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Contemporary Poetry and Poetics




The work is dominated by water, birds, animals.
Many scenes leap suddenly into focus. And yet
the metaphysical search is not abandoned.

This book makes the reader ache beautifully. Its moving meditations on aging, loss, and sorrow, framed in striking nature imagery, both remind us of our own griefs and enhance our appreciation of the natural world. The poems make me think of Mary Oliver’s recent work, but Patricia Fargnoli’s has a more tentative, more questioning metaphysics. When all comes to an end, the poems ask, what lasts? There are exploratory forays toward answers, but no conclusive affirmation. The title is from Frost, whose “For Once, Then, Something” recounts the experience of someone looking constantly down wells and at last seeing “something” in the clarity of the water–“Truth? A pebble of quartz?” He does not know what he is seeing, but something is there, and the seeker must be satisfied with that. Even the attractive cover suggests this vision, with its photograph of a misty landscape in which an animal-a deer?–can barely be distinguished.
    Pat Fargnoli is former Laureate of New Hampshire; her previous collections include Necessary Light, winner of the 1999 May Swenson Poetry Prize and published by the Utah State University Press, and Duties of the Spirit, published by Tupelo Press in 2005, and winner of the Jane Kenyon Award for Outstanding Book of Poetry. She also has two outstanding chapbooks, Small Sounds of Pain (Pecan Grove Press) and Lives of Others (Oyster River.) Each of her collections has a cohesiveness that maximizes its emotional power–the reader is listening to a distinct, clear voice, and this voice changes as the poet ages and her circumstances alter.
    Then, Something is divided into five sections, the first of which establishes the tone with poems of an older woman, looking back at what she has valued, beautiful things and homely. The first poem is a moving list of such things which concludes ... “take nothing, / take less than nothing and even less than that. Remove your shoes, place your pulse on the table, / release breath. Leave behind the scars on your finger, your thigh, the long one over your heart.”  The long lines of these poem are like a great rush of breath, suggesting a whole life being indrawn, exhaled.
    The second section contains a long poem or sequence, “Pemaquid Variations,” which explores Fargnoli’s many related themes as the small and vulnerable consciousness is pictured next to the limitless ocean. The speaker has picked up a few mementos:

        Stones’ weight in my pockets, driftwood,
            a worm-pitted scrap, gull-feather dried, hollowed
        light as wind.

    The scenes of the ocean and shoreline, sparely and evocatively sketched, alternate with the speaker’s attempt to understand the world, the infinite and impenetrable other. The conclusion shows her acceptance of finitude and yet rebellion against the uncrossable barrier:

                                The sand is the sea’s brother.
        Sky opens out beyond my greed to understand it, and I
        am alone here, wandering across the breach,
        carrying a scavenged branch as walking stick to scratch my name.

    Throughout the collection, Fargnoli’s poems shift back and forth between long ago and the present, personal losses, community losses. Especially powerful are those of the loss of the mother in long-ago childhood, and the permanent void this early grief caused. “The Losing” ends

        In the field of my mother’s absence,
        two blackbirds are flying through the wind-driven snow.

    The work is dominated by water, birds, animals. Many scenes leap suddenly into focus. And yet the metaphysical search is not abandoned. Dante is a figure here, sometimes sheer metaphor, sometimes apparently more. God hides as a possibility behind some of the images. The universal desire for divinity, for permanence, seems to affect nature too:

        the small prayer of the red-tailed hawk

        Free of the earth and the hungers of the earth
                    let me spin above the firelds,
        let me rise in the thermals,
                    let me fall and rise, fall and rise.

    The poems are formally intriguing as well. Some are in flexible couplets, some in invented forms, such as “Lullaby for the Woman Who Walks into the Sea,” or semi-forms, such as “Almost Ghazal with Thoughts Toward Spring.”  Falling rhythms characterize the lines; in some, the lines seem to reach out and withdraw like waves, echoing the sea-patterns of the poems. The forms fit the elegiac tone of much of this work, being just suggestions of traditional patterns, and not forcing the flow of thought and image into rhyme.
    The directness of these poems is part of their appeal – they settle for nothing, but represent an intense and honest search. At times the glimpse of the patch of white at the bottom of the well is there, and at other times it isn’t; there is only the keen grief at past and coming loss. Yet these are not altogether sad poems, for they evoke the beauty of things in their passing. The earth has its own celebrations, its sacraments, as she demonstrates in “The Gifts of Linneus”:

        . . . this too, high-bush blueberry whose bright
            gems gather a sheen of morning dew, their stain
        on my willing tongue.

        And here is New England aster its flowers
            bluer than wine. Eat and drink: here, now,
        on this giving earth, its sacraments.

    As for Oliver, as for Frost, for Pat Fargnoli the absolute mystery of nature is itself a consolation.

Then, Something, Patricia Fargnoli. Tupelo Press, 2009. ISBN 978-1-932195-79-8. $16.95

© by Janet McCann


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