Fulton, Alice

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Nationality: American. Born: Troy, New York, 25 January 1952. Education: Empire State College, Albany, New York, B.A. in creative writing 1978; Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, M.F.A. in creative writing 1982. Family: Married Hank De Leo in 1980. Career: Assistant professor, 1983–86, William Wilhartz Professor, 1986–89, associate professor, 1990–92, and since 1992 professor of English, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Visiting professor of creative writing, Vermont College, Montpelier, 1987, and University of California, Los Angeles, 1991. Awards : MacDowell Colony fellowship, 1978, 1979; Millay Colony fellowship, 1980; Emily Dickinson award, 1980; Academy of American Poets prize, 1982; Consuelo Ford award, 1984; Rainer Maria Rilke award, 1984; Michigan Council for the Arts grant, 1986, 1991; Yaddo Colony fellowship, 1987; Guggenheim fellowship, 1986–87; Bess Hokin prize (Poetry, Chicago), 1989; Ingram Merrill Foundation award, 1990; Elizabeth Matchett Stover award, The Southwest Review, 1994. Fellow, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, 1991–96. D.Litt: State University of New York, 1994. Address: 2730 Le Forge Road, R.R. 2, Ypsilanti, Michigan 48198, U.S.A.



Anchors of Light. Oneonta, New York, Swamp Press, 1979.

Dance Script with Electric Ballerina. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983.

Palladium. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1986.

Powers of Congress. Boston, Godine, 1990.

Sensual Math. New York, Norton, 1995.


Feeling As a Foreign Language: The Good Strangeness of Poetry. Saint Paul, Minnesota, Graywolf, 1999.


Critical Studies: By David Lehman, in Epoch (Ithaca, New York), 36(3), 1986–87; "Bright Sources" by Stephen Yenser, in Yale Review (New Haven, Connecticut), 77(1), autumn 1987; "A Poet Who Ventures Where Others Are Reluctant to Tread" by Matthew Gilbert, in Sunday Boston Herald, 8 March 1987; "'The Erogenous Cusp' or Intersections of Science and Gender in Alice Fulton's Poetry" by Christanne Miller, in Feminist Measures: Soundings in Poetry and Theory, edited by Lynn Keller and Christanne Miller, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1994; "The 'Then Some Inbetween': Alice Fulton's Feminist Experimentalism" by Lynn Keller, in American Literature (Durham, North Carolina), 71(2), June 1999.

Alice Fulton comments:

My first book, Dance Script with Electric Ballerina, was published when plain style was the prevailing poetic mode. I think the language of my poetry appeared dense and rather baroque in the context of the flat, unadorned expression that constituted the mainstream. Sincerity was equated with plainness of style, and any manipulations of language that deviated from spoken norms were accused of artificiality, even glibness. I have made a strong effort to incorporate contemporary American speech, culture, and ideas in my work rather than write exclusively about nature or high culture. I mix varying registers of diction in order to create rich, perhaps subversive, subtexts. And my use of the line questions equilibrium and linguistic singleness by means of syntactic doubling on enjambed words.

My second book, Palladium, underscored my commitment to textured, energized language. Its formal strategies are more wide-ranging. The book includes dramatic monologues and meditative or narrative poems that tend to be longer, more digressive, and intellectually more ambitious than my earlier work. I continued to explore some of the subjects touched upon in Dance Script. These include the search for faith (by "faith" I mean the assumptions that allow us to live in the world), the struggle between engagement and estrangement, the balance of risk and convention, the meanings of popular culture, and familial legacies and loves. I also expanded my subjects in poems that perceive and value peripheral aspects of our culture, question the assumptions surrounding gender, and explore the wayward forms classicism and mythology take in America. The word "palladium" is capacious enough to include all of these meanings. Each of the six sections of the book relate to a denotation or connotation of the title.

My third book, Powers of Congress, is structurally very different from Palladium. There are no part openings, and the movement of the book is something of a cascade. One poem is intended to trigger the next, so that the book's large scheme has more in common with waterfalls than with compartmentalized plots. The title suggests merging and transformation through government, discourse, assemblage, and sexuality. It implies both hierarchy ("powers" indicating dominance) and a disintegration of hierarchy by means of "congress." The book's undivided structure enacts the enmeshed union and removal of boundaries implicit in the title. The poems in this book are sometimes in argument with various philosophical first principles: What, if anything, can be known with certainty? Is there any evidence to indicate that consciousness does or does not persist after death? What is the nature of God? How might I redefine God? Why do we feel that mind and body are separate entities despite all scientific evidence to the contrary? In the broadest sense, the poems question assumptions and emphasize the interconnectedness of seemingly disparate things.

My interest in American culture continues in poems that explore the rift between private and public domains, the objectifying of the self as product, and our national obsession with aerobics and body building. The latter theme leads to the human fascination with unattainable perfection and the realization that one cannot be both conscious and durable. Other threads include the intrinsic pain of consciousness, the impermanence of memory, the cultural nihilism of greed, confining gender roles, the relativity of seemingly objective facts, and dual heroic spheres of war and childbirth.

*  *  *

Upon a first reading, Alice Fulton's poetry has the neon appeal of an arcade. It is filled with Jacuzzis and Tilt-a-Whirls, escalators and guitars. It is peopled with strippers, studs, steel plant owners, and nuns. While these figures of popular culture are attractive in their own right, they are not responsible for W.D. Snodgrass's introduction to Fulton's book Dance Script with Electric Ballerina or for the selection of Palladium, published in 1986, for the National Poetry Series. As Fulton writes in "Semaphores and Hemispheres," "everything… [is] / rich in metaphor," including the changes technology and science have brought to the world. Fulton's poetry is concerned both with these changes and their metaphorical possibility. In Palladium, for example, palladium in all of its forms—as metallic element, music hall, and talisman, among others—provides a structure for the book. In part 1, which is introduced by the definitions of palladium in its elemental form, Fulton places "Babies"—

   born gorgeous with nerves, with brains
   the pink of silver polish or
   jellyfish wafting ornately
   through the body below

—and "Nugget and Dust," a poem about her father's death. Birth and death are elemental subjects. Other sections of the book, introduced by palladium in its other forms, are concerned with subjects that, if less elemental, are equally complex in their embodiment of the human experience.

Faith is one of the themes central to Fulton's poetry. Religious faith, especially Roman Catholicism, plays a part in such poems as "The Great Aunts of My Childhood" in Dance Script with Electric Ballerina and "Sister Madeleine Pleads for Our Mary" in Palladium. "Orientation Day in Hades" even depicts hell as "a vat, / a barrel slatted with darkness / contained by hoops of energy" where sinners pick peppers all day, while heaven looks like a salt mine in the distance, "all grayish hills and gooey lights, / as if seen through Vaseline." In "The Perpetual Light" the speaker suggests that the dead "no longer wait with heavy patience / … at some ever-open gate" but rather "hotfoot it through the universe / like supple disco stars."

Fulton's poems have less to do with a faith in the afterlife, however, than with the faith that enables humans to live with hope in a world that seems increasingly chaotic. The speaker in "603 West Liberty St.," when handed words like "faith," "sin," and "penance," questions "futures inlaid with forever" and instead believes in "the quantum world's array of random / without chaos, its multiplicity … alone seemed moral." In "Fables from the Random" the human impulse to create order from chaos attracts the speaker to her lover despite his "insistent rejection / of what is / and shouldn't be" and her knowledge that he just "make[s] fables / from the random." Science is one fable through which humans impose order on chaos; chemistry, for example, "locates elements in order / to control them." Fulton turns to science again and again in her poetry. Through the metaphorical possibility of science and technology, faith increases rather than diminishes. In "The Wreckage Entrepreneur" a woman, aided by wrecking balls and "carborundum-bladed saws," sifts through junk. When she glimpses herself in the art deco mirrors of an abandoned warehouse, she looks dirty and small. Ultimately, however, she is in the business of salvation:

   It takes faith—this tripping through the mixed blessings
   of debris with eyes peeled for the toxic
   toothpaste green of copper keystones …
   … she wants
   a shower and lather of pumice
   to melt the gritty casing of her
   nakedness. How small she looks
   beside what she has saved.

While the usefulness of the goods she saves is dubious, the fact of her work, of activity, saves her from hopelessness.

Poetry itself is one means by which we can enter into faith. Fulton writes in "In the Beginning," the introductory poem of Dance Script with Electric Ballerina, that our lives carry "unknowable cargo":

   The wild green groans
   by which I lived before language
   now gesture and have at me
   only in dreams …

Yet the meaning of those "green groans," the dreamworld of memory, can begin to be named through poetry, as Fulton suggests in "Everyone Knows the World Is Ending":

   … So long as we keep chanting the words
   those worlds will live, but just
   so long, so long, so long. Each instant waves
   through our nature and is nothing.
   But in the love, the grief, under and above
   the mother tongue, a permanence
   hums: the steady mysterious
   the coherent starlight.

Thus poetry, a chant, a humming of grief and love "under and above / the mother tongue," allows permanence in a world where "each instant waves" through us and is gone. Fulton's poetry allows us to enter that mysterious permanence.

—Julie Miller