It is not a habit I would endorse, but sometimes I read poems as if they were records of actual proceedings, events provoked by circumstances other than those the poet occasioned simply for the sake of writing a poem. In other words, I choose to wonder who is saying this, to whom, for what reason; I make all verse occasional verse just to imagine what occasions declare themselves fit for the verse I’m reading. If it’s a sort of game, it’s one that William Fuller seems to be playing already, achieving mystery by way of exactitude.
If there’s a consistent mode Fuller occupies in Playtime, it’s that of explanation. This particular register appears so frequently it begins to inform even those poems that don’t immediately or absolutely partake of explanatory cues. His speakers seem cautiously and seriously devoted to explaining something, but the more deliberate the language of explication and accounting, the harder it becomes for the reader to deduce what is being explained—or, more to the point—the context for the explanation itself. This, in turn, raises interesting questions about how explanation itself, as a discursive task, profoundly confuses the relationship between context and subtext. When the mandate is to make the terms of the subject explicit, it seems as if subtext could dwindle to nothingness: explanation makes all text equal, because that’s what it’s for.
But this standard is obviously not one every explanation meets simply by way of being an explanation. Some explanations are wrong, and some explanations fail, and some explanations confuse the very thing they are designed to elucidate. When Fuller practices this, sometimes he sounds like he’s trying to recount a dream, and sometimes he sounds like he’s carefully wending his way through a police deposition, and sometimes he sounds like he is speaking to a very precocious but somewhat literal-minded child, and sometimes he sounds like he’s trying to convince you he isn’t crazy, or maybe it’s that he thinks you are crazy and he is trying to convince you that he understands, please come down from the roof, everything will be fine.
When I say “sometimes” I don’t mean that one poem lends itself to one of these occasions, and the next poem another. I mean that Fuller usually slips from one register to another within any given poem, with the effect of making the matter under discussion appear both thoroughly and faithfully considered and totally obscure. Again, I like to imagine the performative coda to each of these poems as Fuller asking the reader Do you understand? to which the reader can plausibly respond with both Yes of course how could I not and No not even a little bit.
Here’s a complete poem from Playtime:
The chances are good you were built from kings like these, whoever you are, so it’s no wonder they’re inside you banging to get out and then regretting it immediately when they do—and I’ve come up from the basement with a stack of leaves and a bent candle, intending to set new rules for accepting appointments, although not today as I fall back on absolutely no resources, and even the kings are sleeping or at most paying attention to nothing but the garden’s gradual self-augmentation. Over time they grow old, die, are buried, rise again with green eyes, plant flowers, negotiate contracts, advocate secular liberation, seek repeal of Section 2(a), and become comfortable with activities that are increasingly hard to define.
I think the cues here are fascinating. Fuller asserts an addressee and then immediately disavows any particular knowledge of whomever he might be addressing; the kings to which he refers are impeccably unspecified, other than to note that they are “like these” with no property of “these” defined well enough to merit likening, but don’t worry, because whatever is happening, it’s obvious, it’s “no wonder.” And into this hastily-assembled tableau of who know what, the speaker inserts his own busy behavior and list of tasks, which stand against those of the still-opaque kings, whose activities over time move from the kinds of things described in epics of nature to the kinds of things that occur in the company of notary officials and actuarial tables. But all of this will occur “over time,” and they will grown comfortable with whatever activities will come next, whatever follows the highly abbreviated chronology whereby all things grow old and then seek repeal of Section 2 (a) and then who knows what. The future is always hard to define, especially as you have more and more of it.
The pace of this—breathless, impatient—suggests that whatever occasions it is a misunderstanding about kings, an error or misapprehension the speaker is, somewhat exasperatedly, trying to remedy. I deduce exasperation here from “chances are,” the sort of marker that appears when one’s interlocutor is of a somewhat legalistic bent; since the speaker cannot offer perfect statistical clarity to an addressee who might be peevishly misguided in even wanting it, “chances are” will have to do. Similarly, “whoever you are” can be read generously (the following is true, no matter who you are!) but here reads more as more irritable (it doesn’t matter who you are, ok?) And in this communication of impatience I think the poem is hugely successful, even as it fails completely to communicate anything intelligible about its nominal subject.
But the “subject” of any poem may or may not line up neatly with Fuller’s subject in Playtime, which seems to be the way we explain, not the explanations themselves. The explanations are just proofs, not the equations that inform them. In this, Fuller strikes me as a sort of meta-Metaphysical poet, in that the perfection of his argument concerns argumentative method itself. What Fuller is yoking together isn’t a set of competitive passions; it’s an array of techniques for getting things right. He demonstrates, beautifully but also sometimes comically, how these techniques operate, and how they don’t.
It’s worth taking a look at how this works when Fuller is more clearly reproducing a common explanatory task. Given both the title and content of “Morpheus,” let’s look at the poem, which appears, at first glance, to approximate how we talk about our dreams:
I went to a place where nothing happened whose effects could not be felt elsewhere—a place for the sleepers and a place for those too rested to sleep. Then my car fell off the mountain—it’s one of those things I can’t explain. After midnight music rose like steam, obscuring the way, but cleansing it as well. And beyond, in the forest next to the vacant lot, a bird made a noise like a bat. Whatever the planets were doing was of no interest to me. Many wore halos of contamination. Most were treading water of some sort.
Here, the occasion is easy to imagine. The speaker has had a dream, and is trying to relay it. The strategies of location are perfectly recognizable: Here is where I was, and here is what is happening. But even with so transparent a context, Fuller makes things strange in a way drawn not at all from the storehouse of oneiric imagery. “A place where nothing happened whose effects could not be felt elsewhere” is a bit of a riddle; just try to insert notional places into that formulation and see what you get. Wherever it is, it’s prescriptively not a dream, for if a dream’s a place it is one whose effects cannot, by definition, be felt elsewhere. Yet from this Fuller returns to a perfectly legible bit of dream-relaying rhetoric: “Then my car fell off the mountain—” something that cannot be explained due to a dream’s common decoupling of cause and effect.
This decay of causal relations, however, soon deviates from things happening for unknown reasons to things asserted for no apparent reason. The planets, previously unmentioned, get mentioned only to note that they were, in fact, not worthy of mention. But then we have “many,” we have “most.” Though approximations, these terms of assessing amount inevitably suggest an effort at accuracy and clarity. Not all, but many; not just many, but most. Likewise, “of contamination” definitely modifies “halos,” but not, I think, in a way that increases meaning even if it does increase specificity. And “of some sort” operates similarly, until we pause to appreciate that while water can come in sorts, the acting of treading in it doesn’t really necessitate that particular explanatory curlicue. Finally, of course, we are returned to the question of “many” or “most” of what. Bats? Planets? Anything the poem offers as a means to complete the equation destroys the completion, even as it leaves the equation standing.
Micro-minded close-reading of this type is, of course, the kind of thing entire catalogues of poetry are designed to destroy. If this is all Fuller were up to, I would salute him for his efficiency and imagination and move on in short order. But I think this work is much richer and stranger than that; I think it elaborates processes we take for granted without merely dismissing their possibility. Metaphysical poems, for example, demand the reader attend to the terms of the puzzle until it becomes apparent that the puzzle is, in fact, not a puzzle at all, but an inevitability. You move through the apparently complex to achieve the less apparently simple. Compare this to something like Pope’s Essay on Man, which is didacticism that does all the work for you. It’s the difference between something that becomes obvious the more you think about it and something presented as obvious that becomes deranged in direct proportion to how carefully you examine it.
What both share, however, is the language of presentation, which sets forth a system of accounting with confidence. Plenty of poetry disrupts this confidence while keeping its form, but I cannot think of anyone quite as adept as Fuller in presenting entire poems that seem like faithful records of real-time attempts to explain something. Their failures do not seem pre-determined; they seem, weirdly, honest, as if Fuller just doesn’t know that what he’s doing must fail. If they do fail as explanations, they succeed extraordinarily as mirrors of explanation itself. Consider “Glidepath”:
How could you ask what is a classical education without syllables to make you attentive to the heart of a word or set of intensities burning to make you aware how desperate we are for water and something to accompany it after diligent search of remembered events divided up among us that turned out to be the same event taking place then and now and to come, with smooth edges, so to speak, so smooth they decline to zero before any voice can sum them up or anticipate the next significant oscillation. The slope of night adjusts toward day, waking the tremulous disc. The spirit of what can happen has changed into the flesh of what has happened, and we make room for it. I have you who have me. I am standing with you but apart. What is the plan.
That first question isn’t a question; it’s a statement, if an oblique one. Yet you could not ask for anything clearer or sufficiently explanatory than “The spirit of what can happen has changed into the flesh of what has happened, and we make room for it.” The last question isn’t a question, either; it’s another statement. Even if we cannot ask of Fuller What is the plan? and expect a perfectly lucid answer, we get a better truth in its stead. “What?” is the plan.
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