V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics

Reviews of Poetry Books by Patricia Fargnoli and Susan Terris




Without a shred of romance to cloak it, Fargnoli
reminds us that death looms on all our horizons —
the decline towards our ends is as much colored
by suffering as it is informed by wisdom.

Already established as a unique and vivid voice, in her latest book, Duties of the Spirit (Tupelo Press, 2005), Patricia Fargnoli further proves her mettle both as poet and person. More personal and narrative than her last book, Small Songs of Pain (Pecan Grove, 2004), this latest offering testifies to Fargnoli's endurance in the face of psychic and physical pain and privation.
    While too narrow a focus on individual experience and the private, internal world of a poet can undermine art and universality, Fargnoli so adeptly welcomes us into her world that we find ourselves deeply engaged at the outset, and identifying utterly with the poet. Her sense of place is impeccable — describing, indeed re-creating the physical and emotional landscapes through which she travels, Fargnoli fastens us securely to our own. Concurrently, all countries become the same country, all vistas the same vista — the boundaries between reader and poet dissolve and for a time we inhabit the same realms.
    Our mutual journey begins with "The Invitation," in which Fargnoli has "opened the doors / near the garden… The peacocks are strolling / among the lobelia / for no one but you." An enchantress every bit as seductive as Circe, Fargnoli entices us to throw all caution to the wind and enter this new place where
        the impossible
        is shaking
        its bright turquoise feathers…
        Afterwards the bed,
        with its turned down silk.

    We enter and give ourselves up, despite a late, last warning, a caution the temptress surely knows we are no longer able to heed. "What you have left behind / will forget you / soon enough." Already we are drawn into commitment; we have crossed over into Fargnoli's world; we have surrendered into her light. And her dark — a constant presence that lurks in all the corners and moments of the world we now inhabit with her — a darkness from which distractions are at best temporary, as in "First Night at the Frost Place," when a bat,

        a thing so dark, it seemed
        snipped  from the burlap of shadow
        high in the rafters above our candlelight

could almost be unnoticed, as those gathered for dinner

        continued to pass the good food,
        continued to reach tentatively,
        stranger to stranger. Oh
        we were jovial—we told jokes,
        we laughed, we cracked open the closed
        doors of ourselves to each other.

    In fact, Fargnoli does notice the creature's erratic flight, though she postulates she might have missed it entirely, a somewhat disingenuous statement given the sensitivity to surroundings and the slightest vibration of air or water that indicate the presence of life that Fargnoli demonstrates in every poem along the way. So there it is, the bat dodging in the shadows, obscure and unattainable:
        so far above us it fluttered. 
        Seen/unseen. Seen/unseen.
In that pulsed last line Fargnoli offers us her heart; we feel as though it was our own. Luminosity and tenebrity are encapsulated, given wings and set loose as an inseparable condition we contain and are contained by.
    This first infiltration of the wild into the garden intimates a crucial centrality to Duties of the Spirit. Fargnoli accomplishes a convincing one-ness with the world, a physical and psychic pinning of the self to the rotation of the earth through days, seasons, years. It is her relationship with the untamed, both in herself and in the woods, orchards, wetlands and houses she frequents that defines her poetry and her risk. "To walk is to go forward into the landscape…" she writes in "Walking on Reservoir Road," "is to press yourself to the world until you become one / with its thrusting body."  Wide open, sexual and sensual, Fargnoli presses forward with all her senses, and is never more blessed than when she is so full of the world that she nearly becomes the world itself. Sometimes Fargnoli temporarily liberates her spirit through intimacy with another, as is the case in "Brief Encounter" when "All time was with us // in that circumscribed world." Wondering later if she is even fleetingly remembered by her erstwhile partner she concludes:
        Still, this mattered, this brief touching,
        the way someone slides out of mist
        and into mist, whatever was
        to whatever is. 

    On other occasions Fargnoli finds pause and contentment in the details of her surroundings. In "Couplets by the Cove after a Hard Year" Fargnoli describes a tableau where she sits:

        On a flat rock...sketching a pinkweed. An aphid,
        transparent, climbs down to trespass across the page.

        One duck floats on the white sails of her wings…

        Rank odor rises from the marsh.
        Two more golden insects escape the weed's stem

        and wander the page's white landscape…

        Below my rock, the water laps in—gentle as hands
        on a breast—bits of foam, blades of light.

        Dried leaves, blood brown, mend the fractures
        between the boulders. Waves gravelly speech.

        There is healing here: poultice of salt, bandage of moss,
        the little enduring hips of the beach roses.

Again we are brought to use all our senses, and through them reach toward something deeper than the concrete landscape.
    Fargnoli's difficulties in maintaining that holistic awareness could easily be debilitating but she perseveres, forging ahead, and we follow, even knowing that sometimes Fargnoli, as occurs in "Evidence," loses "the road, the field, and all sense of direction." When she laments, as she does in "Talking to Myself in This Late Year," that "Yes, I am getting old; / yes, being poor takes too much out of me," we feel not pity but empathy; we are driven to examine our mortality and the complacency that enables us to avoid the hard questions regarding aging. Without a shred of romance to cloak it, Fargnoli reminds us that death looms on all our horizons — the decline towards our ends is as much colored by suffering as it is informed by wisdom.
    In Duties of the Spirit, Fargnoli draws no distinctions between attained wisdom and accrued pain and does not anticipate enlightenment as a part of the life to death procession.

        I am slipping on the scree on my mountain,
        I am sliding, my knees, my hips. If there
        is a bottom to all this, I haven’t found it.

        If there are answers one comes to after a long life,
        they are elusive…

suggests "Small Wisdoms."  Spring, and renewal, "This blossoming means I've survived another winter" have become bittersweet.

        I know what they mean now, those elders,
        when they first said life is so short.
        I mean I understand fully.

        We are lit matches under the eye of the great fires,
        a short flame, and that’s all of it.

Furthermore, knowing these things, even accepting them, alleviate nothing, not even our fear:

        I am afraid. I mean I am scared to death…

        of all those things you fear too,
        though you may be better than I am at denial,
        or maybe not.

    Our discomfort notwithstanding, Fargnoli continues to focus on isolation and diminishment. "Applewood, the End of October" finds her in a hand-to-mouth struggle, with no cushy job to finance her life or her poetry, living in a two room place with only three windows:

        …I know this is my last place: from a home, to a condo,
        to the light-filled apartment on Beaver Street,

        to here—each move a divestiture…

        …what is left is
        what I cannot bear to leave behind.

    Although she wants only a little more than the bare minimum needed to survive, Fargnoli's small wishes trouble her. In "Desire #3" while equating a lack of desire with moral goodness, she feels incapable of mastery, fears she will become "…like the man / in the novel about Africa, who stumbles like a child / through the rain forest howling: I want, I want, I want." Yet this is the same person who considers,

        …how often she does give praise, if not to a god,
        then at least to light, its thousand permutations,
        to herons performing tai chi in a salt marsh,
        to unbroken sea and the unbroken slipper shells

and the same person who, in "The Winter House" refuses to be one of those found

        …curling themselves into an absence

        as though the only world exists
        beyond plate glass.

    The poetry of Duties of the Spirit, dulcet-toned and full of image, is deceptively simple. Fargnoli lets the poems speak for themselves in straightforward language. But there is ample music in the lilt of her conversation, and in the sharp measures of her vulnerability. The words here are stripped of any armor, divested of masks, allowed their own essence. Our initiation into the complexity of Fargnoli's mind and spirit (and through that into our own) proceeds directly from this precision. She never attempts to acquire ownership of word or world. She never tries to manufacture a false transcendence, the kind of completion we would all like to carry away with us after traveling so long with naked truth. Because Fargnoli denies nothing its essence, we are present with her until the last page and poem, an end which is not an end really, but another piece of letting go while knowing we will never stop wanting to hold on. But when Fargnoli speaks directly to us in "The Leave-Taking," we recognize ourselves in the flowers seen from the "wooden garden swing" and understand, as Fargnoli does, the impermanence of all our doings and un-doings, our comings and goings. Saying farewell, Fargnoli concludes:

        I swept up dropped petals and held them

        in the cup of my two palms, absorbing their velvet,
                their edgy fragrance,
        before I uncurled my fingers,  and let them fall.

 * * * * * * * * * *



Her dexterity with language, her establishment of formal
constraints, her ability to work within set boundaries,
and the sheer loveliness of each poem completely engages us. 

We write poetry to discover the extent of ourselves, to find the essential heart we call self. Susan Terris's lyric vehicle into her inner world, Poetic License, purports to be about the work of others, and so it is on its surface. But Poetic License ultimately and deftly turns into an exploration of the preoccupations and thematic obsessions of Terris herself. Her dexterity with language, her establishment of formal constraints, her ability to work within set boundaries, and the sheer loveliness of each poem completely engage us. By capturing our entire attention, Terris is able to touch that part of ourselves shared through the medium of exceptional art. We partake her discoveries as though they were our own — reminded that insight into another human being is also insight into ourselves, that what another feels we are also capable of feeling. 
    In this brief but ambitious collection, Terris selects forty mostly twentieth-century American poets (Emily Dickinson, slightly out of time, and maybe T.S. Eliot, who preferred to be English, the only exceptions). From the work of each of these poets Terris gleans ten to twelve words and sets out, as she explains in her dedication, to "capture a fleeting, impressionistic view of how each of these poets speaks to the world." Since each poem in this series consists of only thirty to forty words, the reader might initially expect a kind of trivia game where the object is to guess which words belong to which poet — Terris or her subject. But in Terris's hands, which words she chooses from each poet become far less important than how, while paying due respect to the masters from whom she draws, she crafts them into a universal language.
    Each poem in Poetic License is placed in a group of four, two to a page, under titles naming a particular theme, i.e. "On Love," "On Endurance," and so on. Each of the four poems is identified only by the first names or initials of the poet to whom Terris offers homage. Many are easily recognizable — Edna, Sylvia, Rita, E.E., Langston. The book also contains a list that facilitates identification (there are four Roberts, which could be a little tricky). And it is clear that Terris derives inspiration from the work of her choices. Some of the inspiration is stylistic — we recognize Emily Dickinson's breathlessness in some of these poems, and William Carlos Williams's critical use of line and breaks — some of her debt is less immediately obvious. Which is a good thing here, because Terris is so skillful and so much her own poet that beyond recognizing her place in the lineage of American poets the reader, unless of an obsessively analytical mind, has no need to be distracted by the question of who contributed exactly what to Terris's tool chest.
    While the framework of Poetic License contributes to the book's success, it is Terris's awareness of language that fleshes the skeleton and brings it to breath. She accomplishes this without resort to the usual confessional narrative but through a mastery of lyric that never succumbs to linearity. In an age where so much poetry lapses into a conversational dictum that fails to rise above the artificially line-broken paragraph and the purely banal, the music of her lines recalls the sound of the lyre, and the flute, and the drum. We are reading a poetry that not only reveres the twentieth century but also the origin of the human species with its craving to carve beauty and order out of the chaos of stone, hide, bone and wind. Take these lines from "Muriel":

        In the hollows of the flesh
        An unknown blessing,
        White birds of silence, traces of
        Vanished dream…

    Terris accomplishes her melodic and rhythmic tension seemingly effortlessly, but the results bespeak not only an innate understanding of sonics but a well practiced ear. Consider the mutual effects of consonance, assonance and stress in the following lines from "E. E.":

        The secret self arrives.
        He dares to meet it at the door.
        It swoops across the darkened room
        Streaking the air with a caress.
        He scarcely speaks.…

That hard "c" in "secret" sets an anxious tone that cuts like a serrated knife all the way through to "speaks," the implication being that this visitor "He dares to meet" is fraught with ambivalence. We are not allowed to rest on the sense of arrival but, slightly off balance, are pushed from the door through the darkened room. All the "d"s and "k"s  begin or end stressed syllables, prevent us from coasting along as spectators, even when the rich "oo" of "swoop" and "room," at the heart of stressed words, lengthens the line toward a reflection of ecstasy similar to that of flight. Even as the secret self caresses the air the poem's subject is struck almost dumb: "He scarcely speaks." And that caress, with its soft second syllable, tempting us to relax for an instant, pulls up short since that caress has also "streaked" the air. What a wonderful contextual word that is — "streaked." The soft beginning, "str" followed by the long but sharp dipthong reinforces the dual sense of exhilarating airborne alacrity coupled with an implication of blurred vision. Here is ambiguity in meaning reinforced by sound, appearing exactly where ambiguity is called for.  The subject is unable to see the secret clearly, even when he moves to meet it and to open himself as he has opened that door. The poem remains grounded in the inescapable dangers attendant on daring to reach toward revelation even as we thrill to the moment of rendevous.
    The lyrics Terris composes orbit a fundamental grasping for personal understanding of both the self and its relationship to the surrounding world of incidence. In fact, the word "self" appears in sixteen poems, a repetition that might seem to verge on the redundant, except that in this case the repetition is precisely what stabilizes us, curiously concrete for all its terminological abstraction. We need this terra firma, as poem after poem tugs at us, insistent that we let go and soar, an impulse that indulged might correspond to a leap off a cliff. For while the urge to seek out the self can at times, as Terris writes in "Norman," lead us to a place where "We are seasoned / touched by laughter. / Here the light and the spirit are serene,” we can also discover, as occurs in "Carolyn," that "despair wracks the self," or as happens in "Robert" that "As the years grow stale, / Seedtime is past. In winter water / Each craft plots its own chill course."
    It is perhaps Terris's greatest asset that she embraces suffering without succumbing to bathos. Instead, her unflinching gaze spurs us to cast about determinedly for a sense of who we are and how we continue to not merely exist but blossom in the face of misery. While examining the inward lives of other poets, she examines her own and finds the gateway to a journey that we can all undertake. Terris offers no false encouragement; she never implies that the way is easy, or always lighted, or even that all will find comfort in the end. Still, Terris brings us to the desire to walk and climb and fly even without a sure direction and despite knowing nothing is ever one thing or the other. We might find, as does "Jane," "Sometimes a snake coiled / On a rock will flick out its tongue, / Test the possibility of change," but also discover the same burden as "Theodore" whose "Spirit is sluggish, irregular, / And flies with unnatural weight." Terris brings us the possibilities of clarity, wonder, and transcendence, but never conceals the facts of abandon, self-doubt and heartbreak. But regret is balanced by consolation, the impossible sustained by wonder. By the end of Poetic License, Terris has helped us manage courage, a strength and determination that is almost dazzling, as realized by "Denise," who knows "The grave self might be snared," but remains undaunted. "Still, I plunge, follow the lure. / Maybe risk will challenge the pain."

* * *

    Something must be said about the physical book itself. Like all of Adastra's publications, Poetic License is composed of handset type and letterpress printed. Publisher Gary Metras, sometimes with the help of his poets, chooses stock, designs cover, and prints each of Adastra's books by his own labor. The love of poetry and the love of the printing craft are always evident. In the case of Poetic License the design of the book is an intimate part of the way the book works — this book would not be remotely as profound an experience if mass-produced. How to explain exactly? All these things matter: texture, layout, simplicity, the smell of paper and ink, the evidence of love. Really, we can feel it in every page. Consider the conclusion to the printer's colophon:

Design and labor
by Gary Metras from July to September
during a wet summer where the
local trout streams ran
high and fast
much of the time
with trout catches
either liberal or conservative


Fargnoli, Patricia. Duties of the Spirit.  Dorset, Vermont: Tupelo Press, 2005. ISBN: 1-932195-21-1  $16.95

Terris, Susan. Poetic License.  Easthampton, Massachusetts: Adastra Press, 2004. ISBN: 0-938566-96-2  $14.00  

© by Michael Milligan


Contributor's note
Next page
Table of contents
VPR home page

[Best read with browser font preferences set at 12 pt. Times New Roman]