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Contemporary Poetry and Poetics

Review of Ann Fisher-Wirth's Poetry



Fisher-Wirth 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.  Fisher-Wirth 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.
     Certainly one of the memorable attributes of this collection is its fearlessness.  In poem after poem, Fisher-Wirth tackles the forbidden.  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 came swaggering
          and riding,
          he could tip me in a ditch

          . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

          and write his name with knives
          in my soft, spilled breasts.

Such an admission, with its mixture of transgression and holiness, its brigand, and its sexual violence, is surely a bold one in our post-feminism era.
     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 forgetful 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.  Properly horrified, she said, "If I had a gun I'd shoot us both."  But Fisher-Wirth, as always, avoids the predictable ending.  There is no 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 end of 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 strikes 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 take that,
          better cherish the skeleton bride and groom
          posed in their wooden matchbox,
          in the 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 infidelity.
     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 with anger and strained relationships, it is refreshing to find a poet who expresses such deep love for children and aging parents.  In "Daughters" 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 of blood" and then "full of breasts" as "they who / suckled me now outdo me."  The speaker must view her daughters as sexual beings, their bodies already touched by boys.  In a moment of tenderness, she recalls a time 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 times she 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 becomes more than image; it evolves into symbol.  The mother, anticipating her 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 daughter, now herself fragile as the porcelain, grieves for her mother:

          I think I will break without her.

                                                  Put her in their arms,
          my sister 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 in her increasingly frail mother and ends with a wish poignantly conveyed in one of the numerous light images that thread throughout the collection:

                                                                   . . . Then your falls,
          the day you got stuck hanging halfway out of your armchair,
          emergency call button broken, how you balanced there two hours
          until we got there.  Then the dead weight of you,
          trying to get you back to bed, wig skewed over your face,
          and I thought dear God let her die this afternoon
          in so much sunlight.

     We find the same kind of dichotomy between opposites in the poems that deal with Mississippi, Fisher-Wirth's home state.  "Ice Storm" captures both the beauty and the terror of a rare natural occurrence in the South:

          Behind the house the forest exploded like popcorn.
          We stood by the window watching branches burst and shatter,
          tortured by the ice that hurtled down like daggers
          from the goddess whose fingers are talons,
          whose skirt is knives.
          At three a.m. the big one — the hundred-year-old magnolia tree.
          The meterbox ripped away, line down, a terrific shudder
          of glass and wood, the whole house shook.
          Now branches hang crazy, by threads —
          willow oaks and pecan trees,
          shards of heartwood radii and ulnas
          jutting into the leadwhite sky
          like beggars in a badly acted stageplay
          who thrust up stumps, beseeching heaven,
          hurling imprecations.

     That Fisher-Wirth cares passionately about the environment is reflected in several of the Mississippi poems.  In "Sweetgum Country" she catalogs the physical consequences felt among her students from years of reckless pollution.  She evokes the beauty of the southern landscape: "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. . . ."  And she 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 Mississippi’s distinctive 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
          and dreamed: mud, earthsprawl, tangle
          of thicket, they led the three men out
          where night boiled with cicadas;
          they had dug the earthen dam
          for Schwerner, Chaney, Goodman
          near 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 1921.  But why must we look?  Fisher-Wirth provides an answer to that question in 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 there's also healing.  "Reiki," one of the best poems in the collection, opens with a reflection on the death and devastation of September 11.  Soon 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 fall
          as rain falls       as flute music
          rises and falls in a distant room

          deeper than sleep you are lulled and loved       there now       there

          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 advises, "You 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 you will ever need."  Such poems, in their evocation of Nature’s beauty, offer us 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 digging up a pecan, she thinks "the same old thing people have thought forever.  Lucky squirrel, he / doesn’t have to be human."  But while Fisher-Wirth 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 doggie."
     Ann Fisher-Wirth’s Blue Window is written with both a first-rate intelligence and a fierce passion.  These poems do what poems ought to 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


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