FISHER-WIRTH: BLUE WINDOW
smacks you with one hand, then comforts you
with the other — a bad
combination in a parent or a lover,
but an ideal one in a poet. We
never know what to expect.
Boldness is countered by tenderness,
brutality by beauty,
and destruction by healing.
F. Scott Fitzgerald
once said, "The test
of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas
in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to
function." We are presented with just such an intelligence in Blue Window, Ann
Fisher-Wirth’s debut collection. The subjects are
conventional enough — love, sex, family relationships, the landscape,
death — but the poet’s treatment of these subjects never is.
smacks you with one hand, then comforts you with the other — a bad
combination in a parent or a lover, but an ideal one in a poet.
never know what to expect. Boldness is countered by tenderness,
brutality by beauty, and destruction by healing.
Certainly one of the memorable attributes of this collection is its
fearlessness. In poem after poem, Fisher-Wirth tackles the
Look, for example, at "The Ways He Called Me." Here the speaker
confronts her own sexual awakening. She describes her adolescent
fantasy of being possessed by a stranger:
He told me he would hold me
while I burned. He wanted me
to suffer and grow holy.
Or if he wanted me so much,
the brigand who
he could tip me
in a ditch
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
and write his name with knives
in my soft,
Such an admission, with its mixture of transgression and holiness, its
brigand, and its sexual violence, is surely a bold one in our
The forbidden is again confronted in "The Soft
Black Cotton." "Such
eros in her demure," the speaker says as she retrieves a long-ago
memory of her young mother doing laundry, the two of them playing
"Let's Describe // or Movie Stars," the speaker's "world in her calm
hands, the hours in the workroom / steadily rising, the warm
round of her body." This
tender scene is followed by the mother's discovery years later that her
adolescent daughter has been performing oral sex on boys.
horrified, she said, "If I had a gun I'd shoot us both." But
Fisher-Wirth, as always, avoids the predictable ending. There is
shame or guilt; instead, the speaker boldly asks, ". . . didn't she
know I was being her daughter?"
In "Muerto, 1982" the speaker initially
appears to be avoiding an
admission. Using second person point of view, she describes the
a marriage, but the specificity of what the "you" cannot bear to leave
behind leads us to believe that she is not addressing some
unidentified, faceless woman, but is instead having a private
conversation with herself. This intriguing use of point of view
us as a protective device and puts us on the speaker's side. We are
additionally touched by the beauty and the fragility of the imagery:
. . . And the muerto, better
the skeleton bride and groom
posed in their
background the crude outlines
of a tiny white
cathedral, better wrap the muerto
and carry it to
the yellow convertible
carefully, as if
it were a robin's egg . . .
And then comes the surprise: we learn that the yellow convertible
belongs to the speaker's lover, "the man whose name's your secret, /
the man who dreamed he could fly / the first time you slept beside him.
. . ." This marriage has ended because of the speaker's
If Fisher-Wirth is not afraid to be tough, she
is equally unafraid to
be tender. When so much of our contemporary poetry is fraught
anger and strained relationships, it is refreshing to find a poet who
expresses such deep love for children and aging parents. In
the speaker shifts the focus from her own burgeoning sexuality to that
of her daughters. Now a mature woman, she lives in a house "full
blood" and then "full of breasts" as "they who / suckled me now outdo
me." The speaker must view her daughters as sexual beings, their
already touched by boys. In a moment of tenderness, she recalls a
when she herself touched one of those daughters: "I stroked her arm so
gently, / cherishing the vein-fine / skin, and swore no one would /
ever hurt her." In "Gala / Milk" the speaker recalls the five
gave birth, but must now acknowledge that those days are over: "No more
fingers / will hook into my mouth, / no more heads will butt me / like
lambs to knock the milk down. // I cannot tell, tonight, / if I am
frightened or full of praise."
There are also a number of poems in which the
speaker contemplates her
relationship with her aging mother. In "The Heirlooms" Fisher-Wirth
evokes in her characteristic exquisite detail a piece of Meissen
porcelain, its "fishing net / oozing eels, mackerel, and two fat
babies, / the net held by two naked ladies, hair coiffed / and
trailing, nipples tinged like coral, / seaweed draped across their
ample ivory bodies." In Fisher-Wirth's skillful hands, image
more than image; it evolves into symbol. The mother, anticipating
death, says, "Well maybe you'll call me ghoulish, but if you cremate me
/ you can put the nymphs and tritons in my arms." Already the
now herself fragile as the porcelain, grieves for her mother:
I think I will break without her.
Put her in their arms,
whispers, and I know she's trying
to comfort the
same terror, trying to see our mother
borne out to sea
in a net of love.
In "At Azalea Gardens" Fisher-Wirth again
captures the grief we feel as
we watch a parent aging and failing. The speaker visits her
mother in a
senior citizens' facility. She lists the changes she has observed
her increasingly frail mother and ends with a wish poignantly conveyed
in one of the numerous light images that thread throughout the
. . . Then your
the day you got
stuck hanging halfway out of your
button broken, how you balanced there
until we got
there. Then the dead weight of you,
trying to get
you back to bed, wig skewed over your
and I thought
dear God let her die this afternoon
in so much
We find the same kind of dichotomy between opposites in the poems that
deal with Mississippi, Fisher-Wirth's home state. "Ice Storm"
both the beauty and the terror of a rare natural occurrence in the
Behind the house the forest exploded like popcorn.
We stood by the
window watching branches burst and
tortured by the
ice that hurtled down like daggers
from the goddess
whose fingers are talons,
whose skirt is
At three a.m.
the big one — the hundred-year-old
ripped away, line down, a terrific
of glass and
wood, the whole house shook.
hang crazy, by threads —
willow oaks and
heartwood radii and ulnas
jutting into the
like beggars in
a badly acted stageplay
who thrust up
stumps, beseeching heaven,
That Fisher-Wirth cares passionately about the environment is reflected
in several of the Mississippi poems. In "Sweetgum Country" she
the physical consequences felt among her students from years of
reckless pollution. She evokes the beauty of the southern
"Early evening sun / pours down on the cypresses and sweetgum, / the
Tallahatchie swamp at the edge / of Marshall County. Turtles poke their
heads up. / Cottonmouths zipper through the black water. . . ."
evokes the danger: it is to this same river that men and women come to
"fish for buffalo, catfish, bass, / despite the fish advisories, the
waters laced with mercury."
Fisher-Wirth forces us to look deeper, beyond
landscape and into its brutal history of racism. In "Letter from
Oxford, Mississippi" we learn that the poet would prefer not to
confront this history — "Something wants me to sleep, to sink / heavy
into the bonedrowse of summer, wants me to / live in this place and not
tell its story . . ." — and yet she cannot turn away, cannot
. . . ignore the swollen stench
of roadkill on
the road, putrefaction
thick and sweet,
swaddled by kudzu in ditches . . .
to forget what I
have driven by
mud, earthsprawl, tangle
of thicket, they
led the three men out
boiled with cicadas;
they had dug the
fairgrounds in Neshoba . . . .
Nor will she allow us to turn away from the murders of the civil rights
workers in 1964, or the death by immolation of a black man in
why must we look? Fisher-Wirth provides an answer to that
the closing lines of "The Day of the Dead": "Bow down and be quiet
before these images. / Of course you can look upon them. / They will
just open you to a greater tenderness."
While Fisher-Wirth will not allow us to turn
away from ugliness, she
does not leave us unconsoled. Yes, there's destruction, but
also healing. "Reiki," one of the best poems in the collection,
with a reflection on the death and devastation of September 11.
the speaker asks, ". . . why fear death / while late October light is
turning and turning," and then she begins an exquisite laying on of
hands, taking us stanza by stanza, body part by body part through the
healing touches of a Reiki treatment, and ending with
let my hands breathe with your breathing, rise and
rises and falls
in a distant room
deeper than sleep you are lulled and
the ark of your flesh flowing
now upon still waters
Again and again Fisher-Wirth guides us towards Nature as a source of
healing. In "Light. Olympic Valley, California," the poet
bring your grief to the mountain. Lay it down." She
captures the beauty
of the setting, with its "Blue lupine, speckled alyssum / sending off
sugar and heat, the poppies' furling gold, " and she asks, ". . . what
do they know of desolation?" Here you will find "all the light
ever need." Such poems, in their evocation of Nature’s beauty,
something beyond ourselves.
In the prose poem, "You Know This," the
speaker again contemplates the
danger and uncertainty we face each day. Observing a squirrel
up a pecan, she thinks "the same old thing people have thought
Lucky squirrel, he / doesn’t have to be human." But while
acknowledges despair, she also allows for its opposite. In the
following poem, "Happiness," there is joy in being human, in simply
being alive, taking the dog for a walk, turning 50, watching a passing
flatbed full of children all calling out, "Hi doggie hi doggie hi
Ann Fisher-Wirth’s Blue Window is written with both a
intelligence and a fierce passion. These poems do what poems
do: they make us think and feel.
Ann Fisher-Wirth. Blue Window.
Los Angeles, CA: Archer Books, 2003.
ISBN: 1931122-15-6, $14.00
© by Diane Lockward