V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics


Mature Measures: Patricia Fargnoli and B.H. Fairchild




The stars continue as far as we know,
        as far as we can see, and as far as we can’t.

                    —Patricia Fargnoli, “Small Wisdoms”

When Mary Oliver, as judge for Utah State University Press’s May Swenson Poetry Award, chose Patricia Fargnoli’s first manuscript of poems, Necessary Light, to be the 1999 winner, she remarked upon discovery of this poet "in the winter of her sixtieth year."  Oliver observed how it "is a rarity that is close to an astonishment.  For the authors of first books of poetry — and they are each year in the hundreds — are almost all young, and they have almost all of them risen through the same soil: workshops, MFA programs, initial life experiences.  These beginning writers are skillful and hopeful; we are happy to praise their promise, their new voices, their energy.  Ms. Fargnoli is another case altogether.  She is, in personal and worldly matters if not in issues of publishing, altogether grown-up."  Oliver determined Fargnoli's work contained "poems absolutely not of promise, but of accomplishment.  They are not so much about excitement and trial as they are about hindsight, wonder, regret, and rejoicing."  She declared: "Authority in poems is difficult to maintain if it does not come from the writer as well as the words."
    Indeed, Oliver's naming of Patricia Fargnoli as a first-book award winner was an exceptional choice, but the selection seemed admirable and appropriate for a number of reasons.  Foremost among them, Fargnoli’s poetry appeared directly descended from the works of May Swenson and Mary Oliver, as well as additional distinguished women poets who had written about the relationship between nature and self with great insight, especially when the subject of the poem involves experiences of marriage, motherhood, or other aspects of life viewed from, and enriched by, a distinctly female perspective.  In fact, the strong sense of affinity for nature’s beauty and grace, combined with a feeling of awe for its mystery and power, in Fargnoli’s poems may be traced back in an honored line through the finest works of Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore, and Emily Dickinson.
    In 2004 Patricia Fargnoli produced a second collection of poems, Small Songs of Pain (Pecan Grove Press), a book-length sequence of 37 poems inspired by Marc Chagall’s 1920s paintings portraying LaFontaine’s fables.  Although such an endeavor may seem to have the potential of being limiting to the poet because of the precise content of the paintings and the derived context of the fables, wisely Fargnoli often allowed herself to wander from an objective rendering of the content or a strict interpretation of the context; instead, she invited readers to witness inventive personal impressions and innovative flights of insight arising from a skillful ability to closely observe and openly imagine the emotions one might attach to such images or the concerns that might accompany such narratives. 
    Patricia Fargnoli’s latest book of poetry, Duties of the Spirit (Tupelo Press, 2005), presents a wonderful blending of the characteristics displayed in her first two collections.  The poems in this new volume continue to demonstrate the shrewd wisdom, generous spirit, and astute intuition introduced to readers in the mature writings of Fargnoli’s first book with the keen observation and free association needed to assure originality in the second collection.  In addition, the poems show once more Fargnoli’s command of language and careful crafting of lines.  The voice of the poet is reassuring and welcoming, while at the same time exhibiting vulnerability and humility. 
    However, again and again, readers are repeatedly impressed by Fargnoli’s refreshing images of nature — the surrounding landscape and its animal inhabitants, the borders between wilderness and civilization, or the long course of coastline that separates the land-locked speakers in the poems from the vast openness of the ocean before them.  Readers are particularly rewarded with poems revealing instances and experiences where contrasting elements of different habitats meet or the distinct environments come into conflict, as well as when an individual resident of one world trespasses upon another.  On just such occasions, Patricia Fargnoli’s poems resemble most closely similar pieces by Elizabeth Bishop.  Indeed, if a poetic kinship with Fargnoli were to be determined, Elizabeth Bishop would be a prime candidate.
    Marianne Moore, the nearest poetic spirit to Elizabeth Bishop, once commented in her review of Bishop’s first book, North & South: “Elizabeth Bishop is spectacular in being unspectacular.”  Likewise, Patricia Fargnoli is at her best when a poem subtly allows observation of the outer world of nature to be comprehended and complemented by the inner realizations arrived at naturally by the poet or speaker, small wisdoms by a writer with a large spirit, rather than forced to fit some preconceived notion or manipulated by a desire to close the poem with a clever, but unearned line.  As in Bishop’s poetry, there also exists a persistent sense of loss, or fear of losing, and an elegiac feeling to many of Fargnoli’s poems as they examine issues of illness and dying, death or absence, aging and pain, as well as human conflict or diminishment of nature.  Similar to Bishop’s poetry, Fargnoli’s poems pose questions with an exacting clarity of purpose, yet with a consistent charity of human kindness.
    Like Elizabeth Bishop recalling her own home area of New England and Nova Scotia, Patricia Fargnoli is most comfortable and at ease when delivering to readers the landscape and shoreline of her native New England.  Born in Massachusetts and raised by relatives in Nova Scotia and New England, Bishop attached great emotion to geography, especially to the settings she remembered from her childhood.  Fargnoli, who lives in New Hampshire, also associates some of her speakers’ emotional states with the geographical New England states and the characteristics of their landscape she knows so well.  As in Bishop’s poetry, Fargnoli explores her surroundings, focusing primarily upon those features where nature and humans, wilderness and civilization, the real and the imagined seem to merge, overlap, trespass, or intrude on one another.  Jeredith Merrin has written of Bishop’s attention to “blurred boundaries”: “She seems always to have been fascinated by what occurs in the liminal state between consciousness and unconsciousness, waking and sleeping.”
    In Patricia Fargnoli’s poems such a blurring of boundaries or intersection between nature and human supplies significant imagery.  In “Happiness”: “The sheep wander into the dooryard and eat the grass.”  In “From a Clifftop Overlooking Pigeon Island,” the speaker confides: “The only need I have is this enclosure, this day / folding around me, / and beyond the cliff, the sea alive with silver.”  In “The Small Hurtling Bodies” readers are made aware of the dangers in the conflict between nature and humans:

                                         . . . they hurled themselves
        toward the light, their wings, their bright bodies flung
        through glass, flung at the beacon meant as warning,
        flung at the source itself until feathers and smashed glass
        sprayed out north, east, south, west.

    Yet, in “Brief Encounter” the blending of human and nature contributes to a moment of reflection: “How easily we slid through waters too slick / with swirls of reflected light / to give back our faces.”  And in the lovely “Couplets by the Cove after a Hard Year,” the union of nature and human opens an opportunity for mending:

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

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

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

    Impressively, Patricia Fargnoli surprises the reader with the multitude of emotions evoked by encounters with nature: joy, serenity, contemplation, danger, violence, awe, etc.  The variety of incidents in nature and varied responses to them prevent predictability or boredom; instead, they preserve and present the possibilities of a fresh glimpse at the relationships between one’s self and one’s surroundings each time a new line is read.
    In poems that serve as an extended metaphor for the trespassing upon nature by humans, and the intrusion into wilderness by civilization, Fargnoli’s poetry reminds the reader of classic Bishop poems such as “The Moose,” “The Armadillo,” or “The Fish.”  “First Night at The Frost Place” begins with the introduction of an unexpected visitor:  “The bat veered erratically over us / on that first nervous night.”  While the twelve writers continue to eat dinner (“pass the good food, / continued to reach tentatively, / stranger to stranger”) the speaker is ever-conscious of the bat flying overhead, in and out of the shadows, “so dark, it seemed / snipped from the burlap of shadow / high in the rafters above our candlelight.”  Throughout the poem, the “frantic silhouette” and tentative movements of nature’s intruder mirror the anxiety of the speaker among strangers, as the poem closes:

        And, for all that society, I
        might have missed it entirely—
        so far above us it fluttered.
        Seen/unseen.  Seen/unseen.

    The metaphor of natural uneasiness exhibited by the poet’s speaker reappears in “Evidence” (a terrific, if not quietly terrifying, poem that also hints at the influence of Robert Frost, another poet for whom the New England landscape mattered mightily), where the boundary between wilderness and civilization is kept in mind for fear of becoming lost outside one’s environment:

        I walked carefully, and as far in as I dared,
        trying to keep sight of the road and the field.

        But the forest drew me into its vast density.
        I lost the road, the field, and all sense of direction.        
    By the final lines of this poem, the speaker is immersed in nature — the forest, the falling rain — and if not completely lost herself, at least alert to something becoming lost, leaving only evidence of its previous presence.
        I turned in a full circle, and turned again,
        I saw nothing
        but I swear I heard some spirit go away
        brushing its sharp antlers against the trees.

    In “The Village” elements of nature serve as cautionary metaphor.  Almost as if in reply to the sound of a carillon, when its “bell notes bounce against the winter sky,” a woodpecker taps its own beat on a nearby tree:

        A woodpecker raps against the highest trunk,
        and what melted in yesterday’s rain
        has frozen into sheets of ice.
        Walking’s treacherous.

    The dangers represented by parts of nature — the cold, the ice, the broken limbs caught in branches overhead — echo the warnings in the society temporarily left behind by the poem’s speaker: “The country’s on high alert again.”  Nevertheless, this rural natural landscape is home for the speaker: “Here is the life I know.”  The poem closes with a vivid and ominous image of tension and foreboding that appears an appropriate commentary on the situation in nature and, even more suitably, in the civilization to which the narrator knows she must return:

        Above me, in the giant maple,
        one branch lies winter-snapped
        and ready to fall but for the way
        it’s cradled across two other limbs.
        One good wind could bring it down.

    “The Undeniable Pressure of Existence” is perhaps the poem in Duties of the Spirit that most closely resembles Bishop’s poems about encounters with nature, conflicts between nature and civilization.  This poem describes a fox caught out of its element and roaming among symbols of the human environment:

        I saw the fox running by the side of the road
        past the turned-away brick faces of the condominiums
        past the Citco gas station with its line of cars and trucks
        and he ran, limping, gaunt, matted dull haired
        past Jim’s Pizza, past the Wash-O-Mat
        past the Thai Garden, his sides heaving like bellows
        and he kept running to where the interstate
        crossed the state road and he reached it and ran on. . .
    The speaker reacts with frustration, helplessness, and sorrow: “I watched him / helpless to do anything to help him, certain he was beyond / any aid, any desire to save him... .”   One is tempted to also remember the response by the narrator in William Stafford’s “Traveling through the Dark,” perhaps another influential work for Fargnoli.  As in various Bishop poems or in Stafford’s poem, the speaker indicates a position of powerlessness, incapable of any action that would alter the outcome, nearly resigned to the consequences of various invasions of society on natural landscapes — the many extended highways and suburban malls or expanding housing developments (“the perfect / rows of split-levels, their identical driveways / their brookless and forestless yards”) slowly encroaching upon the habitat of nature’s creatures.  The speaker characterizes the fox as “out of his element, sick, panting, starving, / his eyes fixed on some point ahead of him.”  How does one interpret that gaze: what might that point of focus be?  Fargnoli’s narrator suggests the animal is staring ahead, seeking “some possible salvation / in all this hopelessness, that only he could see.”   Such a final line implies the speaker cannot share the suspicion that a salvation exists anywhere ahead.  Instead, Fargnoli emphasizes the far more limited vision of humans, just as she does in “Small Wisdoms”: “The stars continue as far as we know, / as far as we can see, and as far as we can’t.”
    As in Bishop’s works, an elegiac tone filters through much of Fargnoli’s poetry, and in this case it applies to her sorrow over the steady loss of natural settings crowded out by suburban sprawl and the accompanying rapid rate of new construction of highways with roadside shopping malls.  However, Bishop’s poetry also contains an ongoing concern with vulnerability and a fear of losing those closest to her.  Similarly, the sense of an overall elegiac theme in Fargnoli’s poetry extends to mourning the absence of loved ones lost to death or the increasing importance of acknowledging one’s own mortality as aging occurs.  Often, Fargnoli combines her considerable descriptive gift, especially in communicating the transition of seasons and the progression of changes during the natural life-to-death cycles of time, with a poignant meditative note on personal vulnerability and sadness in the aging process.  In “Talking to Myself in This Late Year,” Fargnoli records:

        Even in the second week of September, the sea
        enamels itself with a brilliance that comes
        from the start of cold weather.

        Where did youth go?
        Not to mention marriage and motherhood.

    She reports an awareness of death and its influence on her has been consistent for many years: “When my parents died, / the aunts pretended nothing had happened. / What could not be spoken / was held in the muscles and flesh of my body” [“If Too Much Has Happened”].  Readers discover more of Fargnoli’s meditation on the temporality of life in “The Last Day,” where an April morning is perfectly pictured (“the sun has risen / to vibrate three inches above the mountain / and light shimmies along three wires looped / from the tall trunk of the pine to the house”).  Nevertheless, while “one bird sings the sweetest notes into being,” Fargnoli questions and laments the fleeting passage of time: “Stalks are rising — exploding in yellow / in last year’s garden and one ladybug climbs / the screen — as if it had all the time in the world.”
    “Arguing Life for Life” is a remarkable poem that draws upon Fargnoli’s professional background as a psychotherapist and begins with the following startling lines: “Today in my office someone wanted to die / and I said No.”   The piece transforms into a self-examination as the speaker confronts her own concern and consternation about mortality, closing with two moving stanzas: 

        I leaned back, let my hands fall;
        both of us were tired of pain
        and loss tallied week after week.

        He didn’t know how sometimes I stand
        at my bedroom window looking out
        where the steeple lifts over the town,
        wondering what is left to tether me to the earth.
        We sat a long time in silence.

    Fortunately for readers, Fargnoli’s frequent times in silence allow for moments of contemplation and writing on important issues of life and death, joy and sorrow, contributions and loss, nature and the natural flow of living a life filled with a large spirit.  In the title poem of this collection, Fargnoli remarks upon Thorton Wilder’s “duties of the spirit.”  According to Wilder, the first duty is “joy” and the second is “serenity.”  Fargnoli suggests the third duty must be “grief,” which “comes bending on his walking stick / holding a trowel to dig where the loves have gone.” 
    However, Fargnoli concludes the poem not with a final note of sadness, but with another small wisdom that reaffirms the value of living despite the temporality of life or happiness and the eventual stage of grief, reminding readers: “the first is slippery joy.”  Consequently, Fargnoli’s mature poetry provides readers with another source of just such a spirit of joy in living and a small wisdom of the ages that appears to advise grasping life to the fullest extent while we can with an awareness of the natural beauty around us, and she presents readers with poems that counsel a total appreciation for the people and places we experience in the brief time we are granted.

* * * * *



“I recall being out on oil rigs, on various jobs, looking out
across the barren country treeless from horizon to horizon,
listening to the chains beating against the derrick
in the ceaseless wind, and waiting, waiting for life
to come to some kind of point.  But it only seemed
to come to a point on the printed page, and so I lived,
when I could, among books, and words filled up
the empty horizon and made for me a necessary world.”

—B.H. Fairchild, “Afterword: Lathework”

A decade ago, when B.H. Fairchild’s book of poems, The Art of the Lathe, won the 1996 Capricorn Poetry Award, followed by the 1997 Beatrice Hawley Award, and was released by Alice James Books, many casual readers previously unfamiliar with Fairchild’s work were stunned to come upon such powerful poetry.  The collection garnered a number of admiring reviews, and it received widespread recognition as the volume was named a National Book Award finalist.  The book won various honors, including the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award and the William Carlos Williams Award.  All of this attention only served to prepare readers for the numerous accolades accompanying his most formidable collection of poetry, Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest, released by Norton in 2003 and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award.
    Contributing to the surprise for those that were just discovering his poetry in The Art of the Lathe, some readers were astonished by the realization that Fairchild was not another typical youthful writer suddenly becoming well known, flourishing for the first time.  Indeed, this poet, born in 1942, had previously published a couple of other collections: The Arrival of the Future (Swallow’s Tale Press, 1985) and Local Knowledge (Quarterly Review of Literature, 1991).  However, soon after its publication of The Arrival of the Future, Swallow’s Tale Press had closed up shop.  Additionally, Local Knowledge was released as only one collection in a multi-volume single-book format as part of a series experiment established by poet and editor Ted Weiss at Quarterly Review of Literature.  Included within the covers containing Local Knowledge were also the volumes of four other poets: Bruce Bond, Judith Kroll, Garaldine C. Little, and Jean Nordhaus.  This book was soon out of circulation.  Consequently, for years both of Fairchild’s early collections were unavailable to most readers.
    Indeed, most people reading The Art of the Lathe were likely unaware that a number of the poems included in that remarkable publication first appeared in one or the other of Fairchild’s two previous volumes.  Therefore, in some ways, readers now may view The Art of the Lathe as a compilation of poems spanning many years of writing.  On the other hand, they may consider it as merely a further continuation and expansion of an endeavor to explore specific themes, locales, or personae started by Fairchild in his earlier pair of books.  B.H. Fairchild seems to invite each perspective.  His reprinting of poems from one collection in another suggests Fairchild regards the books as connected to one another.  This attitude would complement the position taken by Walt Whitman, prominent among Fairchild’s ancestral poetic influences, who repeatedly enlarged and amended Leaves of Grass throughout his lifetime.  In addition, although there certainly have been some formal variations and more ambitious poems at times in his later work, the dominant distinctive content and impressive characteristics of Fairchild’s poetry have remained reliably the same throughout the last twenty years.
    Perhaps the fact that Fairchild’s book publications and public recognition have come at an age later than that for many other contemporary poets promotes a unified appearance to his poetry.  Rather than witnessing the uneven early attempts at achieving a personal style or the growing pains displayed by younger poets developing an individual voice — sometimes stumbling or following false paths along the way — most readers have encountered Fairchild’s poetry with its mature narrative voice and established poetic presentation already firmly in place.  His work always seems to exhibit the intelligence, experience, and carefully controlled craftsmanship usually accomplished by an artist’s gradual evolution over a sustained period of time, attained after a multitude of efforts complete with abundant examples of trial and error. Fairchild’s first book was released when he was 43 years old and his first widely available solo volume only reached readers when he was about 55 years old.  Like Robert Frost, whose first publication came at the age of 39, and Wallace Stevens, whose first book was published when he was 44, Fairchild has appeared to enter the consciousness of poetry readers with a fully developed and consistently persuasive poetic manner.
    Even today — after the recently reissued editions of The Arrival of the Future (Alice James Books, 2000) and now of Local Knowledge (W.W. Norton, 2005), released to re-introduce readers to Fairchild’s previous volumes and, perhaps, to ride the waves of acclaim greeting Fairchild’s two latest collections — evidence offered by the early poems only serves to support those critics who have spoken loudly and laudably of his compelling lyric narrative renditions of everyday existence in middle America.  The poetry in these two early books examines closely the daily lives, filled with difficulties and delights, of those various friends, family, co-workers, and community members Fairchild remembers from his boyhood years and growth to adulthood in the plains towns of Kansas, the rural settings of Oklahoma, and the barren landscape of west Texas. 
    In an interview with Chad Davidson that appeared in the February, 2005 issue of The Writer's Chronicle, Fairchild discusses how he has never been "self-conscious" about his poetic development, but he does concede: "I think that if my skills have improved, that improvement is most clearly demonstrated in my second book, Local Knowledge.  The poems there seem to me more imaginatively conceived, less predictable in their approach to certain kinds of subject matter, and the language seems more adventurous."  In one piece after another, Fairchild profiles people engaged in moments of private pain or pleasure, intimate triumphs or tragedies, and coping with grief or personal disappointments in their homes, on the farmlands, at the machine shops, or among the oil rigs.  In his poems, Fairchild revisits the locations and vocations that influenced his formative years, and through intricately detailed pictures painted by his memory, he profiles and preserves the people who helped shape his understanding of the world around him, as well as his acute awareness of self, the person he was and the person he would become.
    Appropriately, the cover of Fairchild’s book carries the title Local Knowledge, as he gives a nod to the importance of comprehending the places and people of his past.  Likewise, it appears fitting that the book closes with a prose piece, a memoir saluting the influences that inspired his poetic voice: “The words came early and in different ways: whole days spent in bed with  bronchitis while words floated disembodied from radio dramas in another room where my mother was ironing, late nights at family reunions when booze had loosened the tongues of my usually silent father and his brothers so that they begin to tell the stories about growing up in Oklahoma that I never tired of hearing, afternoons with my father at oil rigs where I would listen to the roughnecks cursing each other in that wonderfully inventive way that seemed to make an art of swearing.”  Complementing the vocal entertainment of the local language and placing the components of rural America in perspective, or at least presenting a means of mental or emotional escape, Fairchild also acknowledges the crucial contribution of the written word: “Growing up in that little town in the heart of the dust bowl, I do not know how I could have survived without the words of the printed page, of books.”
    In fact, even as one is drawn to the machine shop workers and oil rig repairmen in Fairchild’s poetry, their weary workdays and plain pursuits of pleasure, there is an ever-present comprehension that the narrator or poet is someone well-versed in the workings of the world beyond the fairly bare settings enveloping these figures.  Fairchild explains: “It was rather bleak, surrounded by wheat and maize fields, with few trees.  I recall being out on oil rigs, on various jobs, looking out across the barren country treeless from horizon to horizon, listening to the chains beating against the derrick in the ceaseless wind, and waiting, waiting for life to come to some kind of point.  But it only seemed to come to a point on the printed page, and so I lived, when I could, among books, and words filled up the empty horizon and made for me a necessary world.”
    Fairchild may have found a life for himself in the books he read when he was younger, still dreaming of driving away to a new beginning; however, in Local Knowledge he now seems driven to the task of bringing to life those he knew so well back then.  His words fill empty pages with a necessity to describe and trace the lives of others with whom he once shared the landscapes of Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas.  In “West Texas” Fairchild pauses on the shoulder of a highway to drink a cup of coffee while driving with his wife and children, a new day opening in the sky behind them:

        My red Ford running to rust idles
        along the roadside, one headlight
        swinging out across the plains,
        the other blind.  In the rear window
        dawn light spills over my children
        sprawling tangled in the backseat
        beneath an army blanket.  My wife
        sleeps in front where the radio loses
        itself in static, and even Del Rio
        is a distant shout.

    “From rig to rig” he travels “every few months,” and the contours of the countryside continue in a predictable pattern: “the road looming toward more sky, / bunchgrass, sometimes a stooped, / ragged clump of trees.  Always / a thin curtain of dust in the air.”  While the others sleep, this rugged landscape and an ominous environment remind the speaker of individuals from his past, particularly his father:

        Coffee sours through the night,
        and I toss the grounds like seeds
        from another country over the dry
        shoulder.  Driving high and sleepless,
        I dream awake: faces like strange
        gray flowers form and vanish,
        my father kneeling in the road… .

    The voice of the poet exposes knowledge of place, and of the people associated with this region, but it also shows a sense of authority, a tone spoken out of experience.  Fairchild’s poems often appear presented to readers as shared wisdom offered by a speaker who has witnessed individuals in difficult conditions or been tested by days, if not decades, of hardship, and endured.  “The Doppler Effect” opens with a description of such an atmosphere:

        When I would go into bars in those days
        the hard round faces would turn
        to speak something like loneliness
        but deeper, the rain spilling into gutters
        or the sound of a car pulling away
        in a moment of sleeplessness just before dawn… .

    Yet, in Fairchild’s poetry there almost always seems to be a direction forward that proposes the possibility of hope to individuals caught in the actions recounted, whether or not they take advantage of the exit afforded them.  Just as “West Texas” closes with images of moving forward, the freedom of a bird soaring ahead (“My one headlight / dims in the morning light.  The other / mirrors back the road, the whitening / sky.  Far ahead a hawk is sweeping / into view on wide, black wings.”), “The Doppler Effect” ends with an image of sunlight as bright as fire when one of the bar’s patrons opens a door to leave:

        … the door would turn to a yellow square
        so sudden and full of fire
        that our eyes would daze and we would
        stare into the long mirrors for hours
        and speak shrewdly of that pulling away,
        that going toward something.     

    A choreographer combines the images of birds and fire as he tells of his childhood days and a desire to leave Nebraska, where he “learned dance and guilt” from his mother, in “There Is Constant Movement in My Head,” a sestina that effectively employs the repetition of the form:

        I was a wild bird
        crashing into walls, calming down

        only to dance.  When Tallchief came down
        from New York, a dream flew into my head:
        to be six feet tall, to dance the Firebird
        all in black and red, to shock Nebraska… . 

    The speaker is influenced by the migrations of “sandhill cranes that crossed Nebraska / each fall: sluggish great-winged birds // lumbering from our pond, the air bird- / heavy with cries and thrumming.”  By the final lines of the poem, “the dancers are birds,”  and the images remain with the speaker, even as he leaves: “They were all in my head when I left Nebraska.” 
    Similarly, Fairchild retains in his memory images of those decades he found himself caught in the core of the nation's heartland and also found his fondness for the persuasive force of the written word.  Few recent poets have been quite as successful in their depictions of rural America and its inhabitants.  Fairchild's descriptions are often as captivating and as haunting as old black-and-white photographs or grainy documentary footage chronicling the hard existence of workers on farms, in mills, or at their machines in shops across the country's central sections.  Nevertheless, the pictures readers receive in Fairchild's poetry are difficult to categorize because, even in their stark presentations, Fairchild places enough details to entice one into gathering a feeling of attraction, if not attachment, much the way one might be drawn to the odd sight of an interestingly scarred antique dresser, its rich wood distressed, marked and marred by evidence of years of personal use, and now deemed worthy of special notice.
    In "The Last Days" Fairchild's speaker offers readers an invitation to witness this world as he has seen it:

        Out here, where the high wires pitch and whine
        and bluestem rakes the tops of my wrists,
        the sky seems to worry itself into dusk,
        clouds thinning into mare's tails,
        a rasp of grackles keening into the west wind,
        tumbleweeds that lunge, then hang
        on the rusted barbs of hard, angry possession.

    In Fairchild's best descriptive passages various elements of nature are compared in their physical presence or combined in the mind of the speaker ("clouds thinning into mare's tails").  Often, humans and natural objects touch one another through physical contact ("bluestem rakes the top of my wrists") or with emotional projection through personification ("the sky seems to worry itself into dusk").  All the components of the poem's imagery contribute to a sense of the speaker's attitude and develop a mood looming over every action that occurs ("grackles keening into the west wind" and "rusted barbs of hard, angry possession").  Later in the same poem, the speaker further positions himself among characteristic features of the countryside, and again emphasizes a sense of emotional identification with his surroundings:

        For hours I have walked the fences
        of these separate fields where the dying light
        grows long and mottled over bunches
        of shorn maize stalks and rotted fenceposts,
        where last night's dream comes flashing back
        like the sputtering red lights of the town's
        last elevator warning off low flights... .

    The dream he recalls in this environment reveals his deceased grandmother pleading to him, "release the dead, let them rise up / and walk the bankrupt fields and turn them / back to worldliness, the way we found them."  For Fairchild, the hard, dark landscape creates an apt atmosphere for remembering those souls who once inhabited it.  His poetry serves as an elegiac salute to figures now absent, even as it embraces them and brings them to life with its lyrical language. 
    Indeed, an image of a figure more noticeable for its absence occupies center stage in the impressively powerful piece that opens this book, a compelling poem that delivers an emotional blow and sets the tone for much of what awaits readers in the poetry of following pages.  In the interview with Chad Davidson, Fairchild comments about the possibility of a "breakthrough" poem in his writing over the years: there have been "a few poems where I felt that, perhaps, at least in my own eyes, I had enlarged the scope of my abilities.  That happened in the poem, 'In Czechoslovakia,' from the second book, Local Knowledge, where I had two narrative lines that I was trying to weave together."  "In Czechoslovakia" explores an incident experienced in 1968 about which Fairchild narrates in the book's afterword:

        . . . as a young man I happened to be sitting alone in a movie theater
        waiting for the darkness, like sleep, to descend, and I noticed several
        rows in front a woman speaking to someone hidden in the seat beside
        her.  The someone was apparently her child, for she doted on it, smiling
        expressively, occasionally laughing, talking to it, reaching over to smooth
        its dress or collar.  She even went to the concession stand and brought
        back a box of popcorn for it.  After the movie started, this constant yet
        unobtrusive stream of maternal affection continued, and when the movie
        ended, I waited to see what the child looked like.  The mother rose and
        walked out with her hand outstretched as if the child hidden behind the
        row of seats were following at arm's length, but when they reached the
        aisle, the mother's hand was holding nothing at all.  There was no child. 
        And the woman walked up the aisle and out of the theater with her hand
        held out to nothing, occasionally looking down and speaking to the child
        she only imagined.

    In the poem Fairchild explains the plot of the World War II movie playing on the screen, The Shop on Main Street, and offers information about its main character, a Jewish widow "who is old / and deaf and has the eyes of a feverish child. / She smiles in luminous gratitude for almost anything— / the empty button boxes, a photo of her lost daughter... ."  Finally, in the film a man, whom the widow trusts as someone who "has come to help her," betrays her.  Secretly working for the authorities as an Aryan Controller, he instructs the widow she must board one of the trucks collecting Jews or he will suffer consequences: 

        . . . he will be arrested as a collaborator, and as he
        stands there pleading, going crazy in her husband's suit

        which she has given to him, her eyes widen
        like opened fists and she knows now and begins
        to shout, pogrom, pogrom, with her hands trembling
        like moths around her face, and when he panics
        and hurls her into the closet to hide her, she falls
        and oh Jesus he has killed her and he cries out... .    

    At this moment silence in the movie theater is also shattered because "the woman in the front row / is shouting at the child, it's misbehaved in some way."  Gradually, the narratives of the two women — one in the scene in World War II Czechoslovakia and the other in an American movie theater decades later — become linked in the mind of the speaker, who had been "stunned" by the events in the fictional story of the cinema and suddenly must confront the present image of a woman walking alone down the theater aisle, her hand guiding a child who does not exist: "And you see it, though you don't want to... ."  He notices the woman's facial expression: "she has this smile / of adoration, this lacemaker's gaze of contentment, / she is perfectly happy, and she walks on out... ."  The speaker can only follow her out among other passers-by on the street, and he thinks to himself, though by now the poem has shifted from first person to second person, as he positions the reader in his shoes contemplating leaving the theater:

        . . . where you will have to walk up and down
        as if you were on a boulevard in Czechoslovakia
        watching the endless cortege of gray trucks
        rumble by in splendid alignment as you go on thinking
        and breathing as usual, wreathed in your own human skin.

    One manner of engaging B.H. Fairchild's poetry is exemplified by this early poem.  In an interview with Paul Mariani that appeared in the Fall, 2005 issue of Image, Fairchild analyzes an approach to writing poetry he has adopted: "It seems obvious that most poems these days are lyric/narrative hybrids.  I think of pure lyric as being a vertical movement within a moment of time — sometimes an infinitely small moment — and pure narrative as being a horizontal movement in time... .  In fact, I think a narrative poem always has to be a hybrid, even though it's closer to the horizontal axis, because a poem must have at least some lyric depth.  Beginning as far back as 'In Czechoslovakia' in my second book, Local Knowledge, I became interested in this problem of writing a narrative that sustains momentum without sacrificing lyric depth."  Perhaps a factor leading toward much of the admiration for Fairchild's poetry is his unerring ear for lyric language even when projecting a narrative forward or describing materials some, at first, might normally consider unpoetic.  In his interview with Mariani, Fairchild reveals a few origins and influences contributing to his mix of lyrical and narrative, always extracting eloquent poetry from less obviously elegant sources of inspiration: "As I began to write poems myself, Bill Stafford, James Wright, and Richard Hugo became very important to me because they validated my subject matter.  I had grown up in small towns in the oil fields, and I had thought poems needed to be about Grecian urns and unrequited love and nightingales.  Those three poets made it immediately clear that I could write about my own experiences."
    Another prominent influence on Fairchild's attitude toward art and craftmanship arose when he was a boy witnessing his father and other machine shop employees display great care and pride in their work.  Fairchild tells Mariani, "among my earliest memories is standing by my father as he operated a lathe.  He was a perfectionist and so introduced me to the idea of craft, 'a small thing done well.'  The odd fact that I fell in love with craft itself before I ever came to poetry has had a huge influence on the way I think about poetry.  I vividly remember how he would point out something another machinist had done as 'good work,' clearly the highest kind of praise, and how disdainfully he would refer to other work as 'sloppy.'  It was a moral distinction as much as an aesthetic one and made a deep impression on me."  Consequently, the afterword to Local Knowledge, bearing the title "Lathework," details this influence even further: "The first image, I was to discover, holds the model for everything I have written, especially poems: lathework.  In machine shops in Houston, Lubbock, Midland, and Snyder, Texas, I would as a boy stand on the wooden ramp next to my father and watch his hands move gracefully and efficiently over the lathe, maneuvering the levers and rotary handles and making the bit move in and out, back and forth, as the huge chuck spun a section of drill pipe in its iron grip."  Indeed, the younger Fairchild developed a sense of reverence for the perfectionism exhibited by his father and the other men he watched work those machines.
    Repeatedly, Fairchild has returned in his poetry to actions observed in the machine shops.  In "Toban's Precision Machine Shop" Fairchild speaks of the shop's "spiritual" atmosphere, attentive to the search for "perfection," and the "possibility" of aesthetic pleasure he recognized as evident in the tools of the trade:

                                        . . .  It is a shop
        so old the lathes are driven by leather belts
        descending like some spiritual harness
        from a long shaft beneath the tin roof's peak.

        Such emptiness.  Such a large and palpable
        sculpture of disuse: lathes leaning against
        their leather straps, grinding wheels motionless
        above mounds of iron filings.  Tools lie lead-
        heavy along the backs of steel workbenches,
        burnished where the morning light leaks through
        and lifts them up.  Calipers and honing cloths
        hang suspended in someone's dream of perfection.

        There are times when the sun lingers over
        the green plastic panels on the roof, and light
        seems to rise from the floor, seems to lift lathes
        and floor at once, and something announces itself:
        not beauty, but rather its possibility... .

    Throughout his poetry, readers discern not only Fairchild's respect for the craftsmanship of the workers he watched in the machine shops, but often a deep regard for the intelligence and character of the individuals as well.  Fairchild's personae are people who do not support the easy stereotyping or dismissal by others that might exist elsewhere.  In the closing stanza of the poem, readers see Toban, the shop owner, as he "sits in his office among his books / with music settling down on his shoulders / like a warm shawl.  He replaces the Mahler / with Schubert, the B-flat sonata, and sends it / unravelling toward me, turning the sound / far above the cluttered silence of the lathes."  Fairchild makes note of this poem, and his attempt to counter others' stereotypical depictions of characters like those in his poems, in his conversation with Mariani:

        I resent the way blue-collar labor is often stereotyped as being
        utterly divorced from high culture, as if it were performed only
        by men and women whose lives are a cycle of beer drinking,
        Monday night football, and NASCAR, and who have never
        read or wanted to read The Brothers Karamazov or Anna Karenina. 
        I have a cousin, for instance, who is a machinist and comes in
        and sets the parameters on the lathe (they're computerized now),
        then leans back and reads Heidegger.  Maybe that's exceptional,
        but I also have a poem, "Toban's Precision Machine Shop," that
        resulted from walking into a very old shop in San Bernardino
        (so old the lathes were driven by belts connected to an overhead
        shaft) where a Mahler symphony was flooding the air.

    Fairchild further praises the men in his memory who now populate his poetry: "The men in those shops, including my father, were highly skilled laborers who performed tasks whose intellectual complexity was at least equal to if not more demanding than those performed by academic intellectuals."  Anyone encountering the poetry of this early volume — the priority of craftsmanship and artwork as recounted through recollections from childhood or adolescence — would not be surprised to find the titles of Fairchild's follow-up collections, The Art of the Lathe and Early Occult Memories of the Lower Midwest. 
    In recent years Fairchild has been especially concerned about the deterioration of towns he once knew so well.  He begins his interview with Chad Davidson by voicing consternation over "the fact that small towns in rural areas in the United States — though we are concentrating on the Midwest, where I'm from — are declining at an alarming rate."  Fairchild divulges that he is presently working on a "poetry/photography project" to bring attention to the current conditions he sees in the region remembered throughout his poetry: "I'm groping with radical alterations in both space and time: empty downtowns, empty stores, empty streets, commercial life moving out of town rather than occurring at the center of the community.  Time is more linear now than cyclical as it was when the town lived according to the same planting and harvesting cycles as the small farmers, when time for the trades people was a relatively slow work week punctuated by enormously busy Saturdays... ."  However, even in this early book now reissued, Fairchild's poetry has suggested the end of an era — like the belt-driven, hand-adjusted lathes that have given way to computerized machines — that might only be preserved in memories and the art of his poetry.  In "The Structures of Everyday Life" Fairchild hints at the way shop workers once ended their days:

        In the shop's nave, where the wind bangs sheets
        of tin against iron beams, barn sparrows
        quarrel like old lovers.  At five o'clock
        the lathes wind down from their long flight.
        Burnt coils of steel loom from collecting bins.

        In the washroom photographs of wives and lovers
        look down on the backs of men pale as shells.
        Brown wrists and black hands lather and shine
        in the light of one dim lamp, and blue shirts
        hang like the stilled hands of a deaf-mute.

    Once again, through his use of the word "nave," Fairchild indicates the reverence he maintains for the work performed by the craftsmen in those shops still vivid in his memory.  This veneration that fills his poetry is further demonstrated in the poem's final lines as the men "kneel" to tie their shoes and exit at the end of a workday, but also might be viewed as leaving behind them an era that no longer exists except now in Fairchild's memory and art:

        Like eremites at prayer, the men kneel to lace
        their shoes, touching the worn heels of a life.
        When they leave, the faces on the locker doors
        turn back to darkness, each man shoulders the sun,
        carries it through the fields, the lighted streets.  

    The closing image of the sun over the men's shoulders and the lighted streets ahead may appear reminiscent of the image previously presented in "West Texas," where sunlight spilled through the rear window of an automobile, and the red Ford's headlights aimed at the road ahead.  As with the reprinting of poems from one volume to another, recurring images and repetition of settings in Fairchild's work serve to thread together individual poems, creating a sense of connection or cumulative effect.  For instance, "West Texas" opens with the line, "My red Ford running to rust idles," similar to the first image in the book's title poem, "Local Knowledge": "A rusted-out Ford Fairlane with red hubcaps."  Likewise, "Local Knowledge" continues with the car heaving "a swirl of dust," while "Work" speaks of light that "lifts dust / in swirls."  Moreover, the second stanza of "Local Knowledge" begins, "Rows of drill collars stand in racks and howl / in the blunt wind."  This is not too different from the start of the opening stanza of "Work": "Drill collars lie on racks and howl / in the blunt wind."  Throughout Local Knowledge, and much of the poetry in Fairchild's other collections, the lyrical language of the poet's distinctive voice echoes for readers, as if we, too, are returning to the scenes that replay themselves again and again in Fairchild's memories. 
    Reviving incidents and individuals remembered after years of absence appears to be a vital purpose for Fairchild as he writes poetry.  In "Speaking the Names," one of the poems later reprinted in The Art of the Lathe, Fairchild revisits land where an abandoned farmhouse and vacant barn stand as monuments to those who no longer linger except in his memory: "Behind me is a house without people.  And so, for my sake / I bring them back, watching the quick cloud of vapor that blooms / and vanishes with each syllable: O.T. and Nellie Swearingen, / their children, Locie, Dorrel, Deanie, Bill, / and the late Vinna Adams, whose name I speak into the bright and final air."  These figures represent an absence haunting Fairchild, staying with him over the decades almost in a way that the absent child accompanied the woman at the movie theater of "In Czechoslovakia."  Speaking in his afterword to Local Knowledge about his reaction to that woman and her imaginary child, Fairchild believes, "it is the fact of absence in the scene that will not let me forget it: the absence beneath the mother's hand as she walked out of the theater, the absence of apparent meaning, the absence of a real rather than an imagined life, absences like so many lighted windows as you walk through a strange city, wanting to fill them with imaginary lives and words and stories."
    Fairchild fills the absences he discovers in his life, and those stolen moments attached to his personal history, with rich images and compelling characters, shafts of bright light illuminating a darkened landscape or sifting through shadows inside a dusty machine shop.  His vocabulary is consistent and convincing, with words whose lyricism evokes an appreciation for the possibility of beauty even in brutal conditions and amid stark surroundings.
    This reissue of Local Knowledge gives readers a road map with directions leading straight to the great poems included in Fairchild's more recent and more familiar books, particularly those numerous later works that have received much deserved attention and acclaim, poems like "Beauty," "Body and Soul," "The Art of the Lathe," "Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest," "The Blue Buick: A Narrative," "The Memory of a Possible Future," and "The Memory Palace."  At its best, Fairchild's poetry acts as a lasting testimony to the significance of those lost lives and livelihoods, the loves and labors, he desires to celebrate, or at least to preserve, in his lyrical lines.  It is a wistful, yet wishful poetry, filled with a longing to present and preserve parts of a past (and its participants) that have been blown away as if with the churning wind turning through the town in "Dust Storm."  In his work, preservation in the poet's memory allows a second chance, perhaps a last opportunity, for a recovery of those now absent, a perseverance of spirit, a persistence in spite of difficulties and obstacles, a continuance toward a state of restoration, and sometimes even arrival at an act of redemption.                                       

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

Fairchild, B.H.. Local Knowledge.  New York, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005. ISBN: 0-393-3221-1 $13.95

© by Edward Byrne


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