Red Life, Red Kiss: Inmost by Jessica Fisher


BY Jessica Fisher
(Nightboat Books, 2012)

Jessica Fisher’s long-awaited second book, Inmost, winner of the 2010 Nightboat Poetry Prize, does not disappoint. These are poems both meditative and ferocious in their intent to see and say clearly. Many of Fisher’s poems are written against the backdrop of wartime, though perhaps not only a specific war (Iraq, Afghanistan), but the ongoing violence of humanity. Specifically, Fisher explores how violence imprints itself in painful and unexpected ways on the bodies of mothers and children. These “inmost” bodies — generative, unfolding — are also the bearers of elegy, as birth is both shadow and companion to death, and as the child enters a mortal form that will someday disappear. Fisher draws connections between the literal hauntings of war and the metaphorical connotations of our most intimate states of being. “Or is death the mother,” she writes, quoting Wallace Stevens, in her striking poem “Elegy,” which serves as a kind of resting point for the book’s central themes.

Fisher is an exploratory poet. She writes toward and around her primary concerns — mothering, attachment, language, and loss — in a manner similar to a lyric essayist. One feels that her whole book is a depiction of the mind at work, written so fluidly on the pulse of thought that these poems must, like the mind, be approached carefully:

The frozen stream another surface
for snow’s accumulation
the mind like that also
slowly moving underneath

— “Bildungsroman,” p. 50

As Kimiko Hahn points out in her foreword, one gift of these poems is the way in which “everything simultaneously radiates connotation.” Perhaps Fisher’s poetry reads as dramatically figurative because her language is stripped of much literal reference. White space surrounds her compressed, lyric lines; so too her abstract titles, “Derive,” “Ravage,” “Pare” set the reader navigating an opaque landscape that both frightens and delights. Here, language carries the weight of what’s absent or hidden:

What they don’t know
won’t hurt them
the harmless world stripped

from the children’s dictionary

— “Ravage,” p. 18

just as subsequent lines return to tender, lush image: “& the bed of clover/where the doe beds down—“ (p. 19) The world rushes back to us as grounded and seen — ultimately, safe.

If difficult in subject matter and density of language, Inmost delights with its confidence, acuity and surprise. The reader becomes a witness of the poet addressing words themselves, at times traveling the etymology of individual verbs to discover where a wound first appears, and the way that language mirrors this thin line between violence and beauty. “And harrow for the soldiers’ formation, the birds’ migration” (“Derive,” p. 10).

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