Cascade Experiment: Selected Poems
In the central essay in her prose collection Feeling as a Foreign Language: The Good Strangeness of Poetry, Alice Fulton argues for the influence of Emily Dickinson, or rather, she protests critics’ failure to see Dickinson as the creator of a literary dynasty. And in her 1994 collection Sensual Math, Fulton one-ups Dickinson’s dashes with double equals signs, a mark that she says “might mean immersion,”
the sign I call a bride
after the recessive threads in lace = =
the stitches forming deferential
space around the firm design.
(“= =”, 124)
While her critical prose and works-cited notes testify to an effort to come to terms with Dickinson, in this passage at least, the poets more likely on Fulton’s mind as she writes are A.R. Ammons and Marianne Moore, particularly the Moore of collage essays such as “Marriage” and “Bowls.” It’s just as well, as this “bride sign” looks for all the world like a typo; imagine Dickinson explicating her dashes.
In this country, when a poet appears to anticipate the charge of resorting to gimmicks, and then dives into the bag of tricks anyway, we call that impending fame. Fulton, a MacArthur fellow and winner of the Library of Congress’ Bobbitt Prize, gives the impression of being genuinely ambivalent about both the liberties she is inspired to take as well as the necessity of explaining herself. In her poetics statement, “To Organize a Waterfall,” she goes beyond comment to declare her “worry” that her fourteen-page poem “Point of Purchase,” with its annotations inscribed in the handwriting of four friends, might be “seen as a gimmicky effort or cute trick.” I am relieved to learn the poem in question led other readers of 1989’s Powers of Congress to imagine they’d purchased a used book at list price; “Point of Purchase” does not appear in Cascade Experiment.
To get back to influence for a moment: An eye for the phrase or fact that will keep the reader immersed and therefore keep the collage moving, and a double concern with appearances and ethics—these are two qualities Fulton shares with Moore circa 1935. Fulton, though, shows the marks of psychoanalytic literature written after 1950, thus escaping the impossibly high standards, the incontestably good taste Moore labored under:
I do not suffer
from the excess of taste
that spells embarrassment:
mothers who find their kids unseemly
in their condom earrings,
girls cringing to think
they could be frumpish as their mothers.
Though the late nonerotic Elvis
in his studded gut of jumpsuit
made everybody squeamish, I admit.
Rule one: the King must not elicit pity.
(“About Face”, 107)
Although the exuberance of these poems occasionally gives Fulton an opportunity to criticize herself (“flaccid vivacity” is the harsh and striking way she puts it), the affect that comes through is lively, the insight piercing. Since most of her work is first person monologue, these are fortunate traits indeed.
To digress: There is a ledger-book mode of criticism that continues to lead many public readers to find fault rather than to account for the experience at hand. There is also a ledger-book style of poetry, written to obey to the rules of a group rather than to pursue an inquiry or narrative; those who would rebel against a rule are often in fact obeying its inverse: e.g., the poem avoids/embraces cliché; the narrative is seamless/interrupted as often as possible. This is a fine black-and-white theoretical discussion, until you get to the subject of taste.
Driving home these bitterly Michigan nights
I often pass the silver bins of pigs
en route to the packing house. Four tiers to a trailer.
A massive physical wish to live
blasts out the slits
as the intimate winter streams in.
A dumb mammal groan pours out and December pours in
freezing the vestments of their skin
to the metal sides, riddling me
with bleakness as I see it. As I see it,
it’s culturally incorrect to think
of this when stringing pig lights on the tree.
It’s chronic me.
(“Some Cool”, 111)
As with Elvis, so with the swine to the slaughter; material beyond the bounds of good taste provides Fulton with the sufficient conditions for a poem. “Some Cool” is a horrifying poem, part matter-of-fact account of how pigs resist their mass-butchering, part self-examination of Fulton’s empathy for the animals as well as the people whose job it is to kill them. Try as she might to cast herself as a rebel against propriety—note the subliminally non-standard use of bitterly instead of bitter, and just what subcategory of the pathetic fallacy does the phrase intimate winter fall under?—she is something rarer and more substantial: She is real.
Some poets move on from the secure but stultifying habit of fulfilling some dead one’s proscriptions, a period sometimes referred to as apprenticeship, to undertake the frightening and rewarding process of learning to create on their own terms, whatever that means. For Fulton, the placeholders of her first book start giving way to memorable qualities on the second page of “The Body Opulent,” a poem coming early in her second book in which she relates visiting a steel magnate who doubles as a faith healer:
He put his hands around my neck and squeezed.
Each cell got busy, singing
the dawnsong of its name;
my body suddenly felt worth its weight
in light, as if I held the sky
above an earthquake—the magenta glow
made by electric fields and shifting
plates—inside each artery and vein.
After thirty minutes he backed off
to give the news. “It’s true, you have a cardiac
screw loose. But I’ll tell you what
to do. Smile. Meditate
like you did tonight. Remember
you don’t have to kiss anybody’s fanny.
You’re going to be all right.”
Fulton’s fulsome dawnsong and magenta could be written off with the shorthand “over the top” but as we’ve seen over and over that’s one criticism she’s always ahead of by a step:
Delacroix, old realist, got so excited
entering a harem’s room
he had to be calmed
down with sherbets. Passion!
(“Works on Paper,” 42)
It is to be regretted that Norton did not bring out a new collection at the same time as this selection. May Fulton produce new books as frequently as Ammons did, and not as seldom as Moore; I’d rather not wait four more years for the chance to fall for this hustle again.