested by a memory of them.
Their lips screwed long upon the torn.
Any description I might devise of Fulton’s work can only scant the exceptional richness of these peculiar visions. Sound and flux, advice and admonition – beautiful, imperious pronouncements, “interruptions of air,” ruptures of the linear and the set-in-stone. The tornpacity is a talent for exquisite ruination of the status quo. As she writes in “You Own It,” “the deepest trauma cannot / spare a sound.” Preening over trauma is for memoirists. Fulton’s poems suggest how we remember is a ceremonial tic. Her speakers recall their experiences, but memories engender no calm: “You tried // my device that prevents accidental workplace nudity, vetted / its magnetic veils, and at Christmas sent fruitcake / privacy filters. Remember when I was dismissed as overness // consultant? …”
The ringing cries of one’s mother for her own mother and the silent ministrations of the night nurse form the wispy elegiac heart of Barely Composed. “Still World Nocturne” seems alternately addressed to Mother, to Children (the speaker may be one of them), and to the speaker herself. It ends, “We’ll wake up to the world that’s here – a burr // of sun stuck to a catheter’s gold purse, / queasy music, wicked drugs. Still Mother, // only night will watch as I, the nightnurse, // wake up to a world unhere, unyours.” The evasion of obligatory empathy in the tone, the mind making tropes out of catheters, has a curiously moving effect.
This poem is soon followed by a splendid multi-part poem, “Doha Melt-Down Elegy.” If the “principles of tranquility” are alien to the work up to this point, in this elegy they seem to begin to pertain: “As prayer flags give their prayers to wind, / let my constancy compound … I will think of her // always and never defer my mourning. / I will sieve the ether for her she is so nearly here.” On the other hand, and more typically as in “Personal Reactor,” she writes, “I remain a mind awakened / by a reasonable exertion, imagining the world / will catch each syllable with panting eagerness anxious // for that preferment of which at present / there seems not the slightest chance.”
Antagonism and solitary wariness bristle on the brilliant surfaces of Barely Composed. Also, peculiar arias of phenomena: “We lost track of the particulate, vaunted / without ceasing, our grubcreed like a fire / always looking for a chance to rise.” How these features generate pleasure is Fulton’s genius. Barely composed, the poems are cannily frenetic. But for all their verbal invention and syntactical shuffles, they are bare at their cores. There is an implied tension between the stripped-down self (disclosed to be diminished, provisional) and the breathy façade, the composition. In between, the excitements of language are abetted by a huge, semi-disguised generosity, empowered by home rule. So perhaps I place too much emphasis on the antagonism -- since each poem is an invitation to listen and relent. You can hear that generosity quite clearly in the final lines of “Peroral”:
And you – you’re like bye-bye. You judge me
and leave me, but the dreamswerve, regifting,
grows intimate, into what’s at stake. Isn’t it rich?
Isn’t this it? This caustic awakening, as is. As us.
This knot of not mattering, isn’t it like enough?
[Published February 2, 2015. 96 pages, $25.95 hardcover]
Excerpts from Alice Fulton’s essays are quoted from The Good Strangeness of Poetry (Graywolf, 1999).