“So I Tell a Story” — Usher by B.H. Fairchild


BY B.H. Fairchild
(W.W. Norton, 2009)

American poet B.H. Fairchild is clearly an accomplished narrative poet. At seventy years old, he shows no signs of peaking. In Usher, his newest book, readers will be delighted to find that Fairchild’s careful and keen eye is as vibrant and vital as ever, and, while he certainly continues to write the contemplative and erudite working-class profiles that have garnered him so much attention, he is by no means resting on his laurels. Here is a truly dynamic and challenging text, one that is grounded in the poetics that Fairchild has carved out for himself while challenging readers’ assumptions about what that poetics can do.

While many poets seem increasingly willing to accommodate our allegedly ever-diminishing attention spans and exchange the didactic potential of poetry for flimsy satire, the poems of Usher are impressive because they demand and deserve attention, focus, and time. This is poetry that turns Archibald MacLeish’s infamous declaration that “A poem should not mean / But be” on its head, for this work is not afraid to mean and be. Fairchild spells out the particulars of his philosophy of poetry in “Wittgenstein, Dying,” which serves as his own ars poetica:

The way a sentence is a story. It is raining.
Something happens, as the case may be, to something
of a certain kind and in a certain way.
Im Anfang war die Tat. In the beginning was
the act
. So I tell a story: it is raining.
Grammar as a mirror of the world.

— p. 47

In contrast to the efforts of some contemporary poets to circumvent narrative and deprive poetry of story, Fairchild insists that narrative is the driving force of his work. His poems always inhabit a specific moment. Even those poems that emphasize mental processes, such as distraction and association, are always clearly rooted to the physical world from which they arise. For example, the ecstatic, one-sentence poem “Final Exam” never loses sight of its connection to the failed reading of The Divine Comedy, despite its esoteric meanderings:

The gluey armpits, underwear in knots, coffee grounds
riding snowmobiles through the brain circuits, and insane
mental spasms heaving Samantha Dobbins, my first love,
onto p. 126 of The Divine Comedy which I have now not read
four times while I reach for the bra snap and her tongue
slithers into my ear shouting NO SCHOOL TOMORROW!
FREE MONEY! although embracing the angels of Purgatory,
Dante grabs a truckload of empty air and who can remember
all those names anyway […]

Fairchild’s poetry demonstrates a keenly analytical mind that seeks to embrace rather than subvert the impulse to reason. Even when his poetry takes on surrealist trappings, he reveals rather than denies our ability to encounter order and generate coherence.

He is intensely interested in exploring the relationship between representation and writing, the observer and the observed, even as he presents a nuanced understanding of the inclusiveness of humanity.

In Usher, Fairchild proffers a “verbal cinema,” as he and critics have noted. Yes, many of the poems in this book are literally about cinema, including the title poem “Usher,” “The Creature from the Black Lagoon,” and “On the Waterfront.” Most also address notions of performer and audience in some way, but Fairchild isn’t merely describing images with words while presenting simplistic ontological theories. He is intensely interested in exploring the relationship between representation and writing, the observer and the observed, even as he presents a nuanced understanding of the inclusiveness of humanity. In this way the book fulfills the promise of the title, for the usher is neither the audience nor the performance, but rather an intermediary who, almost invisible, is responsible for orchestrating the experience of art. In other words, by making the usher central, Fairchild seeks to illuminate the material means by which art is presented and received.

For Fairchild, of course, grammar orchestrates poetry. In no poem is this “grammar as a mirror of the world” more apparent than “Frieda Pushnik,” a dramatic monologue in which Fairchild assumes the point of view of an “Armless, Legless Wonder,” who, according to the epigraph, “spent years as a touring attraction.” While Frieda may not know it herself, she is a better spectator than the lost souls coming to see her:

These are the faces I love. Adrift with wonder,
big-eyed as infants and famished for that strangeness
in the world they haven’t known since early childhood,
they are monsters of innocence who gladly shoulder
the burden of the blessed, the unbroken, the beautiful,
the lost. They should be walking on their lovely knees
like pilgrims to that shrine in Guadalupe, where
I failed to draw a crowd. I might even be their weird
little saint, though God knows I’ve wanted everything
they’ve wanted
, and more, of course […]

— p. 23

Although human nature keeps both the spectacle and the crowd in constant pursuit of resolution, it is that very contentment that threatens to make art sentimental and dishonest. In art we seek the experience of yearning — a feeling of incompleteness — not the release that accompanies satisfaction. Fairchild understands this, and keeps his poems in the potent, murky water where there is no resolution to anxiety, only insatiable desire, and even when there comes a revelation that grants greater insight into human nature, it is not followed by catharsis. It is through desire, after all, that Frieda connects to her crowd and Fairchild connects to his reader.

In Usher, Fairchild takes a lot of risks. Sometimes they do not always pay off. The “Five Prose Poems from the Journals of Roy Eldridge Garcia,” for example, lack the lyric intensity of the rest of the book. Here, particularly in “Piano,” “Cendrars,” and “The Deer,” Fairchild fails to create the authentic people that populate most of his poems and who are memorable because of the intimate and detailed manner in which he portrays them. Whereas personalities like Frieda Pushnik and Wittgenstein, with all their vulnerability and humanity intact, are central to the poems they inhabit, many of the denizens of the five prose poems are, frankly, two-dimensional ciphers. They appear as a useful means of moving the story forward, but they lack any real substance. Despite the failure of these few poems, Usher remains ambitious, philosophical, and rugged, offering a delightful yet provocative read.

Printed from Cerise Press: http://www.cerisepress.com

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