Dream Cabinet by Ann Fisher-Wirth (Wings Press)
The earliest cabinets of curiosities, or Wunderkammers, of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe were whole rooms devoted to the collections of their creators. Often they included a vast assortment of natural history artifacts – horns, feathers, bones – as well as sculptures, paintings, and whatever other items from the collector’s home or travels deemed by the collector sufficiently full of “wonder” to be included. Reading Ann Fisher-Wirth’s newest collection of poems, Dream Cabinet, whose title points to a certain affinity with these Old World precursors to modern museums, one enters into the mind of its maker, whose care in selecting the items for our perusal is everywhere evident. Indeed, the first poem of the book, “Slow Rain, October,” takes place inside a room wherein stands a cabinet. As readers, we step into this room and are immediately immersed in the process of getting to know the place, of examining the objects on display. As the book proceeds, the very notion of “knowing a place” takes center stage. Soon, the poems glide from this room of fixed, physical places – dates, place-names, other markers of material reality – and open through a back-door into the space of dream and spirit, a room so vast as to beboundless.
“Lullaby,” the shortest poem in the collection, demonstrates this process succinctly. The poem proceeds in the form of a matryoshka doll, in reverse. Instead of the nesting dolls – in the form of images and our experience of them – becoming ever smaller and smaller, diminishing, finally, to solidity at the core, the poem manages in three lines to, first, contract, and then expand back out into vastness:
Behind the dream the ocean.
Behind the ocean a tern’s egg nested in the sand.
Within the egg a tern riding the waves, sleeping on the waves.
This brief, gentle poem ends the first section of Fisher-Wirth’s fourth full-length book, and serves as a kind of road-map for entering the dream of this lush, compassionate collection. The reader is constantly lured into the concrete details of particular places and physical spaces, from the home-places that serve as touchstones throughout the book – the California of “Disorder and Early Sorrow,” “Answers I Did Not Give to the Annulment Questionnaire,” “Heretic Narrative,” and “Family Gatherings” and the Mississippi of “Sweetgum Country,” “The Getting-Lost Drive,” “Teaching Yoga in the Kali Yuga,” and “It Was Snowing and It Was Going to Snow”—to the travels to Greece in “Sophocles’ Philoctetes in Athens,” Sweden in “Dream Cabinet,” France in “La Garde Guerin,” Whidbey Island in “Cassandra.” At the same time, though, the reader is reminded of the impossibility of the fixed, static life, even of the one that has already been lived, as several poems suggest that even past events may be malleable.
In “Girl Riding,” for instance, the speaker talks directly to the woman who, in 1928 on her way to Lincoln, Nebraska as a college freshman, is “not thinking/ of love, not thinking of college, not thinking/ at all.” The speaker pleads with her:
get off the train you will become my mother,
so don’t, don’t, because then I will lose you:
ride forever through the tender night, as smoke
drifts around your carefully drawn lips and soft hair.
Later, in “Three for Mr. Keys,” a three-part poem about a black teacher from a one-room school in southern Mississippi visiting Belgium, the speaker recalls seeing a photograph of the young Emmett Till on display at a library:
A boy in a special exhibit,
big as life, shot in black and white,
strode grinning toward me.
No one had hurt him yet, this boy
Mr. Keys told us about in the final hour.
This urge to revise the world, to return the lives of those who suffered to the point that preceded the suffering, though, is no simplistic magical thinking. Rather, Fisher-Wirth reminds us throughout Dream Cabinet of the danger of such skewed imaginings, and leaves us with the hard fact, in “Cassandra,” of the source of real strength amidst the shards of broken relationships, failed marriages, dead soldiers, and oil spills that flow relentlessly across the pages:
To know what would happen
must happen –
yet turn from the sunlight to enter the house.
Then turn once again, at the threshold,
arms flung out,
and cry Sun! I see you for the last time!
The threshold act, of turning back not in futility or anger but in an honest assessment of the present moment, full as it is with all of the pasts and all of the possible futures, is what these poems argue is required of us if we are to continue in the face of suffering, ours and the world’s. It is as if – in the world of dreams and endless oceans the reader inhabits as she is propelled forward on the waves of language coursing through the book – time collapses. In this collapse, Fisher-Wirth carries us beyond the ego’s fascination with regret and into a placeless, spaceless dimension where, as in the poem “Lay,” “The dogs of belief lie down” and we are free to catch a glimpse of the paradoxical emptiness and fullness where, as in “Dry October,” “The soul, and All, are one.”
Dream Cabinet is divided into three parts, with the poem “Slow Rain, October” appearing as prologue. Here, the speaker lounges in “an unmade bed” and manages to clear her mind of “even the family photos/ in the Welsh cabinet by the bed,” the documentation of
parents marrying, parents aging, children small,
children grown, husband and wife
(that’s I) embracing – sixty years of family.
The first section, fittingly, remains firmly within the realm of family – childhood, marriage, motherhood, divorce – and is concerned primarily with the physical space of home, in forms both built and broken. Mimicking the way that they reside in memory, the significant life events examined here are not presented in neat chronological order. Eudora Welty’s notion of “the continuous thread of revelation” serves as a corollary to the manner in which Fisher-Wirth weaves the reader through time and space following the logic of dream-memory, not autobiography.
The entire second section is comprised of the long poem that the book’s title is taken from, “Dream Cabinet,” which is divided into eighteen parts. The poem is located, via an epigraph below the title, in Fogdö, Sweden, and while this coastal town where “there is beauty/ Bushes thick with blueberries/ scatter among boulders” serves as the primary physical landscape of the poem, the internal landscape merges with the external one. The third section of the book brings us mostly closer to the present and the author’s current home-territory of Mississippi, a landscape as broken and beautiful as the lives of those who inhabit it.
In all three sections, the possibility – and reality – of destruction looms large. None are sheltered from it. In several instances, the destruction stems from war, as in “When I Was a Child”:
“The kitchen” equaled “mother,” “Korea”
equaled “father,” and in my sister’s
history book there rose the world’s first
mushroom cloud: luminous, beautiful.
Elsewhere, the destruction recounted is of the natural world, most blatantly in the poem “BP” that opens the third section of the book. This poem weaves together found language (from an official government document and a report in The Nation) with what Fisher-Wirth describes in a note on the poem in the back of the book as “our anonymous, collective response” to the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill:
“I have not been there, I have not seen it.
It means little to me, a matter of blogs and soundbytes.
Not ordering oysters at the oyster bar.”
With this, Fisher-Wirth deftly alludes to what many of her poems demonstrate without being didactic: it is close, personal contact with our physical environments that makes us not tourists who experience only the superficial elements of a place, but inhabitants of places that are worthy of our devotion. Throughout the collection, the reader experiences, in close-up, not “the environment” in the abstract but the “lilacs, king’s-blood-lilies,// lilies of the valley, then blueberries, strawberries, / raspberries, then lingonberries, apples” of Fogdö, the “rocks/ and thorns in the chaparral, the yuccas/ flourishing their white candles on the mountain” and “The pomegranates’ scarlet star-shaped flowers” of California, the sound as “Beneath the trees,/ In the heat-wrung leaves, cicadas throb and stir up time to a crescendo” in Mississippi. In aggregate, such details celebrate the existence and mourn the loss of what the speaker in “Sudden Music” calls “the whole feral rodeo.”
Clearly, Fisher-Wirth is a poet of place, who, by evoking the places – real and imagined – of her own experience, allows the reader to more deeply know her own. In section 10 of “Dream Cabinet,” the speaker laments:
Where I live they are paving the world.
The oaks they’re saving perish,
hemmed in by concrete. Dogwoods parch
and wither in a season of no rain.
A few lines further on, she states unsentimentally, “to write of peace right now is to be a tourist.” This line hearkens back to an earlier poem, “Sophocles’ Philoctetes in Athens,” where the speaker tells us, “We prided ourselves/ on not being tourists,” and forward to “The Getting-Lost Drive,” where the speaker and the “white-haired,/ sunburnt man, who glowers through beetling/ eyebrows and stomps around the house” drive, in silence,
Away, away from everything we know,
trying to get lost, hoping something will surprise us.
The attempt to find strangeness amidst the familiar, and the attempt to treat as familiar that which is strange: these seemingly contradictory urges point, together, toward the poet’s imperative to remain determinedly free from the constraints of dualistic thinking.
This welcoming – inviting, even – of paradox highlights the spiritual current that runs through the poems in Dream Cabinet, providing the book’s steady pulse. In “If Not, Winter—”, a poem, we learn in a note from the author, that “unabashedly” shares the title of Anne Carson’s translation of Sappho, the speaker offers a litany of praise as she reflects on the experience of injury and healing following knee surgery. Her list glides effortlessly from the Big Idea—“Praise for the glacial knit of bone”—to the small gesture—“And my son who made us pizza”—in an expression of honest gratitude that mirrors the kind of move between profundity and practicality many readers can recognize from their own lives. The book avoids moralizing, and moves comfortably from a child’s experience of God in “J’ai fait la magique etude du bonheur”:
At ten as I got in the tub
I’d carefully lower my foot,
expecting, like Christ, to walk on water
to, in “Thirty Years After I Left Your Father,” a walk in the Green Gulch Zen Monastery Gardens “toward the shrine with its Buddha,/the enclosure near the sea –”. Elsewhere, poems reference the Old Testament and the Upanishads with equal ease.
In doing so, Dream Cabinet suggests, finally, that it is not in any outward sign of religion or fixed dogma that the spirit resides, but in opening the heart to the sometimes unbearable and irreconcilable experience of beauty and pain, love and loss, life and death. In section 7 of the long poem “Dream Cabinet” the wish to open completely is expressed as a prayer to a place:
To know this place in the fullness of its seasons.
And watch the light on water, day after day,
empty out my everlasting self-regard.
Let the sunlight, fog, or rain have its will with me.
Similarly, in “Over All a Mist of Sweetness,” the narrator picking blackberries recalls, “In this stained, thorn-pricked/ meditation, nothing needs/ to happen.” This is not, we know by now, in the penultimate poem of the collection, the “nothing” of a blank void, but the opening to “nothingness” that spiritual seekers of all times and places have sought to describe as the experience that comes with releasing the grip of the ego and opening to the flow of the divine, often described in Buddhist texts as the experience of emptiness. Fisher-Wirth offers, in Dream Cabinet, a collection that vibrates throughout with the vitality of her own authentic spiritual seeking. In the poem “Credo,” she captures this essence:
And the artist, what is she? The one whose hands are empty.
Who says – though to what, I do know –
speak to me as you will.
Reading the work these empty hands wrought, we are left not just full, but overflowing.
Catherine Meeks is a Lecturer in the English Department at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. She is currently at work on her first novel, for which she won the 2012 Southern Women Writers Conference Emerging Writers Contest, and she is the editor of the quarterly newsletter of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment.