V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics

Review of Two New Poetry Collections



Fargnoli has a sure way of talking about the things
that matter, about love and sex and death.


Loden catches a moment that gives the reader the option of laughing
or crying, then slips in a slight barb that, if it does not make you
laugh aloud, makes you grin with recognition.

So much of our best poetry is, ultimately, a reflection of the poet looking in a mirror.  That mirror does not necessarily reflect the physical image of the writer, instead it brings into focus the poetâs view of whatever she writes about placed in time or in geographic place.  Two new and very different collections of poems exemplify this:  Patricia Fargnoliâs Necessary Light (The May Swenson Poetry Award Series from the Utah State University Press) is firmly grounded in her New England landscape and speaks from it to share what she sees, and Rachel Lodenâs Hotel Imperium (The Contemporary Poetry Series from the University of Georgia Press) finds its place in her time, especially the period of the Richard Nixon presidency and its aftermath.
    At the very beginning of Necessary Light, Fargnoli tells us "How This Poet Thinks."  The poem she shapes for this purpose is itself lovely:

        I think the way someone listens
        in a still place for the sound of quiet÷
        or the way my body sways
        at the transition zone, back and forth
        between field and woods÷a witching stick....

And that's what Necessary Light does: shows us the ways the poet imagines and drinks in her life.  As with most books I like a lot, this one invites me to share the poet's way of seeing, listening, tasting.
    The poet imagines?  From "Hopper's Paintings":

        I can imagine the people inside of them,
        Solitary, yes, and yet not utterly lonely,
        perhaps reading or passing slowly from room to room,
        a hairbrush or toothpaste in their hand.

This is Nemerov's "next room of the dream."  We see the scene.  Fargnoli takes us into the next room in beautiful language.
    Fargnoli has a sure way of talking about the things that matter, about love and sex and death.  I love the contrast between "Landscape in Blue and Bronze" and "From Eleven Years Later" with "Breaking Silence ÷ for My Son."  The poems are "real."  Men and women together.  But the first two are almost mythic, as Fargnoli says in the second:

        I want to speak with you in the round vowels
        of your own language
        to tell you how
        I've named you myth and memory,
        how I've made you a half-god.

    Compare that with the scene in the car in "Breaking Silence": "I know you want me to say I loved him / but I wanted only to belong ÷ to anyone. / So I let it happen,  the way I let all of it happen...."  The contrast is between the way we think things ought to be ÷ love that is mythic in proportion and sex that awakens sweet memories for years with what actually happens and, yet, a true, real love that ensues, between mother and son:

        And in a distant inviolate place,
        as though it had nothing at all
        to do with him, you were a spark
        in silence catching.

    As with many poets whose work appeals strongly to me, Fargnoli's poems are grounded in place.  Her New England is alien to me, but in poems like "Sag Harbor Sundown," "Crossing the Sound," and "Pemaquid Beach after a Week Alone," the poems root themselves in place and share that place.  I love some of the lines in these poems: "As though no time had passed / we looked out over the sound / in that absent-minded way we've learned" and "Top deck of the ferry, at the back rail, I watch / herring gulls ride updrafts, collapse on bread chunks / tossed by a small boy in an outsized tee shirt" and "He stops to pick a seaweed-tangled rope / from the line of wrack, / ...."  You get a sense of whereness and that whereness is populated with people I suspect I would see if I had spent my time there instead of in the where where I spent it.

Rachel Lodenâs Hotel Imperium wakes us to recent history, from the faint stirring of the fifties through the ferment of the sixties and seventies, but Hotel Imperium is not a political tract.  It is a gorgeous collection of poems using a language charged with energy.  From the earliest poem in the book, "The Killer Instinct," to the final poem, "My Test Market," Loden uses wit, parody, allusions, a unique and fascinating way of looking at the universe in a riotously original fashion.  What can you do when you read lines like these from "The Killer Instinct,"

        No one can quite

        get over it.  It is summer and revenge
        lies sweetly in the fields
        with her legs open,
                                    her Bo Peep
        petticoats in ribbons.
            Et tu,
        cutie?  Not·

or the Frost parody that ends "My Test Market,"  "Her aim is true, // her snowshoes always full of snow. / We wonât come back.  You come too," except sit back and appreciate them.   We do too much exegesis; sometimes we just need to enjoy, to sit back as readers and soak in the excitement of the language, the wit and exuberance.
    Often in Hotel Imperium Loden catches a moment that gives the reader the option of laughing or crying, then slips in a slight barb that, if it does not make you laugh aloud, makes you grin with recognition.  The humor is pointed, the recognition is not Wilsonâs "shock of recognition," but is a wry chuckle of acknowledgment.  Listen to the first two stanzas of "Clueless in Paradise":

        Sometimes, when you shake your head,
        it is like snow settling
        on the little village in the paperweight.

        Other times, itâs not÷and thatâs why
        God made the Bradley Fighting Vehicle.
        He canât always put a plaque up

        on the spot.

    Itâs the juxtaposition of the images; the peaceful scene shocked into relationship with the war.  I admire that intermixture of images tremendously, her ability to jam the dissimilar images together and make something new and original from them.  Later in that same poem, Loden writes, "Iâm a consultant.  And nude / ÷ I mean, naked ÷ aggression, is what this thing / is all about, plus Bernie Shaw...."  Loden has written not a "funny" book of poems, but an insightful, witty collection.  In that last line, we grin at the "nude"/"naked" pairing, but we realize we are talking about a not so splendid little war.
    Her poetry pays tribute to a number of poets.  You see Yeats in a few lines, "That is no game for sissies. / The assembled / playmates, wet / behind the ears·," and Hopkins, "Svetlana, are you grieving / over dacha-days unleaving?" and Frost, "We wonât come back.  You come too."  Parodies, pastiches, poetry.
    Hotel Imperium is so much more than just a compilation of witty, telling poems.  Together, the book speaks of a time period when the young were both optimistic and pessimistic, a period when idealism was tempered with irony.  Lodenâs own irony holds that time period up to poetic light and in dazzling language offers it to all of us.
    Necessary Light and Hotel Imperium, on the surface, are the products of two different strands of American poetry.  Fargnoliâs poems seem to extend a New England tradition that began long before Robert Frost and reminds us that the picture from her poem, "Visiting Frostâs Grave" ("You have to know where youâre going ÷ / down the dead end road·") does not reach a literal dead end, that there remains room for extension of that path in quite lovely and striking verse.  Loden nods to that same tradition in some of her parodic moments, but takes a different road, a road that includes cummings and Marjorie Perloff and others in the newest of the avant garde.  Together, Loden and Fargnoli show us that the particular branch, the classification of poems, is not nearly as important as the craft and imagination of the poet.

Fargnoli, Patricia. Necessary Light.  Logan, Utah:  Utah State University Press, 1999  ISBN: 0-87421-276-6   $15.95.

Loden, Rachel. Hotel Imperium. Athens, Georgia:  The University of Georgia Press, 1999.  ISBN: 0-8203-2169-9   $15.05

© by H. Palmer Hall


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