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The Plains Pastoral of B.H. Fairchild
Posted By Christopher Bakken On February 1, 2006 @ 12:26 pm In Featured,Reviews | No Comments
As Reviewed By: Christopher Bakken
Poets-authoritative as they are on Eros and Thanatos, ether and effulgence-are rarely the specialists we turn to when, being Americans, we long to investigate work, that thing at the bedrock of our particular cultural expertise. Shake hands with twenty poets and you’re likely to find them all tender-palmed as brain surgeons. How remarkable to discover, taking root “somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic roll on under the night,” a poetry with enough power and guts to revive our callused and battered sublime, one remembered from John Steinbeck, Sherwood Anderson, Robert Frost, James Agee, and the photographs of Disfarmer.
[private]It is abundantly clear that B.H. Fairchild’s poems could have been written only in this country, and perhaps only with the idea of America that exists in our grain-heavy, double-wide midsection. For as exhausted and eroded as the citizens who inhabit Fairchild’s poems are-not to mention the towns they live in-something close to an American Dream emanates from their beings. And the fact of their being comprises most of the subject matter of his extraordinary four books. This is not the immigrant dream that comes to rest, upon Jay Gatsby’s death, at the verge of the country’s east coast, forever stalled. This is the dream of the old frontier, of the settlers and the unsettled, containing therefore more resignation than possibility; that dream’s embattled, stoical values are inscribed upon the landscape by masculine adventure, manual labor, and violent sport. America the Beautiful, indeed; but among the amber waves of grain, in the remembered provinces of Fairchild, men are not permitted to speak the word “beauty,” nor feel anything too obviously, except an appropriate awe at work well done, or the related awe of military or athletic achievement. This constraint could hinder the progress of a young Midwestern intellectual, not to mention a young poet-but only if poetry is conceived as the antithesis of hard labor. For Fairchild, it is not.
So it follows that the middle-aged inheritor of these values should loaf upon “the combed lawn of the Villa Carlotta” during a fine-arts retreat at Bellagio, discussing beauty with an “aesthetic friend” and a “Marxist friend” in a world as far away from Kansas and baseball as anyplace could be, and nevertheless find himself thinking decades back to the fastballs of “a tall Pawnee / named Moses Yellowhorse,” who once struck out “Gehrig, Ruth, and Lazzeri,”
because for a boy in America, to be the fastest
was to be a god, and now my father
and his brothers move behind a scrim
of dust in a fallow wheat field, a blanket
stretched between two posts to make a backstop,
a stand of maize to mark the outfield wall,
while their father watches, If an Indian
can make it, then so by God can they,
and so it goes, this story of failure
in America: Icarus unwarned,
strapped with his father’s wings, my father
one winter morning patching the drive line
of an old Ford tractor with a strand
of baling wire, blood popping out along
his knuckles, and then in fury turning
to his father, I’m not good enough,
I’ll never get there, and I’m sorry,
I’m goddamned sorry . . .
The heroes of Fairchild’s poems are almost always men who almost always fail to live up to the rigid archetypes of masculinity their fathers envisioned for them. Rather than fastballs, Moses Yellowhorse-ex-Pittsburgh Pirate and baseball pioneer-ends his career, “drunk again and throwing / water balloons / from the Hotel Roosevelt,” epitomizing something fallen and glorious, something utterly American, and leaving the Bellagio-stranded poet to try to explain to his erudite friends that
. . . unlike the Villa Carlotta, baseball is
a question of neither beauty nor politics
but rather mythology, the collective dream,
the old dream, of men becoming gods
or at the very least, as they remove
their wings, being recognized as men.
(“Moses Yellowhorse is Throwing Water Balloons from the Hotel Roosevelt”)
In the four collections of poetry Fairchild has published in the last twenty years, his mission has remained remarkably consistent: charting this collective dream and shining a shadowy light on the fallen beings who cannot often rise, in the end, to its demands. His is the work of apotheosis and he writes a poetry of the sacred; but his theology is earth-bound, material, and entirely mortal.
Fairchild’s first two books, The Arrival of the Future (reissued 2000) and Local Knowledge (1991), which had both fallen out of print, have been recently rescued and reprinted (by Alice James and Norton, respectively), thanks mainly to the great success of his last two books, The Art of the Lathe (reissued 1998, winner of both the 1996 Capricorn Poetry Award and the 1997 Beatrice Hawley Award) and Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest (2002, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award). I was surprised to see how many poems from the earlier books had been included in the later ones, nestled comfortably among what I presumed to be more recent work, a sign that the later collections were not so much departures from the earlier ones as extensions of them. I and other hungry readers long to discern the arc of a poet’s making, want to trace backward from the more advanced work to find those early glimmers of promise, the premonitions of poetry. I am grateful for these early volumes because they illustrate to the reader the steady work-ethic so deeply celebrated by the later books: it turns out that Fairchild’s poetry, in spite of its recent and well-earned exposure, didn’t explode into full-embodiment suddenly, like Athena from the brow of Zeus.
From the four collections, one gathers that Fairchild’s work is the product of gradual refinement, the steady pursuit of “a small thing done well,” as he puts it in his poem “Song,” a kind of humble, yet fastidious practice the machinists and lathe-workers of his poems understand. It is clear he learned to develop his own unlikely skills from observing his father at his lathe: “the steel bit paring / the cut end of the collar, lifting delicate / blue spirals of iron slowly out of lamplight // into darkness until they broke and fell / into a pool of oil and water below.” In the end, poetry and the lathe share a common process: both are arts of immaculate subtraction.
It is worth pointing out, too, that we are in the presence of an “older” poet-Fairchild was born in 1942. Though we do see development, we don’t find in his first books typical products of poets in their first few decades, the kind of work clogging the catalogs of so many hip little presses today-so much of it marked by the need for usurpation, desperate experimentation, a chest-thumping avant-garde. Perhaps it is crucial that young poets perform these calisthenics to force the old to get older, but it is nevertheless refreshing to see a poet “arrive” later than most, as Fairchild has, already having tested the range of his abilities, already in the process of mastering them.
“Machine Shop with Wheat Field” and “Men,” the two poems that open his first book, The Arrival of the Future, contain in their titles the elements that comprise the holy trinity of Fairchild’s pastoral: men, their shop-labor, and the Great Plains that will either sustain them or consume their lives. In the world they inhabit, every single thing is marked by its hard edge and all of it verges on ruin: “East behind the shop, junk: / hunks of iron turning to rust, mud pumps, / rat-hole diggers, drill collars, odd lengths of pipe lying / in bunch grass blown by a nervous wind.” Such a spondee-heavy, consonant-driven line owes its debts to Richard Hugo and James Wright, and Fairchild is happy to inherit from them his musical birthright.
Though Hugo’s famous “triggering towns” are everywhere here (you’d be hard pressed to find a poet more stirred by small towns than Fairchild), Wright’s are ultimately the larger presence. There’s a cosmopolitan range of allusion and image in Fairchild’s poems, as in Wright’s-neither poet is at all limited by the usual expectations of his “working class” canvas. Fairchild’s lathe-turners are not grease-monkeys, but intellectual beings: they quote Blaise Cendrars and Patsy Cline in the same breath, are as likely to listen to Mahler as Creedence Clearwater Revival. Like Wright’s, Fairchild’s poems typically show awareness of their own literariness, are not afraid to select from a cabinet of high-brow, ekphrastic, and Old World equipment. So a character like “Jughead,” the poet’s “Bright cousin, family legend / inventor of tailless kites and portable / aquariums, steel-skulled running back / and friend to movie stars” is viewed in the “Rembrandt shadows” of a bar, a “portrait by Vermeer / (A Man and Two Women)” stuck in the poet’s brain.
His books are crowded with such human beings, and it is to the poet’s credit that none of his characters feel invented-one of Fairchild’s primary gifts is for portraiture, containing the essence of a whole being within the rather limited frame of the lyric poem. We usually encounter these gorgeous freaks of nature at hilarious, yet transformative moments:
Elliot Ray Neiderland, home from college
one winter, hauling a load of Herefords
from Hogtown to Guymon with a pint of
Ezra Brooks and a copy of Rilke’s Duineser
Elegien on the seat beside him, saw the ass-end
of his semi gliding around in the side mirror
as he hit ice and knew he would never live
to see graduation or the castle at Duino.
Or we hear them muse, earnest and philosophical, upon their beautifully mundane occupations, as in the Larkinesque “Soliloquy of the Appliance Repairman:”
They go out, they come back,
these wounded, cracked plastic-and-chrome marvels
of the mediocre, of the watery omelette
and bland, confused margarita.
We should learn from our mistakes:
the lawnmower plugged with muddy oil
will foul again, and again
the nightmare ice maker will vomit
its perfectly formed cubes into the void.
Freon again and oh ever again Freon
spewing through the endless circuitry of the freezer,
thumping along, hissing through leaks.
And no matter how cartoonish they might become, when cast in the neon light of their own farce, there is always a flicker of affection, and the poems about them, like “Brazil,” are celebrations of them, written on their behalf:
This is for Elton Wayne Showalter, redneck surrealist
who, drunk, one Friday night tried to hold up the local 7-Eleven
with a caulking gun, and who, when Melinda Bozell boasted
that she would never let a boy touch her “down there,” said,
“Down there? You mean, like, Brazil?”
Oh, Elton Wayne,
with your silver-toed turquoise-on-black boots and Ford Fairlane
dragging, in a ribbon of sparks, its tailpipe down Main Street
Saturday nights, you dreamed of Brazil and other verdant lands,
but the southern hemisphere remained for all those desert years
a vast mirage shimmering on the horizon of what one might call
your mind . . .
The Mr. Showalters of the world invite mockery, hemmed in as they are by their own idiocy, paralyzed as they are by the sheer expansiveness of the landscape they inhabit. But in Fairchild’s poems they get at least some satisfaction, and even men like Elton will typically find their El Dorado in, of all places, Kansas:
Elton Wayne, brilliantly at war in that flat, treeless county
against maturity, right-thinking, and indeed intelligence
in all its bland, local guises, so that now reading the announcement
in the hometown paper of your late marriage to Melinda Bozell
with a brief honeymoon at the Best Western in Junction City,
I know that you have finally arrived, in Brazil, and the Kansas
that surrounds you is an endless sea of possibility, genius, love.
Just as the characters are eminently colorful in Fairchild’s poems, the primary colors of Fairchild’s landscape are not limited to “dull” and “slightly-less-dull” (as they often are in the work of Richard Hugo and Philip Levine). As in James Wright’s poems, where through the alchemy of the poet’s imagination even horse shit can “blaze up into golden stones,” Fairchild’s color spectrum is broad and his impulses are to “blossom” and to “brighten.” Things here, too, are “suicidally beautiful.”
In this respect, Fairchild is a surprising painter, one obviously indebted to Edward Hopper, whose paintings always seem darker than they are, with their parallel lines of light-catching windows and bricks extending beyond the frame into invisible potential. Fairchild’s senses are not subdued by an apparent lack of material opulence; they are electrified and entirely satisfied:
Everything is here. Linoleum
in alternating squares of red
and gray. Bare wall on the west
rising under an afternoon sun.
Couch in brown vinyl,
empty bottle of Miller High Life,
crucifix over the dinner table.
An odor of sleep and sauerkraut,
fresh laundry and ammonia.
(“In the Homes of the Working Class”)
Never has a humble Midwestern beer, with its perfectly ironic name, appeared so sacramental. But the poet’s recurring discovery-the fact that he exists, in spite of his surroundings, in a world teeming with such significance-is rarely shared by others. We are not surprised to find, in the very next stanza, that “No one is here” to observe these objects and the holy pattern the poet sees. When, “later, the occupants return,” they will merely be “assuming the burden of possession, / feeling the heaviness of the day’s / last light.” Such totems will inevitably resume being mundane props in their owners’ underwhelming lives.
More often than not, when the poet investigates “the hard round faces” of his fellow citizens, they reveal “something like loneliness / but deeper.” So he turns instead, like every isolated poet must, to the only other community available to him, the one to be found in his local bookstore. According to the prose “Afterword” printed in Local Knowledge, what he discovered there was crucial:
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. I wish that I could rhapsodize about the
natural beauties of the place, the rich and varied landscape, but
I cannot. 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 the empty
horizon and made for me a necessary world.
So it falls to the speakers of Fairchild’s poems to experience revelations that are primarily private, if the revelations arrive at all, and the difficulty of his project involves revealing what is beautiful without over-inscribing his praise. The sadness (there isn’t a better word for it) that emanates from his first two books stems, I think, from the poet’s constant wish to offer imaginative salvation to things and to people who cannot be saved, or who do not even think to desire salvation.
In “The Robinson Hotel,” for example, from a sequence of five locale poems grouped under the title “Kansas Avenue,”
Men from harvest crews step from the Robinson
in clean white shirts
and new jeans. They stroll beneath the awning,
considering the blue tattoos beneath their sleeves,
in San Diego years ago, a woman, pink neon lights
rippling in rain water.
Tonight, chicken-fried steak and coffee alone
at the Bluebird,
a double feature at The PLAZA: The Country Girl,
The Bridges at Toko-Ri.
The town’s night-soul, a marquee flashing orange
bulbs, stuns the windows
of the Robinson.
While these men have little to look forward to-limited as they are by their class, stunned by the foreshortened perspective their nomadic lives afford them-they become more than figures of nostalgia for the poet, who declares out of nowhere that
The men will leave as heroes,
Their deaths will be significant and beautiful
as bright aircraft,
sun glancing on silver wings, twisting, settling
into green seas.
I am delighted and surprised by this passage each time I read the poem, astonished by the earnestness of its wishful thinking. But I am also slightly disturbed by it, since this line of thinking rises only to its own occasion, is clearly willed into being, is not shared or overheard by the men themselves. That recognition makes us read into this crescendo a touch of exaggeration, and at least a pinch of irony. The poem’s ambiguous final images also leave us in emotive limbo, wanting them to signify fulfillment, knowing they do not:
In their rooms at night, they see Grace Kelly
bending at their bedsides.
They move their hands slowly over their chests
and raise their knees
against the sheets. The PLAZA’s orange light
fills the curtains.
Cardboard suitcases lie open, white shirts folded
like pressed flowers.
These men may only fantasize love in artificial light, are in the end but imaginary heroes, the mementos of a bygone era fastidiously pressed between the poet’s scrapbook vellum.
When this tension between the real and ideal, between actual presence and nostalgia, is less well-managed, as it occasionally is in Fairchild’s earlier books, the profundities can feel more like inevitabilities than surprises. It’s not that I disbelieve the existence of the creatures we encounter in the poems or the magnifying moments that alter their personalities so winningly-I grew up in a little Midwestern town equally ripe with native character. But sometimes these early poems do force their own rising, as if every life in town had been sprinkled with yeast, as if every back room and machine-shop is pre-set to blaze with an otherworldly light. To Fairchild’s immense credit, I find myself consistently moved, longing along with the speaker of these poems to believe in the significance of their figures, to hope for them on their behalf, to risk over and over the sentimental journey the poems send me on. I am so often held, disbelief suspended, mainly because Fairchild’s delivery is so intoxicating. What I love about so many of these poems is how unfussy they are, how unpretentious. This is not an uncomfortable eloquence, nor is this a contrived loftiness dressed-down by the trappings of the working class. These are quietly powerful, quietly elegant poems, composed in a plain style for the Great Plains, but one no less deep for that perceived plainness.
And their earnestness is persistently upended with humor, as in “Language, Nonsense, Desire,” a satire of foreign language instruction films, whose stock characters are “forever entangled / in the syntax of Spanish 101,” or in “Speaking the Names,” one of the most accomplished lyrics in Local Knowledge, which takes off into Whitmanian reverie only after blurting out:
It is no good to grow up hating the rich.
In spring I would lie down among pale anemone and primrose
and listen to the river’s darkening hymn, and soon
the clouds were unraveling like the frayed sleeves of field hands,
and ideology had flown with the sparrows.
The cottonwood that sheltered the henhouse is a stump now,
and the hackberries on the north were leveled years ago.
Bluestem hides the cellar, with its sweet gloom of clay walls
The silo looms over the barn, whose huge door swallowed daylight,
where a child could enter his own death.
What became of the boy with nine fingers?
The midwife from Yellow Horse who raised geese?
They turned their backs on the hard life,
and from the tree line along the river they seem to rise now,
her plain dress bronze in the moonlight, his wheatstock hair in
Several of the poems in Local Knowledge (like this one, which he reprints in The Art of the Lathe) prefigure stylistic developments that come to fruition in his later books. Most importantly, there is a loosening of Fairchild’s line, a move away from the self-limiting, heavily-stressed, monosyllabic crawl of lines like these (from “Shorty’s Pool Hall”):
The young men stalk green fields
with cues like knives and die
bravely in the stench-filled restroom
Instead, we begin to find a more discursive tendency, and longer lines containing a higher quotient of prose, so the brute energy of the poems doesn’t rest so much on the metallic edge of enjambments, but in narrative and syntactical propulsion from within the line:
I have given the waitress all my money,
and she has taken it, stuffed it into the heart-shaped pocket
with her ridiculous name, and removed herself to the storeroom
with the cook who wants only to doze through the afternoon lull
undisturbed by a man who has yanked the PALL MALL knob
from the cigarette machine and now beats his head against
the coin return button while mumbling the prayer for the Burial
of the Dead at Sea which his grandfather taught him as a charm
against drowning in the long silences before tornadoes
and floods when Black Bear Creek rose on the Otoe
and the windmill began to shriek like a gang of vampires.
(“In a Café near Tuba City, Arizona, Beating My Head against a Cigarette Machine”)
These utterances move at rabbit-speed, even at a loss for punctuation at times, are compelled down the page. The poems written in this mode also feel warmer, since the openness of this style allows for more intimate exchanges with the reader, inviting our participation in the off-hand twitches of irony and self-deprecation. These developments do not constitute a “breakthrough”-clearly Fairchild did not require one-but to my ear they do mark a stylistic transition into his more recent work.
By the time we arrive at “Beauty,” the first poem in The Art of the Lathe, this more effusive tendency has muscled into a new kind of power. Sentences drive this poem more than individual lines, and the sentences are sprawling, yet gorgeously controlled, almost obsessive in their desire to speed down the page and to contain, along the way, every last thought in their constricting syntax. To write a poem as ambitious as “Beauty,” Fairchild requires such digressive flexibility, since his method is to imitate the organic, gestures of thought, while playing ball upon on several broadening fields of reference at once.
The poem begins with poet and spouse at a museum in Italy, but leaps immediately from there into the poet’s own past, into a series of memories that comprise a collective vision of “men / who knew the true meaning of labor and money and other / hard, true things and did not, did not ever, use the word, beauty.” The opening sentence, which begins chattily, in medias res, takes up thirteen whole lines of loose, unrhymed hexameter (and this is only a third of the length of the last, and longest, sentence in the poem):
We are at the Bargello in Florence, and she says
what are you thinking? And I say, beauty, thinking
of how very far we are now from the machine shop
and the dry fields of Kansas, the treeless horizons
of slate skies and the muted passions of roughnecks
and scrabble farmers drunk and romantic enough
to weep more or less silently at the darkened end
of the bar out of, what else, loneliness, meaning
the ache of thwarted desire, of, in a word, beauty,
or rather its absence, and it occurs to me again
that no male member of my family has ever used
this word in my hearing or anyone else’s except
in reference, perhaps, to a new pickup or dead deer.
On one hand, the poem celebrates this version of Middle American masculinity, which is somehow charming for all its block-headed innocence, at once old-fashioned, naïve and inextricable from a working-class existence.
But the poem’s rambling scrutiny also reveals a desperate, darker undercurrent of violence, homophobia, and intellectual restriction-a kind of ugliness, in other words, which cannot be dismissed or romanticized. Such men spend a lot of time rehearsing their own “sexual autobiography” and they perceive and admire the raw skill involved in the sniper shot that killed John F. Kennedy. What I’ve just said makes “Beauty” sound very, well, serious-and I can imagine how in the hands of another poet it would all come out rather high-minded and perfectly thoughtful. But the poem is astounding for the uncertainty and casualness of its observations, the fluid unreeling of the different narratives, and especially for its overall goofiness.
The whole problem of beauty for the poem’s speaker, it turns out, originates from the radio broadcast of a discussion of the subject “between Robert Penn Warren and Paul Weiss at Yale College” overheard in Kansas while “eating barbecue-flavored potato chips and waiting / for Father Knows Best to float up through the snow / of rural TV in 1963″:
Here were two grown men discussing “beauty”
seriously and with dignity as if they and the topic
were as normal as normal topics of discussion
between men such as soybean prices or why
the commodities market was a sucker’s game
or Oklahoma football or Gimpy Neiderland
almost dying from his hemorrhoid operation.
They were discussing beauty and tossing around
allusions to Plato and Aristotle and someone
named Pater, and they might be homosexuals.
That would be a natural conclusion, of course,
since here were two grown men talking about “beauty”
instead of scratching their crotches and cursing
the goddamned government trying to run everybody’s
business. Not a beautiful thing, that. The government.
Not beautiful, though a man would not use that word.
Attempting to discern what constitutes the un-beautiful, not to mention the beautiful, pushes the speaker out to the far edge of the prescribed boundaries of Great Plains intellectual and masculine experience. His bemusement is patiently re-enacted for us over the course of the poem, bristling with ironies that don’t quite take a side, even if it is clear that in the end he will be happy to free himself from the philosophical bear-trap of the crotch-scratchers.
One expects such a poem to become acrid and patronizing, but Fairchild maintains this kind of playful neutrality, and his disheveled, unaffected tone allows him to crescendo at the central “event” of the poem, around which these other ruminations circulate: a flashback to the “strangest of all memories.” One day, two California boys “who look like Marlon Brando and mention Hollywood” step from their black Corvette and invade the locker-room atmosphere of the machine-shop at the pretense of looking for summer work-and then strip off their clothes suddenly in an act of suicidal exhibitionism, standing buck naked in front of a gang of lathe-workers too shocked to remember how they are supposed to react to such a blatant provocation. Fairchild is fascinated by what happens next, seeing “not just anger but a kind / of terror on [Bobby Sudduth’s] face,”
an animal wildness
in the eyes and the jaw tight, making ropes in his neck
while in a long blur with his left hand raised and gripping
an iron file he is moving toward the men who wait
attentive and motionless as deer trembling in a clearing . . .
The poem’s single, irreducible beauty is not some idea pulled from the pages of Pater, finally, but what the men like Bobby see before them and what they feel-a bewildering tangle of vulnerability and sexuality and power, something that recalls to them their own experiences on the football field, or the first time they saw their own naked fathers in the bath, or the first animal they were going to kill, how they “felt diminished by it.”
The undercurrents of irony stir, but do not overflow the depths of empathy found in “Beauty,” and his long excursion into flashback, and into the minds of other men, leads him back ultimately to himself, to the Bargello. There he stands before Donatello’s David, thinking not only of Bobby Sudduth (who dies, in the end, from “a single shot / from a twelve-gauge which he held against his chest”), but also of Hart Crane, the miracle of naked bodies suspended in Kansas lathe-light, or in museum light, and the complicated, flawed beauty culminating in the last lines of the thirty-six line sentence that is the poem’s final equation. “Beauty” is a tour-de-force, one of those rare things-a truly memorable poem.
The Art of the Lathe contains a number of poems that are nearly as ambitious and almost as good. A list of these must include “The Book of Hours,” “The Art of the Lathe” (a kind of taxonomy of the machine beginning with Leonardo da Vinci), and “Body and Soul,” which Anthony Hecht called “the best baseball poem” he knew. It is certainly the best baseball poem I know, and not just by virtue of being the only one I’ve ever truly liked. I also find Fairchild’s poem “Keats” irresistible; it opens by announcing:
I knew him. He ran the lathe next to mine.
Perfectionist, a madman, even on overtime
Saturday night. Hum of the crowd floating
from the ball park, shouts, slamming doors
from the bar down the street, he would lean
into the lathe and make a little song
with the honing cloth, rubbing the edges,
smiling like a man asleep, dreaming.
A short guy, but fearless. At Margie’s
he would take no lip, put the mechanic big
as a Buick through a stack of crates out back
and walked away with a broken thumb
but never said a word.
We are meant to remember that John Keats-a meticulous maker if there ever was one-distinguished himself in the first half of his life by getting into brawls. Keats’ famous “Vale of Soul-Making” letter, in fact, was written on the occasion of the second black eye of the poet’s life (this one from playing cricket), a bit of evidence that he’d handled himself pretty well in those fistfights. So Fairchild revives Keats the fastidious young roughneck here and grafts it upon Keats the perishable maker of fine-boned poems. Though I could say I saw it coming, there was nevertheless something perfectly satisfying to read, in the final lines of this American reincarnation, that “It was the dust that got him, his lungs / collapsed from breathing in a life of work. / Lying there, his hands are what I can’t forget.”
Of all his books, Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest strikes me as the most complete, both for the power mustered by certain individual poems (like several already mentioned here, including the brilliant “Brazil” and “Moses Yellowhorse Throws Water Balloons from the Hotel Roosevelt”), but even more so in the combined impact of the collection itself, which ought to be read in sequence, cover to cover.
Memory is the elusive ghost from start to finish, and the aim of the book’s “occult system” is finally to assemble out of remembered fragments B.H. Fairchild’s myth of origins. Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest is a post-Romantic project, then, one that owes obvious debts to the greatest poet of memory-Wordsworth-not to mention the prose vaults of Marcel Proust. Which is to say that the project isn’t entirely original-the “memory” poem is by now an American poetic staple, but it has been a long time since we have seen such a sustained and powerful sequence of them, and Fairchild has found a way to revivify this somewhat fossilized beast.
Some of the poems in this book’s “system” constitute attempts to locate what Wordsworth named “spots of time,” moments in which an adult mind is “nourished and invisibly repaired.” Others are more fraught with agony, more direct in their head-on collision with death-they have duende. In either case, the prevailing method of composition consists of Fairchild’s practiced detachment and lyrical rearrangement. The opening poem in the book begins:
In his fifth year the son, deep in the backseat
of his father’s Ford and the mysterium
of time, holds time in memory with words,
night, this night, on the way to a stalled rig south
of Kiowa Creek where the plains wind stacks
the skeletons of weeds on barbed-wire fences
and rattles the battered DeKalb sign to make
the child think of time in its passing, of death.
(“Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest”)
A glance along the left margin (almost all prepositions and articles) reveals something about the poem’s purpose: it must dig back through the vast accumulation of places and words to a very specific source. In effect, the prepositions work to re-position the child in that lost world. The core sentence-“the son . . . holds time”-is sufficient only when it has been reunited with the corresponding objects and senses that embodied it in the past. A glance along the noun-heavy right margin underlines what’s at stake in these acts of reclamation.
The first two sections of the book consist primarily of poems in this mode, though almost none of them furrow their brows as much as this title poem, which establishes the ambition of all the poems in the book, but does not set its dominant tone. In fact, levity is much more abundant than profundity throughout Early Occult Memory Systems and the poems are even, on occasion, allowed to rhyme:
For me it was the cherry blossoms flooding
Olive Street and softening the dawn,
the windows flung open in a yawn,
billowing curtains pregnant with the breeze,
the sounds of Procul Harum entering the air,
and fifty girls rising in their underwear.
(“Delivering Eggs to the Girls’ Dorm”)
Or they delight in their author’s own self mockery, as in “Hearing Parker for the First Time,” in which we hear him declare, “I played tenor sax the way, / I thought, Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young might have / if they were, like me, untalented and white.” Though a few poems hymn their nostalgia this sweetly, their resolutions are almost never easy. We remain, after all, in the landscape of Fairchild, where most encounters bring us face to face with the complications of social class, redneck violence, and American dread.
“Mrs. Hill,” for instance, opens with the breathy innocence of a lost blank verse episode of Leave it to Beaver:
I am so young that I am still in love
with Battle Creek, Michigan: decoder rings,
submarines powered by baking soda,
whistles that only dogs can hear. Actually,
not even them. Nobody can hear them.
But the poem quickly comes to resemble Elizabeth Bishop’s “First Death in Nova Scotia,” with a child-speaker on the edge of comprehending the troubling concepts of an adult world, but never quite succeeding. “Mrs. Hill” could have been titled “First Domestic Violence in the Lower Midwest,” in fact, since the opening stanza’s atmosphere of suburban dreaming is about to be shattered. Mrs. Hill, a neighbor, comes “hammering” on the front door looking for refuge from an abusive husband, forcing the speaker’s father (decked out “in his black and gold gangster robe”) to act, and forcing the child to decipher what he can of the mayhem:
I have never heard of such a thing. A man
wanting to shoot his wife. His wife.
I am standing in the center of the room
barefoot on the cold linoleum, and a woman
is crying and being held and soothed
by my mother. Outside, through the open door
my father is holding a shotgun,
and his shadow envelops Mr. Hill,
who bows his head and sobs into his hands.
A line of shadows seems to be moving
across our white fence: hunched-over soldiers
on a death march, or kindly old ladies
in flower hats lugging grocery bags.
The scene is recollected with such detachment it becomes a kind of tableau vivant in Cold War silhouette, one that could melt easily into melodrama, except Fairchild is wise enough to write beyond the limited domestic scene.
Since the poem must represent the memory fully, it also has to include the somewhat arbitrary, but somehow interconnected ideas and facts that are ingredients in the child’s awe: images of ancient death and destruction from the Encyclopedia Britannica Junior, deflated tire tubes at “Roman’s Salvage,” and the Purple Heart his “father refused in WWII,” now sitting mysteriously in “a Muriel cigar box” in another man’s house. In this way, the violence becomes densely stratified and terrifying, so we are appropriately disturbed when the child flees the house at the poem’s end to sound his ineffectual cry for help into the abyss of the Great Plains:
In the kitchen now Mrs. Hill is playing
gin rummy with my mother and laughing
in those long shrieks that women have
that make you think they are dying.
I walk into the front yard where moonlight
Drips from the fenders of our Pontiac Chieftain.
I take out my dog whistle. Nothing moves.
No one can hear it. Dogs are asleep all over town.
It is only natural that a child this haunted should grow up to create a poem as wacky as “Rave On,” which also belongs on the short list of the truly accomplished poems from this collection. Like “Beauty,” it is the kind of poem Fairchild was born to write: a broad-gestured, colloquial, uber-American poem involving men, chewing tobacco, and cars. The poem recounts a certain rite of passage that compels boys to buy junk autos, pile into them, get plastered, and then attempt to flip them at high speed off the shoulder of a pre-appointed dirt road in the middle of a god-forsaken nowhere:
Rumbling over caliche with a busted muffler
radio blasting Buddy Holly over Baptist wheat fields,
Travis screaming out Prepare ye the way of the Lord
at jackrabbits skittering beneath our headlights,
The Messiah coming to Kansas in a flat-head Ford
with bad plates, the whole high plains holding its breath,
night is fast upon us, lo, in these the days of our youth,
and we were hell to pay, or thought we were.
The poem pulls punches right out of American Graffiti, but is bizarrely enriched with mock-Biblical diction and high-pitched lectern exaggerations. Since the poem includes chicken hawks, piss, and chew spit (it must if it is to remain honest to its characters) and is noisy with the frenzied, crackling vinyl bounce of its rock and roll soundtrack, it has plenty of room to ascend once the Ford has been crashed and the passengers are left to pull themselves from the wreckage, on the verge of conversion:
Oh so quiet. Somewhere
the creak and grind of a pumping unit. Crickets.
The tall grass sifting in the wind in a mass of whispers
that I know I’ll be hearing when I die. And so
we crawled trembling from doors and windows borne out
of rage and boredom into weed-choked fields barren
as Golgotha. Blood raked the side of Travis’s face
grinning rapt, ecstatic, Mike’s arm was hanging down
like a broken curtain rod, Billy kneeled, stunned,
listening as we all did to the rustling silence
and the spinning wheels in their sad, manic song
as the Ford’s high beams hurled their crossed poles of light
forever out into the deep and future darkness. Rave on.
Though the shorter poems like “Rave On” carry the book, two longer poems, “The Blue Buick: A Narrative” and “The Memory Palace,” are central to its ultimate purpose. “The Blue Buick” recounts Fairchild’s unorthodox education at the hands of a globetrotting aesthete named Roy Garcia and his wife Maria. This is a poem written to help Fairchild, who depicts himself as a “pathetic redneck,” account for the mystery of his poetic impulses and to tell the related story of how an American poem gets made:
What did I know? I was a blank slate-a phrase,
by the way, I only learned from Roy (read Locke,
then Blake)-and all I knew is that I had to know.
To know, in a town with a one-room storefront
library where Durant’s The Story of Philosophy
was the raft I was floating on, though slowly sinking,
too, in an endless cycle of work/eat/sleep, haunting
the only bookstore within two hundred miles
in Amarillo, when I could get there, and watching
cars pass through to exotic California
with those bright orange plates that seemed to say, life
is somewhere else.
In the couple’s wanderings, they have managed to brush their bohemian elbows against an impressive bevy of great talents: they have spent years in Paris, stalking jazz clubs to hear Lester Young and Dexter Gordon, insatiably raiding the theatres, museums, and libraries of the Old World. Roy Garcia is an epileptic, alcoholic, Giordano Bruno-obsessed, art-addicted beatnik, a man therefore perfectly qualified to reveal the possibility of poetry in a place like Liberal, Kansas. Maria fills the young poet’s head with stories of Bronislava Nijinska and spontaneously dances in nothing but a slip, while surreally lit by “high beams bright as stage lights,” against “a backdrop of iron and steel, looming hulks / of lathes and drill presses, tools scattered in grease / and dirt.” They are intellectual, moral and erotic guides, allowing the poet to enjoy his double apprenticeship: one in the machine shop and another at their booze-soaked school of cosmopolitan eccentricity:
. . they were teachers, I suppose, though
messengers is more the word, messengers, travelers
from another world-as Eluard said, the world
that is inside this one-and they came bearing
the messages, the anthology, that would change
my life . . . .
Though Fairchild’s poem does not make any attempt to be as ambitious, “The Blue Buick” is the most moving poem about artistic apprenticeship written since Derek Walcott’s magnificent, “Another Life.” In both poems, the yearning for art feels driven by accidental grace, is visited upon the young poets by angelic, larger-than-life figures of eclectic learning and flawed vision, by people who have the unlikely ambition to make more out of life than life itself, in places where one wouldn’t think poetry was possible. By resurrecting Roy and Maria-in part through the excerpts he reprints from Roy’s journal entries-Fairchild pays an overdue debt, while simultaneously filling out the center of a book of poems designed to chart the progress of the poet’s mind.
The book’s final poem, “The Memory Palace” constitutes a different kind of resurrection. In it, Fairchild attempts to devise a mechanism-or an imaginative method-that will allow himself to organize and contain in some fixed form the most essential and elusive ingredient of human identity: memory. The solution offered by that final poem follows St. Augustine’s notion that memory is a “vast, immeasurable sanctuary,” but one furnished with sacred objects, each one a material anchor to which specific memories might be chained. Fairchild’s “Memory Palace” consists of an impressionistic prose-poem excursion through his father’s lathe-shop, where each shadowed nook and cranny is “dressed out with tropes” and each machine becomes a place to gather a certain department of remembered things:
On the faceplate of the milling machine, where iron filings spilled
into a child’s outstretched hands, place things felt, the biography
of your skin: falling off to sleep, the cool palms of the sheets, the
lightness of your body; your first French kiss, your hand on
the small breasts of Samantha Dobbins, her belly, her thigh, the
astonishing softness, her quickening breath in the shallow of your
neck; waves lapping your ankles like little mouths; the pugil stick
in your stomach, the blacking out; the nail in the foot; the car
wreck when you were four, touching your mother’s face, the tiny
slivers of glass flickering red and blue in the police car’s lights.
The shorter poems that precede our arrival at this locus amoenus are meant to find reunion here, at the book’s end, and though “The Memory Palace” comprises a willed act of closure, it is nevertheless one we have been well-prepared for by the preceding poems, which are alternately harrowing and hilarious in their desperate attempts to accurately recollect the substance of a Midwestern life.
By now I shouldn’t be surprised to know that books as exquisite as The Arrival of the Future and Local Knowledge get lost, need to be rescued from invisibility by a courageous press like Alice James, or even a behemoth like W.W. Norton. At a moment in American poetry when a brief patch of end-rhyme or a confident metrical flourish is read (in certain quarters) as the marks of an obsolete Classicism, we should be all the more grateful such texts have been rescued and that a poet as traditionally skilled as Fairchild has continued beyond them. All four of these books allow us to see how he arrived at his future, and I daresay he has arrived with some of the future of American poetry in his hands. It satisfies this reader to know that someone so steady is running the machine.[/private]
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