Art Thou the Thing I Wanted
Art Thou the Thing I WantedIntroduction
"Art Thou the Thing I Wanted," by Alice Fulton, was first published in 1990 in her collection Powers of Congress (reprinted in 2001) and was also published in 2004 in her larger collection Cascade Experiment: Selected Poems. "Art Thou the Thing I Wanted" is a poem about longing, among many other things; one particular overtone focuses on how one accepts one's lot in life, and this acceptance in fact stands in opposition to longing. Each of these two opposing forces is subtly apparent in the poem's title, which suggests as well as questions that longing, as if the speaker is sure of neither her desire nor the object of her desire.
Fulton has stated that her writing revolves around words, and indeed, "Art Thou the Thing I Wanted" provides a good example of how much fun Fulton has with language. She appears to like employing obscure vocabulary, often using words that might push her readers in surprising directions, as if she is enjoying a private joke. Her poems are playful—but the message underneath may be more serious. The emotions are hidden, waiting to be discovered, much like the "solutions" that Fulton refers to in the poem. "Problems," one line asserts, are "more interesting than solutions." The situation may be similar for the poem itself: the wordplay and twists in meaning may be at least as interesting as the emotions they describe.
Alice Fulton was born on January 25, 1952, in Troy, New York. She majored in creative writing as an undergraduate at Empire State College, in Saratoga Springs, New York, and then attended Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, where she gained a master of fine arts in 1982. Since then, Fulton has taught writing at various schools, completing a long tenure at the University of Michigan and a year each at the University of California, Los Angeles, and at the University of California, Berkeley. In 2004, she was asked to join her alma mater Cornell, where she was given the Ann S. Bowers chair as distinguished professor of English.
Fulton has published several books of poetry, including Palladium (1982), winner of the 1985 National Poetry Series and the 1987 Society of Midland Authors Award; Dance Script with Electric Ballerina (1982), winner of the 1982 Associated Writing Programs Award; Powers of Congress (1990), in which the poem "Art Thou the Thing I Wanted" first appeared; Sensual Math (1995); Felt (2001), her most famous work, for which she received the Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry from the Library of Congress in 2003; and Cascade Experiment (2004), a compilation encompassing works from each of her first five collections. She also has published a collection of prose essays about poetry called Feeling as a Foreign Language: The Good Strangeness of Poetry (1999). In addition, Fulton's work has been honored by inclusion in five editions of the annual series The Best American Poetry and was also published in the 1988–1997 edition of The Best of the Best American Poetry. Fulton has won what is colloquially referred to as the "genius" award, a fellowship given by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to people who have shown extraordinary originality in their creative pursuits. Fulton also has won awards for the quality of her teaching.
These unprepossessing sunsets
and aluminum-sided acres
retain us like problems
more interesting than solutions,
solutions being perfect 5
lots of condos, the groomed weather
of elsewhere. Well, we must love
what we're given, which is why
we get stuck
on the steel-wool firmament 10
of home. Since it's the nearest
partition between us and what,
we choose to find it peerless.
And maybe why we wish
to lean our heads on the dense rocking 15
in a particular chest, as if the only
ocean lives there or a singular wind
swarms where that heart begins.
Sometimes a passing friend
becomes a mascot in our lives, 20
day in, day out. The thought of this anybody
affects us like a high
pollen count, inspiring a suffering
not unto death, but petty.
Having a crush is the expression. 25
And we do feel pushed over, compressed
by chaperones we half-asked for.
Take me, take you. Say someone quips
"Your favorite so-and-so got drunk
and said to say hello," I accept it 30
as a secular blessing. I glow.
Glorious things of thee are spoken!
There should be a word for you
muses of unreason, like "vector"
since vectors have magnitude 35
and direction without a physical presence.
And the second meaning is "carrier
of infection." Don't we resent the way our minds circle
unfavorable terrain for easement, 40
like jets above imagined runways?
Yet we like to be immersed, no sweat, in solutions
cooler than 98.6 degrees,
which explains the lure of fantasy.
"You never wanted," people say accusingly, 45
as if glut were gladness
rather than a bargain struck.
But what comes to live here—burrs
through clay, brown negligence—
comes to live without 50
certain fertile perqs. High-tension
wires droop their rules
between harsh Eiffels in our yards.
Eyesores at first, they quickly become
backdrops whose presence nests. 55
in every residence unseen.
And when a line falls, the field sizzles
for a million inches without a sign
of flinch. Yesterday the elder
out back up and tumbled. 60
It wasn't hit by wind or lightning,
which made the sight of it—suddenly
half hanging on the barn
like a besotted lover on the arm—
more frightening. The trunk was hollow, 65
devoured by some tree disease.
In a few hours the limbed fluttering
looked normal on the lawn,
and its jagged profile fit
this make-do neighborhood of farms 70
run in the ground by agri-biz:
The three wilted pickups
in the yard, the tire of rusty geraniums
and sign that reads Beware
of Dog where there's no dog— 75
the tree looked right
at home among them, metaphorically
on its knees. Like others,
I mistake whatever is
for what is natural. 80
You know the commonplaces. How people think
women are good
at detail work when that's the only work
they're given. Or how
the city's invisible 85
engines jiggled our coffee
till we believed quivering a constant
property of liquid.
Everything happens to me, I think,
as anything reminds me of you: the real estate 90
most local, most removed.
As on the remains of prairie
the curving earth becomes a plinth—
from which we rise, towers
of blood and ignorance. 95
"Art Thou the Thing I Wanted" begins with the line "These unprepossessing sunsets." The soft, sibilant s, constituting noteworthy consonance here, is used heavily throughout the poem. "Unprepossessing," one of Fulton's many uncommon word choices, means "unattractive," or "not noteworthy," a perhaps unexpected descriptor for "sunsets." Next come "aluminum-sided acres," which, together with the sunsets, "retain us like problems / more interesting than solutions." A restatement of these lines may be that worrying about and solving problems can sometimes be more fascinating than the actual solutions.
The second stanza continues the thought (and sentence) of the first stanza: the solutions are likened to "perfect / lots of condos," where "lot" is used as a noun; modern condominiums, one should note, typically have outer shells of aluminum siding. Here, the reader realizes that the solutions are not simply "perfect," as the last line of the first stanza might seem to say; rather, the lots of condos are "perfect," as in, perhaps, perfectly arranged. The "groomed weather / of elsewhere" may refer to the artificially heated or cooled rooms inside the condos. The clause, "we must love / what we're given," may mean that one learns to appreciate one's environment, however unattractive it may be. Indeed, "home" (referred to at the beginning of stanza 3), one's original environment, is described as a "steel-wool firmament." Steel wool, an abrasive, is used to scrape things clean, while the word "firmament" is typically used in reference to the sky or the heavens; thus, "home" is perhaps framed as an idealized but in truth abrasive place.
"Home" is next described as "the nearest / partition between us and what," where "what" perhaps refers to all that is unknown. That is, one's house is one's primary protection from the outside world. As such, the home is a sort of sanctuary, and, naturally, "we choose to find it peerless," or one comes to believe in one's home as an ideal place, whatever it truly is. The next sentence, beginning with "And maybe why," may be read as an addition to the remark in stanza 2 that begins "which is why." Thus, in the same way that "we get stuck / on the steel-wool firmament / of home," we also "wish / to lean our heads on the dense rocking / in a particular chest." The narrator implies that both home and a particular person can come to be seen as partitions from the outside world. The "rocking" is presumably a reference to the sound of the heart, which, in turn, is compared to the sound of ocean waves as well as to "a singular wind." That "singular wind," which "swarms where that heart begins," is the source of a type of power or attraction, drawing two people together—the one listening to the sound of the heart and the one who possesses that heart.
The person who owns that heart is then likened to "a passing friend" who "becomes a mascot in our lives," where a mascot may perhaps be considered an artificial source of inspiration. Indeed, continuously thinking about this friend comes to affect one "like a high pollen count." That is, these thoughts act as a mild irritant, causing a discomforting reaction. The fifth stanza ends "Having a crush is the expression," confirming that the narrator is referring to infatuation with another person, which, like allergens in the air, can cause a sense of suffocation of the self. One's mind is filled only with thoughts of the other.
In stanza 6, the speaker continues to explore the feeling of being infatuated. She adds that one becomes constrained by "chaperones," or people watching over. That is, a friend ("chaperone") might note that the object of one's affection has, in an inebriated state, passed along a greeting. This greeting is then accepted by the person with the crush as "a secular blessing"; she even glows at the news. The next line, "Glorious things of thee are spoken!" may be ironically self-referential, as one might refer to oneself in the second person, perhaps mockingly, while looking in a mirror. The next lines read, "There should be a word for you / muses of unreason," where the narrator is presumably referring to the objects of crushes, who can foster irrationality in those who are infatuated with them. The narrator then compares the object of a crush to a "vector," which is first defined, in its mathematical sense, as something that gives direction but does not truly exist. The word is then defined as a "carrier / of infection," such as an insect or a virus, again denoting the negative aspects of having a crush on someone.
The speaker then further investigates the workings of her mind, again referring to the obsessive nature of thoughts about a crush. The territory that her mind is circling, like a jet above an imagined runway, is "unfavorable terrain." The circling itself is done in search of "easement," which can mean "the release of tension" or also "the limited use of another's property"; both of these meanings may have relevance here. The next lines read, "Yet we like to be immersed, no sweat, in solutions / cooler than 98.6 degrees." The term "solutions" likely refers back to the problem-and-solution puzzle of the first stanza as well as to liquids, like chemical solutions; the normal temperature of a healthy human body, of course, is 98.6 degrees. That is, perhaps, one might often choose to immerse oneself in situations that are not realistically sustainable; thus, one submits oneself to "the lure of fantasy" and harbors thoughts about a situation that may never come to pass, such as being united with one's crush.
The last line of stanza 9, " 'You never wanted,' people say accusingly," invokes one of the words from the title of the poem. To "want" may mean to "desire" or to "be in need"; that is, others may be upset in believing that the narrator had found satisfaction in abundance, while, perhaps, the narrator herself realizes that in striking a "bargain" to obtain whatever abundance she has obtained, she has sacrificed something. She then remarks that whatever, or whoever, comes to live "here" learns to "live without / certain fertile perqs." "Perqs" is likely a respelling of "perks," which originally comes from the word "perquisites." "Burrs," meanwhile, are prickly growths that attach to the fur of animals so as to transport seeds to new locations, allowing the plant whence the burr originated to produce a sort of "offspring" elsewhere. Thus, if a burr is embedded in infertile "clay," its existence has come to naught.
At the "here" mentioned in stanza 10, where the narrator herself presumably lives, can be found "high-tension wires," such as electric wires, which bear "rules," perhaps referring to both "straight lines" and "regulations." The poles that hold those wires are referred to as "Eiffels," where the Eiffel Tower, in Paris, in fact itself serves as a radio tower; many may have originally seen the crude, metallic design of the Eiffel Tower to be "harsh." Yet the residents eventually become used to these "eyesores," as the utility poles "become / backdrops" and are later "unseen." That is, these originally objectionably intrusive poles are accepted, however insidious they might remain. Even when one tower topples to the ground and scorches "the field," it does so "without a sign / of flinch," denoting the desensitizing/desensitized nature of the poles' presence. Then the reader is told that "the elder / out back up and tumbled." That is, an older something that could be found, say, in the backyard, perhaps, fell over.
As described in stanza 13, the elder from the preceding stanza is understood to be a tree that tumbled of its own accord. In that the tree fell as if willingly—just as a lover who is "besotted" or "infatuated" or "made dull" would willingly drape herself on the arm of one who cares little about her—its appearance is all the "more frightening." However, by the fourteenth stanza, the fallen tree, "devoured by some tree disease," is barely even noticed, just like the utility poles. In fact, in its state of suspended death, the tree is seen to fit in with its surroundings, that is, small farms, defeated by big agricultural businesses, that are themselves likewise held in a state of suspended death. Indeed, several other images, for example, the decrepit trucks, the unused tire swing, and the sign referring to a dog that no longer exists, all harmonize with the image of the fallen tree, which is then said to be "on its knees," perhaps as if begging for mercy. The final lines of the sixteenth stanza read, "Like others, / I mistake whatever is / for what is natural." In other words, the narrator accepts her present surroundings, however insidious or decrepit, as what she is meant to be surrounded by; the narrator perhaps has a strong acceptance of what she sees as her fate. If people simply accept their surroundings, the narrator suggests here, they are settling for a reality that is, in fact, not "natural."
In stanzas 17 and 18, the narrator gives examples of how people come to expect whatever the present reality happens to be. The "invisible / engines" may be any of the various vibrations that exist in city life. In the closing lines of stanza 18, the speaker turns to a personal address, as if talking to the object of her own infatuation. Even the land reminds her of this person, whether the land around her or someplace else. She then refers to the prairie, which is often a symbol of the infancy of America, before farms took over the vast heartland. She states that "on the remains of prairie," the earth becomes a "plinth," a "base" or "foundation." On that plinth, "we rise, towers / of blood and ignorance."
The theme of wanting is introduced in the title of the poem, as the narrator questions whether she truly desires the poem's "thou." In the second stanza, the narrator states, "we must love / what we're given," where love can be seen as another aspect of want; that is, one comes to want whatever one is given. This theme is pursued further in the third stanza, where the wanting of a particular something develops into a kind of "partition between us and what." This partition could be likened to a form of protection between a person and the outside world or between a person and his or her inner conflicts. This wanting, this expecting to find "solutions" in this partition, makes one feel eminently protected. The object of one's wanting might be compared to a drug, which might provide a false sense of satisfaction. In fact, three lines of the poem read, "The thought of this anybody / affects us like a high / pollen count, inspiring a suffering"; in ending the second of those lines on the word "high," the poet suggests the "state of elation" most typically associated with drugs as well as with athletic endeavors and spiritual euphoria. Thus the person who wants becomes addicted to the object of a crush, who he or she comes to believe is the solution to life's problems. This thought was developed earlier with the image of a person leaning his or her head against another person's chest "as if the only / ocean lives there." Indeed, the wanting of fulfillment from the object of one's desires makes one falsely believe that the entire world revolves around this object, producing a "petty" sort of "suffering."
Conversely, in stanza 9, people accuse the narrator of having "never wanted." The precise meaning of this passage is debatable, as this particular wanting may or may not be the same as the wanting alluded to throughout the poem. Here, people may be accusing the narrator of having never been in need of anything, materially speaking, as suggested by the "glut" of stanza 10. At this point, the narrator refers to the place where she lives: "what comes to live here," she says, "comes to live without / certain fertile perqs." That is, she talks about living in a world in which one learns to adjust to what is given, a world in which people believe that they can do what they are doing only at that moment, without considering what they may have done in the past or might do in the future. She speaks of a world without the sort of wanting that can be motivational rather than detrimental, and this world is certainly portrayed in a negative light.
In many ways, acceptance is the opposite of wanting, and indeed, the opposite of wanting is itself a major theme in Fulton's poem. With wanting, one desires something. One dreams about having more of something good or less of something negative. With acceptance, one simply takes what one is given. The narrator introduces the theme of acceptance in referring to "glut," which some people equate with "gladness." She continues by describing the ugliness (or at least lack of beauty) where she lives, with "harsh Eiffels" (or utility poles or tension-wire towers), which she calls "eyesores," eventually blurring into the background of the residents' view. Even when the grass sizzles from fallen electrical lines or when an old tree collapses onto a barn, the eye quickly forgets that these eyesores exist; the scene is soon regarded as "normal." The narrator mentions the rundown farms, the broken machinery, the old tire in which "rusty geraniums" are growing, and a dog who is no longer there. All of these things, perhaps, are in part the result of big "agri-biz" coming into town and taking over the economy, leading to poverty and possibly a loss of livelihood. The tree rests "metaphorically / on its knees," the speaker says, as if in supplication. People believe that women can only perform "detail work" because that is the only kind of work they are ever given. The poem notes an absence of a sense of fight. Things happen, and people just accept them.
Fulton's poem conveys a sense of discomfort, sometimes through implication and at other times through metaphor. The opening phrase features the word "unprepossessing," which refers to something making an unfavorable impression. The phrase "aluminum-sided acres" conjures an image of being surrounded by metal. The narrator notes that "we get stuck / on the steel-wool firmament," referring to metal, once again, as well as to abrasiveness. The effects of infatuation are likened to the inhaling of pollen and the allergic reaction produced. The narrator mentions "brown negligence," suggesting decay; "high-tension / wires," implying frustration; and "quivering" that is "constant," as with irritation. That is, perhaps, the narrator is feeling discomfort and therefore sees it wherever she looks and points it out so that the reader will understand what she is going through.
Topics For Further Study
- Read two other poems of Fulton's from her collection Powers of Congress; find and list all the examples of wordplay in the poems. Then write a short poem of your own using similar wordplay.
- Using any part of "Art Thou the Thing I Wanted" as inspiration, complete a sketch or painting. For example, paint a picture of what you think the fallen tree from stanza 13 might look like.
- Research the effect of large agricultural businesses on small family farms in the United States. How has the agriculture industry changed in the past two or three decades? If you live in a farming community, interview local farmers to personalize your research; alternatively, find and interview large-scale gardeners in your city. Present your findings to your class.
- Find examples of postmodernist thought in various fields, such as art, literature, philosophy, science, religion, or political science. Can consensus be found on a definition of postmodernism? How do you see the effects of postmodernism represented in culture, in news stories, on television, and in music? Present your findings to your class.
Someone interested in language often has sensitivity to the sounds of words. Fulton makes notable use of alliteration, the repetition of a sound at the beginnings of consecutive words, and consonance, the repetition of a sound throughout words. The title features the phrase "thou the thing." In the first line of the poem, the sibilant s is present in each of the three words. In the second line of the second stanza, "of elsewhere. Well, we must love," the letter w is repeated three times. In the lines that follow, the letter is repeated six more times at the beginnings of words. Reading the stanza aloud, one can feel the emphasis produced by the repetition of this sound and realize its power. The letter w is again employed in repetition in stanza 3, with "why we wish." Other examples of alliteration and consonance can be found throughout the poem.
Similes provide images for the mind in comparing two different things, specifically using the words "like" and "as" (whereas metaphors do not use those words), thus allowing the reader a greater degree of understanding. In Fulton's poem, in the first stanza, she writes that "aluminum-sided acres / retain us like problems." That is, the "aluminum-sided acres" can hold on to a person the way a problem can hold on to a person; the phrase is fairly simple, but its meaning can be long pondered. Indeed, the poet has left the comparison somewhat open-ended, leaving the reader to conjure his or her own interpretation. In stanza 5, the poem reads, "The thought of this anybody / affects us like a high / pollen count." This unique comparison aptly denotes the feeling that the poet is attempting to share, especially for those who have experienced allergies. In stanzas 8 and 9, the poem reads, "Don't we resent / the way our minds circle / unfavorable terrain for easement, / like jets above imagined runways?" Once this complicated simile is grasped, the image is quite effective. One can imagine those times when a thought is so worrisome that one simply cannot stop thinking about it. One can then imagine a pilot circling a dangerous field, looking for a runway that exists only in his or her mind. Thus, the poet paints a picture for the reader, allowing a deeper understanding of her pattern of thought.
One common element of postmodernist writing is wordplay. Fulton often employs words in ways that allow for multiple interpretations, often where one connotation is first understood, to be supplanted by a second connotation that can be understood only upon the reading of a subsequent line. In the first stanza, for instance, the last line reads as if it is complete: "solutions being perfect." In the context, the poem seems to be saying that problems are more interesting than solutions, as solutions are simply perfect. Yet no punctuation is placed after the word "perfect," such that the second stanza must be read as a continuation of that thought. The phrase in its entirety then reads, "solutions being perfect / lots of condos." As such, the phrase bears a substantially different meaning. A similar play on words occurs in the fifth stanza: "The thought of this anybody / affects us like a high." The word "high" ends the second line, and the phrase sounds complete until the reader continues to the third line, where the words "pollen count" complete the phrase. The idea of thoughts acting "like a high" is much different from that of thoughts acting "like a high / pollen count." Still, both connotations are relevant to the overall meaning of the poem.
In stanza 9, the reader again finds the word "solutions," which was used in the first stanza strictly to refer to the solving of a problem; in its later usage, both this first meaning and a second, "liquids," are implied. "High-tension" can refer both to the "tightness" of the wires and to emotional tension. In stanza 15, the narrator refers to the pickup trucks as "wilted" and the geraniums as "rusty," reversing the placement of adjectives that the reader might otherwise expect. In stanza 16, the first line, "the tree looked right," bears a different meaning alone than it does in conjunction with the second line: "the tree looked right / at home." The next line concludes that the tree is "on its knees." Although the following words, "Like others," are part of a separate sentence, their placement after the previous phrase leads the reader's mind to connect them. That is, perhaps, the reader is left with the image that "others," maybe trees or neighbors, also are on their knees. In such ways, the poet plays with her readers, twisting and contorting the meanings of her words through their minds.
Postmodernism, a movement that has influenced literature in the latter part of the twentieth century, has been defined as both a reaction against and a refinement of modernism. Some of the key elements of modernism in literature have been identified as experimentation, an emphasis on the individual and his or her perceptions, and a focus on rational thinking as opposed to the emotions. (Emotional writing was one focal point in literature during the Romantic period, a precursor to modernism.) The modernism movement is said to fall roughly between the 1860s and the 1970s. In the United States, the period is often limited to the first part of the twentieth century, up to about 1970. The British author Virginia Woolf is considered a modernist. She tended to write in a stream-of-consciousness mode (as in To the Lighthouse, published in 1927) in which the reader was privileged to the characters' interior monologues as they reacted to events around them. The American E. E. Cummings, who delivered a commencement address on modernism upon graduating from Harvard, broke many conventions of traditional poetry, as exemplified by his poem "n(o)w." Modernists tended to challenge tradition.
Postmodernism began as early as the 1920s, gaining momentum in the United States especially after World War II. One of the key elements of postmodernism is a sense of play, as opposed to seriousness. This can be seen in Fulton's poem and her play with words. A sense of play is also typically evident in postmodernist writing in the forms of irony, textual manipulation, and paradox, accentuating the concept that meaning is not simply rooted in words. Indeed, postmodernists tend to believe that truth, ethics, and beauty are rooted in individual perception. Since postmodernism is sometimes defined as a furthering of modernism, characteristics of modernist literature are also found in postmodernist literature, and distinguishing between the two movements is sometimes difficult. Writers associated with the postmodern movement include the novelists Don DeLillo, author of White Noise (1991); Toni Morrison, author of Beloved (1994); and Salman Rushdie, author of Midnight's Children (1995). Various poems often classified as postmodernist include Amy Gerstler's "Bzzzzzzz," John Ashbery's "Paradoxes and Oxymorons," and Allen Ginsberg's "Howl."
Fulton has stated that Emily Dickinson, one of her favorite poets, has had a profound effect on her life as well as on her writing. She began reading Dickinson as an adolescent and found much comfort in her poetry; she was especially impressed by the emotions displayed by Dickinson in her poems. Dickinson made unusual use of punctuation, especially the dash, and capitalization. The subject matter of "Art Thou the Thing I Wanted" can be likened to Dickinson's "Proud of My Broken Heart," "To Lose Thee," and "It's Such a Little Thing," all of which focus on love gained and love lost.
Compare & Contrast
- According to U.S. Census reports, the number of small farms (of 1 to 9 acres) is about 187,000; middle-sized farms (50 to 179 acres), 712,000; and large farms (2,000 acres or more), 64,000.
Today: According to U.S. Census reports, the number of small farms is about 179,000; middle-sized farms, 659,000; and large farms, 78,000.
- According to the USDA Forest Service, the majority of the land in the Midwest is de voted to agriculture.
Today: Although the majority of land in the Midwest is still devoted to agriculture, the amount of urban space has increased by 23.4 percent since the 1980s.
- According to U.S. statistics, the percentage of the population that is divorced rises from 6 percent at the start of the decade to 8 percent by the end of the decade.
Today: According to U.S. statistics, by the turn of the century, 10 percent of the population is divorced.
Above all, Fulton certainly drew upon a poem by Dickinson titled, almost identically, "Art Thou the Thing I Wanted?" Another primary aspect of postmodernism is the reconstruction of established works. (For example, Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres is in effect a retelling of William Shakespeare's King Lear.) Dickinson's work essentially consists of two drafts of a single eight-line poem, with many words and phrases identical in both drafts; in changing certain words, however, the second draft is given a meaning drastically different from that of the first. Together, the drafts can be seen as constituting a meditation on the positive and negative aspects of the state of wanting. Thus, Fulton's poem can be seen as a revisitation of concepts introduced by Dickinson more than a century earlier.
Fulton's "Art Thou the Thing I Wanted" was originally published in the collection Powers of Congress, which was reviewed by several publications with mixed reception. A critic for Publishers Weekly states, "Although Fulton … possesses a keen sense of the pliability of language, her imagery is often incoherent or heavy-handed." Indeed, many reviewers have referred to Fulton's ability to deftly handle and have fun with language, and not all have liked the effect. The Publishers Weekly reviewer finds that she has "sacrificed the emotionality of her subject to the bravado of wordplay."
Another critic, Eavan Boland, writing for Partisan Review, finds Fulton to be "an ambitious, powerful poet." Boland goes on to say that Fulton's poems "are daring and broad. She will try anything; and the latest thing she has tried is neither proof nor promise of the next." Boland adds, "Her language is not always certain and her tone is occasionally too much the same from poem to poem, making for an occasional lack of freshness and variety." She concludes, "These flaws need not disguise her considerable skill and the real pleasures of Powers of Congress."
Mutlu Konuk Blasing, writing for the Michigan Quarterly Review, finds fault with Fulton's lack of connection with the reader: "Fulton's voice is never intimate: her volume is turned just a notch too high and tends, at times, to overshoot the inner ear." Blasing further describes the nature of Fulton's expression thus:
Her voice is public, and she usually speaks as 'we'; even when she uses 'I,' her experience is either representative or meant to instruct or illustrate some larger truth—about how 'we' experience, feel, behave, or should behave.
Blasing also mentions Fulton's use of wordplay:
Fulton is polished in what she does, and her flash hooks the reader. On the down side, she can be breezy and even facile. Her language has very little undertow; her accomplished verbal play, for example, is on display and never gives a sense of making a connection that might have taken the speaker herself by surprise as well as the reader.
Finally, in a review for the Library Journal, Kathleen Norris notes, "These are intense, fast-moving but oddly abstracted poems" that suffer from "overwrought language."
Hart is a published writer and former teacher. In this essay, she explores the emotions that are carefully hidden in Fulton's playful poem.
Fulton's poem "Art Thou the Thing I Wanted" contains many playful images and poetic wordplay, while seldom approaching overt emotional expression. Still, as with the work of one of the poet's favorite writers, Emily Dickinson, Fulton's poem is indeed inspired by deep sentiments. Hidden beneath the clever wordplay and somewhat lighthearted similes is a heart that has been hurt and is longing to heal. Indeed, from the title, the reader might suspect that the speaker of this poem is in a quandary. The verb in the title is in the past tense, so the narrator can be understood to be looking back on a situation, recollecting and sorting through her feelings, and reflecting on the overall experience. At one time, the speaker thought she wanted something or someone; now, she is pondering those emotions, trying to determine whether they were real.
If by the word "unprepossessing" in the poem's first stanza the narrator means "unattractive" or "unappealing," she could be perceiving what she once considered romantic (as sunsets often are) as a source of sadness. The sunsets might have once made her feel as if she were experiencing love; yet in looking back on the situation, she believes that she was merely experiencing an infatuation. This concept of mistaken love is underscored in the artificial environments described in the second stanza. The feelings she had for the person, who is given no more identity than the "thou" of the title, may have been as unreal as "the groomed weather / of elsewhere" that is pumped artificially into the condos of the poem.
Love is first mentioned in the second stanza, in a statement that reveals some of the negative sentiments that the narrator might have about love. First, she uses the imperative "must," as in, "Well, we must love." The second clue that her emotions might be amiss is the fact that she states that this imperative love is being applied to something "given," not something that she has chosen—and that "is why / we get stuck." She then examines that love more closely, likening it to a "partition between us and what." Her love, or perhaps the object of her love, feels like protection from everything that the "what" in this phrase represents—perhaps the outside world, perhaps her interior world. Regardless, in her involvement in loving, she feels more secure, and this sense of security glosses over everything else that might reveal the flaws inherent in both her love and her beloved. "We choose to find it peerless" nonetheless, the narrator states, probably referring to the notion that if one feels comfortable with something, one may fail to examine it too closely for fear of finding something wrong with it.
The speaker then focuses more specifically on the beloved, whom she represents first as "a particular chest," then as "a passing friend," and then as "a mascot." None of these representations is very substantial. A chest is just a body part; "a passing friend" implies a surface relationship; and a mascot, merely a symbol, is essentially as superfluous as a superstition or a lucky charm. In the fifth stanza, the lover becomes "this anybody," another phrase suggesting insignificance. The inconsequentiality of the whole affair that the speaker is exploring is further played with in the fifth stanza: "this anybody / affects us like a high / pollen count." The poet has written this phrase quite mischievously, first suggesting that the relationship provides some kind of "high" in ending the line after that word and then completing the phrase and shifting the meaning; even with the alternately negative connotation of the high pollen count, the speaker dismisses the "suffering" by calling it not lethal but "petty."
At the end of stanza 5, the narrator finally describes the relationship in question as a "crush"—an infatuation that leads her to "glow" when someone tells her, "Your favorite so-and-so got drunk / and said to say hello." The fact that the object of the narrator's crush was inebriated implies that he may have lost his inhibition as well as a sense of doing the right thing, such as, perhaps, by not leading the narrator on. Here, for the first time, the narrator adopts a tone of facetiousness, exclaiming, "Glorious things of thee are spoken!" Whether the "thee" is the narrator herself or the object of her crush, she seems to be mocking the gravity with which one's attention for the other was regarded. She then uses the word "resent" in reference to the way her mind circles "unfavorable terrain," implying that she is tired of allowing herself to always harbor thoughts about the object of her crush.
In stanza 9, "people" accuse the speaker of never wanting. She refutes this indirectly by stating that the fact that she does not have a lot of things does not mean she has no desires. The reference to "a bargain struck" implies compromise, which the speaker likewise perhaps regrets. Continuing to see pitiable reflections of herself in her surroundings, she projects the image of a "besotted lover" onto the fallen tree. Indeed, the image is frightening to her, as she may be reminded of what she once was: a woman completely obsessed with another person. The last lines in stanza 16 read, "Like others, / I mistake whatever is / for what is natural." This statement is made following the description of the rundown neighborhood of small farms, which agricultural corporations have essentially ruined. The wrecked trucks and "make-do neighborhood," then, look natural because the people have grown accustomed to their state of want. The narrator seems to be saying that when she found herself in a state of infatuation that was mentally harmful to her, she nevertheless grew accustomed to the associated sentiments and came to believe that that sort of desperate, irrational wanting was somehow positive.
In reflecting, the narrator may or may not have truly moved on from her crush. Residual emotions are certainly evident, and the title of this poem is a question, but that question lacks the closing punctuation that would make it a true question. The narrator states in the eighteenth stanza, "anything reminds me of you: the real estate / most local, most removed." Thus, perhaps, no matter where she goes, she thinks of the lost, or abandoned, crush. She refers to herself and others as towers, leading the reader's mind back to the "harsh Eiffels" of stanza 11. The utility towers were held together by "high-tension / wires," just as the narrator and her crush are connected by the wires of emotion. They are, she continues, "towers / of blood and ignorance." The reader then wonders what, precisely, these people are ignorant about. Did they not understand each other? Or did they not comprehend their own emotions? In the title, the speaker suggests that she remains uncertain as to whether she wanted the "thou" in question, yet she equates the "thou" to a "thing," or an object. If the person is reduced to an object, the poem may indeed be more about the wanting, or about her specific emotions, than about the object that inspired them. Therefore, the ignorance might indeed relate mostly to the feelings that the speaker is trying to sort through, as might the poem as a whole.
Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on "Art Thou the Thing I Wanted," in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.
In the following essay, Lobanov-Rostovsky gives a critical analysis of Alice Fulton's work.
What Do I Read Next?
- Fulton's Cascade Experiment: Selected Poems (2004) is a compilation of poems from her first five collections, including Powers of Congress (1990) and the award-winning Felt (2002). The book offers a great overview of the author's progression from the more simple poems of her early years to the newer and more complex; throughout the collection, Fulton becomes more experimental with language as she digs deeper into her emotional world.
- Besides writing poetry, Fulton teaches and writes essays. In Feeling as a Foreign Language: The Good Strangeness of Poetry (1999), she writes about the poetic process and the various forms of postmodern poetry, and she also examines Emily Dickinson's work. Fulton devotes a section of this book to reflections on her own work.
- Emily Dickinson, one of the most celebrated of American poets, is often mentioned in discussions about Fulton. The two poets' works indeed feature similarities, which Fulton has herself pointed out. To discover these similarities, Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson (1988) is a good place to start.
- I Never Came to You in White (1996) is Judith Farr's fictionalized account of Emily Dickinson's life, focusing on some of the poet's idiosyncrasies. Farr tells her story through letters and poetry that she imagines Dickinson might have written.
- B. H. Fairchild was the 2004 winner of the Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry, which Fulton won in 2003. Fairchild's collection Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest (2003) has a midwestern flavor not unlike that found in Fulton's work.
In her essay "To Organize a Waterfall" Alice Fulton describes the central concern of her poetry as "an exploration of mind." The phrase hints at the paradox of Fulton's work: her poems are at once deeply personal and defiantly abstract. Her implicit subject is the workings of the poetic imagination, the way poetry emerges from the mind's web of associations, stimulated by memory, experience, and the seductions of popular culture. She notes the central role of random associations in her compositional method: "The quirk, the oddity, the extreme, the line where the language tilts, can be the most valuable facet of a poem. They are the linguistic equivalents of genetic 'point mutations': variants produced by small changes in an organism's chromosomes." As the poem emerges from the imagination, it resembles a waterfall in which each idea incites the next and the form of the poem "is based on the continuous chain of a cascade." This metaphor, with its origin in the scientific theory of "cascade experiments," reflects the complex relationship between content and form in Fulton's poems. Ideas are crucial to her poetry, yet she rarely writes about science or philosophy in any real sense. Instead Fulton's poems explore the way ideas are transformed by their inclusion in the poem and the power such ideas possess to reshape the more traditional lyric subjects of the poem: family history, landscape, erotic love. She celebrates the power of the poetic imagination to transform the most mundane experience into a beauty defined by abstraction; as she said in a 1988 interview with Karen Clark: "My poetry asks people to think, to become more conscious. It asks the same of me. The greatest thing about writing poetry has been the way it's made the world more interesting: every facet of the world. I can sit in a fast food restaurant and become interested in a grove of streetlights across the road, the way they cast veils through the trash and hard horizontals."
In a similar manner Fulton's poetry regards the objects of memory as the substructure on which metaphor can be shaped. She was born in Troy, New York, 25 January 1952 into a Catholic family. Her early poems, such as "Another Troy" in Palladium (1986), reimagine the battered industrial city of her childhood as the material for parodic myth:
In the seismic hiss of the Volcano
Restaurant I invented Armageddons
guaranteed to free us: fires coasting down from heaven,
spumes of air pollutants hurled into the stratosphere
and we, the damnificados, fleeing.
An erupting Italian restaurant—
that would put us on the map!
Yet this urge to see her native city's "rough edges / … buffed by the crumbled palladium / of ash" gives way to Fulton's perception of how memory—and poetry itself—transforms by the simple act of description:
Oh, if I sing of icicles
dangling like syringes from friezes
"neo-grec" or French,
of roses battened down with sackcloth, trees
lumbagoed under lumpen winters,
I'm minting an insignia. Take this, "Troy—
the City without Glibness,"
for your spartan tribute.
Such gestures of memory evoke the traditions of mainstream American poetry only to defy them: the insistent play of language and parodic tone of Fulton's memory poems suggest her darker purpose. When she writes memory poems, as in "On the Charms of Absentee Gardens," also from Palladium, they are about the ambiguous process of memory rather than its banal products:
Leaving meant commencement.
Legend says an angel banished us
with a sword of flame, though rumor
claims the owners torched
our hangouts for insurance.
In any case, we preened with self-
congratulations as though our origins were ruinous
accidents from which we'd walked away.
Fire fixes the magnetic alignment
of clay, and wooden beams remember
weather in their rings. But what Cortez will come
in search of tambourines and beads? We'd like a past
that won't decay with distance or yield
to interference. Failing that,
we want what we've abandoned
to wear: that is to crumble
and to last. We want a ruin: uselessness
permitted the luxury of existence.
Her poems devoted to family history are in many respects her most accessible, yet Fulton is insistent in regarding the autobiographical detail as only the raw material for the mind's habit of metaphor. As she noted, with some irritation, in her interview with Clark two years after the publication of Palladium, "I've written as many, if not more, poems on the ontological struggle between engagement and estrangement as I have on 'family,' but only one critic has commented on the former topic. It's a more subtle topic than 'family,' and like most subtleties it can be completely overlooked." Indeed, the memory work of Fulton's poetry affirms the relationship of these two themes: engagement with a past that retains its power to shape the poet's consciousness becomes a process of estrangement. Family history, while the subject of many of her early poems, is only visible through the distorting lens of the imagination. What memory excavates from her own life proves to be the influence of this same quicksilver substance, "imagination, kicking like a worm in a jumping bean." Fulton adopts voices in many of her poems, or she regards her own experience from the distance of an analytical third-person ("From Our Mary to Me"), deploying it as evidence of a profound mistrust for the ideology that memory carries with it ("Cherry Bombs," "All Night Shivering").
Fulton graduated from Empire State College in Albany, New York, with a B.A. in creative writing in 1978. She completed her MF.A. at Cornell in 1982, where she studied with A. R. Ammons. Since 1983 she has taught at the University of Michigan, where she is currently a professor of English. She was Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at Vermont College in 1987 and at the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1991. She is currently a fellow of the MacArthur Foundation and has received many fellowships and awards, including MacDowell Colony fellowships in 1978 and 1979; a Millay Colony fellowship, 1980; the Emily Dickinson Award, 1980; the Academy of American Poets prize, 1982; the Rainer Maria Rilke Award, 1984; Michigan Council for the Arts grants, 1986 and 1991; Yaddo Colony fellowship, 1987; Guggenheim fellowship, 1986–1987; the Bess Hokin prize from Poetry, 1989; and an Ingram Merrill Foundation award, 1990. In 1980 she married the painter Hank De Leo, with whom she lives in Ypsilanti, Michigan.
In her interview with Clark, Fulton credits Ammons with helping her "regard a poem less as a product, a neatly packaged, finished thing, and more as a reflection of mind." In Ammons's work Fulton found a model of poetry presenting "the course of the mind as continual high points, continually interesting travel, though part of his method is to allow the mundane to accompany the complex." This variation of tones is crucial to her own poetics as well. Fulton delights in allowing her language "to have a will of its own … wily, du-plicitous," refusing "to be subdued into an orderly, simple form." W. D. Snodgrass began his introduction to Fulton's first book, Dance Script with Electric Ballerina (1983), by christening her "the veritable Lady of Logopoeia," celebrating the "constant delight and dazzle in language textures, the ever-shifting shock and jolt of an electric surface." Her poems draw the language of science, advertising, and pop culture into an uneasy juxtaposition. In doing so, her poems celebrate the protean nature of such language. Scientific terms acquire multiple meanings through the shifting contexts of the poem, as in the "slant truths" of the word palladium that organize her second major volume or the "lexicon of recurring words and images" that give shape to Powers of Congress (1990). Yet, as she notes in "To Organize a Waterfall," the inclusion of scientific language has a deeper metaphoric significance for Fulton; wrenched out of its traditional context, scientific language illuminates "the poem's real investments: the way our present beliefs affect or distort our future knowledge; the unreliability of human perception; the old-fashioned question of whether consciousness might in any way continue after death." The implicit subject of Fulton's poems, then, is faith, which she defines as "the suppositions and convictions that allow us to live in the world." Science proves a crucial source for Fulton's poetry because it represents a mode of discourse which "strains our capacity to imagine, let alone believe."
This conflict between the role of science as metaphor and its power to expose the limits of metaphoric consciousness lies at the heart of Fulton's work. In Powers of Congress Fulton reflects on the fragility of this impulse to reason in several poems. "Behavioral Geography" considers the desire "to make the world / look one way to us all" by invoking reason free of "ecstasy":
I cling to wishful visions
like someone clinging to a tree, complaining
that the tree won't leave.
Hope springs up in me.
Lost, found, bewildered,
when will I learn
to like unsettling transits,
to use the universal
corrective of the sky,
a continental drift
with nothing fixed about it?
Once a woman dressed in wood
lunged down the falls,
as if her flesh were not
irreparable, and lived.
The beauty's the impossibility. Proving?
All views are seasoned
carved by freshets,
warps of the heart.
Ecstasy has its reasons.
In the final poem of the book, "Art Thou The Thing I Wanted," Fulton rejects the seductions of reason, preferring instead "problems / more interesting than solutions, / solutions being perfect…." The poem offers a meditation on its own metaphoric consciousness, how the mind naturalizes the unfamiliar into a landscape that fits its assumptions:
I mistake whatever is
for what is natural.
You know the commonplaces. How people think
women are good
at detail work when that's the only work
they're given. Or how
the city's invisible
engines jiggled our coffee
till we believed quivering a constant
property of liquid.
Reason, in these terms, is simply one more metaphor by which the mind describes for itself a world it nervously takes on faith. Viewed in this context, Fulton's taste for oxymoron and dramatic variations in tone reflects the mind's struggle to imagine itself as distinct from what it perceives:
Everything happens to me, I think,
as anything reminds me of you: the real estate
most local, most removed.
As on the remains of prairie
the curving earth becomes a plinth—
from which we rise, towers
of blood and ignorance.
The self is an oxymoron, a work in progress, as the mind struggles to assemble itself from conflicting shards of memory, perception, and popular culture. The poetic imagination embodies this dissonance, drawing upon multiple discourses—pop culture, advertising, science—juxtaposed in a style that celebrates oxymoron, tonal variation, and the tension between lyric tradition and the chaotic movements of mind.
Fulton foregrounds this conflict within her poetry by such "perverse" strategies as acrostic lines (constructing the phrase "BOWLING DEVELOPS THE RIGHT ARM" along the left margin of "The Fractal Lanes") and her insistence upon the interplay of structure and chaos in her compositional method. In her essay titled "Of Formal, Free, and Fractal Verse: Singing the Body Eclectic" in Conversant Essays: Contemporary Poets on Poetry (1990), she argues for an understanding of the implicit structure within apparently chaotic forms. Drawing upon the mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot's theories of "self-similar fractal form," in which "each part of a fractal form replicates the form of the entire structure," Fulton offers the following precepts for "fractal" verse:
Any line when examined closely (or magnified) will reveal itself to be as richly detailed as was the larger poem from which it was taken: the poem will contain an infinite regression of details, a nesting of pattern within pattern (an endless imbedding of the shape into itself, recalling Tennyson's idea of the inner infinity); digression, interruption, fragmentation, and lack of continuity will be regarded as formal functions rather than lapses into formlessness; all directions of motion and rhythm will be equally probable (isotropy); the past positions of motion, or the preceding metrical pattern, will not necessarily affect the poem's future evolution (independence).
While the mathematical origin of this central thesis of Fulton's poetics reflects her interest in such "nonpoetic" discourses as the language of science, it also suggests the range of her poetic resources. With her delight in juxtapositions of tone and voice, Fulton challenges the privileged language of emotional experience that is the legacy of lyric tradition. Her style is dialogic, contrasting multiple voices and perspectives, including all that poetry traditionally excludes; as she says in her interview with Clark:
Most broadly, my poems try to question assumptions. I like to juggle cultural notions of centrality and sneak in what we consign to the periphery. I try to bring hidden relationships to the fore, disrupt assumptions surrounding gender, muddle in the fuzziness of ethics. The poems' language, including syntax and grammar, can provide a means of unhinging complacency and cliche…. I like my poetry to be insidious, rather than didactic; multiplistic, rather than singular in meaning.
What poetry traditionally excludes is not the prospect of multiple meanings, but the unheroic voice: the everyday, the commonplace, the feminine. Fulton's "inclusions" subvert this dominant tradition, creating a style that she describes as "more disjunctive than contiguous, more discursive than linear."
In her earliest work Fulton's feminism appeared to take second place to her interest in creating a poetic style that could accommodate her sense of the poetic imagination as a cascade of associations. Yet this concern with the exclusion of female voices, as she notes in "To Organize a Waterfall," this concern was always implicit in her poetry:
The feminist strategies of my work are embedded because I believe linguistic structures are most powerful when least evident…. Whereas concealed meanings usually enforce the status quo, I use recondite structures to say subversive things. Few readers have noticed the preoccupation with gender in my work because it's eclipsed by the poems' starring subjects. The unnoticed female lizards [in "Cascade Experiment"] suggest that many "facts" about females are obscured or influenced by our existing notions.
In "Cherry Bombs" (Powers of Congress) Fulton associates the culture's gendering of childhood expectation with a game of false choices: "Would you rather be liquidated / or boiled in oil?" The binarisms that define gender in the poem—"Out/in. Girl/boy. Truth/lies."—are the opposite of the oxymoron by which Fulton imagines consciousness: instead, the culture demands that the speaker give in, choose between each pair of terms, become complicit in her own reduction to the "compulsory unsung heroics" that define a woman's life.
In her fourth book, Sensual Math (1995), Fulton articulates more explicitly the feminist implications of her poetics. In almost every poem she reflects on the urge to comprehend—to define, to contain—as a metaphorical violence, an act of repression that poetry must contest. Yet the book is impressive for its coherence, less a traditional book of poems than variations on a single theme: the conflict between this urge to comprehend and a style of response that she calls "immersion." In Fulton's vocabulary these are opposite terms; she rejects the mode of reading enacted daily by the checkout scanner in favor of the "treason" of immersion, which demands real presence, the dissolution of self into the poem's dark matter. As she says in "Fuzzy Feelings":
Metaphor is pure immersion. Pure sinking
one into another and the more
difference that's dissolved the more ==
often I'll sink
into a book that swimless way.
In return for this immersion Fulton offers her readers wonder. If the poems resist her readers at times—and they do—that only serves to draw the readers in, to demand that they dissolve their difference in the poem's fluid meanings, to be—at once—both "rapt" and "wrapped."
Fulton anchors the book with two set pieces. In "My Last TV Campaign: A Sequence" an advertising man comes out of retirement to sell one final product—"the beauty of dissolving / boundaries." "Give: A Sequence Reimagining Daphne and Apollo" envisions Apollo as Frank Sinatra, in "snap-brim hats, // alligator shoes and sharkskin / suits from Sy Devore's Hollywood men's store"; Cupid as the young Elvis, "gyrating / primitive / and part of nature"; and Daphne as the poem's "dark matter," the vinyl on which the Voice is pressed. In "A New Release," from that sequence, she describes:
Easing the new release from its sleeve, I saw
out of shape in its reflections: a night whirlpool or a
sleek chignon, an obsidian never reached by skin
always has a warmth of blood beneath. It was a
like all records, pressed with a tread the needle
sound through ear and nerves and marrow. I
grain sometimes wondering how music lurked in
that looked so unassuming. The marvel was—the
If "the missing had volition," it has voice in Fulton's poem. Both sequences use the language of pop culture not only to articulate Fulton's ideal of immersion but also to enact it. In "The Profit in the Sell" the adman's Madison Avenue sales pitch echoes the postmodern aesthetic that makes such language the vehicle for poetry:
I'd rather be emerging than retiring. I came out
to sell a big account
that needs to keep its identity
hidden. They're deep
into everything it seems.
A job so sweet you'd do it
for free. Career candy.
I couldn't wish away the rush I felt
once I grasped what they were after:
A campaign that demonstrated the beauty of dissolving
boundaries between yourself and the Martian
at the heart of every war.
An ad that pushed viewers to incorporate-embrace
rather than debase-slash-erase the other
gal-slash-guy. A commercial saying blend,
bend, and blur, folks. It works!
Fulton's taste for paradox becomes, in "Fuzzy Feelings," a metaphor in its own right—the binding of contradictory terms and tones to produce a visible seam in her text, a flaw that perfects:
tend to be flawless, while natural
emeralds have defects
known as inclusions, imperfections
with a value all their own.
Like Daphne, she refuses Apollo, but she pays homage to Elvis Presley. Indeed, it is Elvis who serves as the book's patron spirit in the poem "About Face," embodying both its poetics ("the mixed metaphor of his jumpsuit that flared to wedding / bells white / as a pitcher plant's") and its vision of a self betrayed by its own defenses:
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.
Was the audience afraid of being tainted
—this might rub off on me—
or were they—surrendering—
what a femme word—feeling
solicitous—glimpsing their fragility
in his reversible purples
and unwholesome goldish chains?
Such embarrassment, for Fulton, is desire's reverse image, "intimacy for beginners, the orgasm no one cares to fake." In the late Elvis she finds an image of strange authenticity, an image with the power to negate the daily repressions ("Elvis from the waist up") by which the self struggles to affirm its separateness.
To this same end Fulton creates her own punctuation ("=="), a sign that she calls "a bride / after the recessive threads in lace." She deploys this symbol in the poem titled simply "==" to compel the readers' attention to "the unconsidered / mortar between the silo's bricks":
It might make visible the acoustic signals
of things about to flame. It might
let thermal expansion be syntactical. Let it
while staying reticent, unspoken
as a comma. Don't get angry == protest == but a
comma seems so natural, you don't see it
when you read: it's gone to pure transparency. Yet but.
The natural is what
poetry contests. Why else the line == why stanza
meter and the rest. Like wheels on snow
Fulton offers this improvised sign as a symbol for immersion, "a seam made to show," which compels our attention to what our reading ignores, "the white between the ink." Yet this symbol also serves as a summary device that draws together Fulton's complex themes. It embodies, at once, horizon, immersion, lace, and suture, Fulton's images for what the mind embraces—and represses—as it contends with the world. She explains in "Immersion":
Let it be horizon levitating on horizon
with sunrise at the center ==
the double equal that means more
than equal to == within.
It's sensual math
and untied railroad tracks ==
the ladder of gaps and lace
unlatched. It's staples
in the page and the swimmer's liquid lane.
Those sutures that dissolve into the self.
These images are multiple in their meaning. Lace, in particular, appears most often as Fulton's image for the acts of repression by which a culture naturalizes its concealed violence, as in this meditation in the dentist's chair from "Fuzzy Feelings":
is a form of filth I hate.
As for the dying moan and gush
of the deer killed by hunters down the road—
I'd find it more tasteful
done in plastic or an acrylic
venison Christmas sweater.
I'd rather wear vinyl than hide.
I didn't mean what I said about lace.
Lace in a vacuum would be okay.
Even beige would have its place. It's context,
culture makes them == wait, I'll take the novocaine.
In "The Lines are Wound on Wooden Bobbins, Formerly Bones," the third poem in Fulton's Daphne and Apollo sequence, this image of lace evolves into a metaphor for the woman's role as sexual prey:
A daughter like the openwork of lace == between
the raised motif
the field, formed by lines
of thread called brides, shies back
in order to let shine.
The image hints at the complexity of Fulton's metaphor, its doubleness: the bride "shies back," but in this act of receding, she shines. Fulton summons the repressed into the foreground, displays what the culture habitually conceals:
== the dense
omissions crystallize the lack
that's lace. She is to be that
yin of linen
under vision's dominion == be the ground
of silk that's burned away with lye ==
Daphne, in "Splice: A Grotesque," embodies all that male desire negates, "the lack / that's lace," a fabric that both entices the male gaze and demands to be torn. The object of Apollo's desire, she is "neither-nor," "nevergreen"—the antimatter that is destroyed by contact with Apollo's maleness:
Given the heavens, he's the stellar,
not the black bridle between stars. He's the type
on white, he's text. He's monarch, please,
he's god. The impressive == living end.
Though luminous matter is less than one percent
of the whole
required for closure, though foreground
was an afterthought, he's the great attractor the
on its knees before. Go figure.
Yet Fulton's imagery subverts this easy opposition, even as she constructs it: Daphne, by implication, is the page that makes the type visible, the unseen matter "required for closure." She is the desire that defines him, the repressed that Fulton's poem brings into view.
Daphne's transformation into the laurel in "Turn: A Version" becomes for Fulton an image of immersion, an "engagement" with nature that offers refuge from Apollo's predatory desire:
People get a kick
out of ambivalent
betrothals and collisions full of give. Flowers that remodel
themselves to look like bees are nice, but the scientist whose
atoms get commingled
with a fly's might be my favorite. "Help me! Help me!"
I can identify.
Fulton reclaims the laurel ("Tree of completion—presence—and immersion") from Apollo and transforms it into an image of poetry that demands engagement. Where poets have traditionally taken the laurel, Fulton's imagery makes it a figure for the dissolution of self that poetry demands of us ("collisions full of give"). Daphne escapes into the laurel's embrace, as if heeding the admonition in Fulton's earlier sequence to "blend, / bend, and blur, folks. It works!"
One implication of this revision of the iconography of Apollo's laurel wreath is Fulton's more profound "re-imagining" of the poet's craft. She identifies Daphne closely with her own poetic method, "the deep / meanders of her / mind" through the culture's multiple languages, navigated in "Mail" by the associative pattern she calls "echolocation":
off distant objects to predict their motion, shape, and place.
is what she used to navigate, traveling up to one hundred
Her sonar let her see right through opacities: read the entrails
coiled inside the trees….
But her gift for visualizing the inner
of words was most impressive. She'd tell of wedlock's wall
that was a shroud
of pink, its wall that was a picket fence, the one of chainlink
that was all strings.
This idea of echolocation—the ability to navigate, like a bat, by reflected sound—is central to Fulton's method: her poems strike the reader like the echo bouncing off the visible objects of culture. Yet what those echoes reveal most clearly is all that remains hidden. In "Some Cool" Fulton associates the pig ornaments she hangs on her tree with the memory of pigs hauled to slaughter; she describes this movement of mind as a form of "cultural incorrectness," the insistent presence in her poetry of thoughts that the culture tries to repress:
Now when people ask what kind of poetry I write
I say the poetry of cultural incorrectness—
out of step and—does that help?
I use my head
voice and my chest voice.
I forget voice
and think syntax, trying to add
so many tones to words that words
become a world all by themselves.
become a world all by themselves.
I forget syntax
and put some street in it. I write
for the born-again infidels
whose skepticism begins at the soles
of the feet and climbs the body,
nerve by nerve.
Fulton offers her readers a handy critical phrase here—"the poetry of cultural incorrectness"—but the more revealing moment of this brief ars poetica is the inclusive compositional method she confesses to in the second stanza. The inspired tonal variations that characterize her best work reflect a kind of immersion in her own writing process ("trying to add / so many tones to words that words / become a world all by themselves"). In these terms her claim on our skepticism extends to our own process of reading. Like the students in the summer immersion course in "Drills," who "must speak the language they're learning / in brittle artificial dialogues," readers are prompted to confront the limits of their comprehension:
… the teacher plucked me from the chorus
with a question out of sync with all our drills:
"Does suffering help one understand the suffering of others? What do you think, Alice?"
I wanted to describe an essay I'd received—
I also was a teacher—
from a former Marine
who wrote of the wounds, humiliation,
he'd endured in the war
and how he'd held up well
until a medic touched him gently.
I wanted to build complex sentences,
quivering with clauses that reveal
the meaning sheath by sheath
and lead to, or perhaps enact, the fact
that understanding is itself unbearable.
Sentences beyond the depth
of my thin French. So I just said yes.
This is not agreement, but surrender. The poem emerges as an elegy for her niece ("Laura: Latin feminine of laurus, bay laurel"), linking the abstractions that govern Fulton's poetics to the most personal of griefs. No language can express—or allow readers to comprehend—such suffering. At best, as in Fulton's intricate riffs, it can dare readers to wonder. That's no small thing, but as Fulton notes: "What causes less comfort / than wonder?"
Fulton's self-awareness in these poems tempts her readers to the conclusion that such meditations on her own poetic imagination must be read as statements of aesthetic intent—an ongoing ars poetica that commences in the aspirations to a dangerous grace in "Dance Script with Electric Ballerina" and reappears in such poems as "The Wreckage Entrepreneur," with its description of a woman who rescues beauty from what the culture casts aside. Yet Fulton's poetics resist such attempts to impose coherence on the movements of the poetic imagination. Her poems demand from her readers nothing less than immersion, a process in which they share the creation of meaning by allowing the poem to shape—but not dictate—their own consciousness. Her meanings are multiple, fluid, and provisional; reading her work reveals our minds to be the same. As she celebrates the transformative power of poetic language, it becomes clear that it is her reader that is transformed, made aware by these "explorations of mind" that the poet simply sketches a horizon, displaying for her readers—as she notes in Palladium—"this reliable frame / that lets color be // color and light light." The rest she leaves to imagination.
Source: Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky, "Alice Fulton," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 193, American Poets Since World War II, Sixth Series, edited by Joseph Conte, Gale Research, 1998, pp. 138-147.
Alice Fulton and Alec Marsh
In the following interview conducted November 29, 1995, Fulton discusses the influence of television on poetry; her own use of dramatic monologue, dialogue, and "multi-logue"; and the nature of writing in the voice of the opposite gender.
This early morning interview took place on November 29, 1995, in the recording studio of WMUH, Muhlenberg College's tiny radio station; it has been edited and Fulton has taken the opportunity to expand on some of her responses. The studio setting is one reason we got to talking about popular music and television and its influence on poets. But Fulton's new book, Sensual Math, contains a sequence called "My Last TV Campaign," which raises the issue of the poet's relationship to the electronically mediated world.
[Marsh:] One of the things we have been talking about this morning is the influence of television on poetry. You are of a generation, as I am, that grew up within the world of television. One of the opening lines of one of your poems in Sensual Math, "Vanishing Cream," begins "TV rules." I wonder if you could talk about what that means to you.
[Fulton:] In that particular poem, it's an advertising executive who's speaking. The first line is "TV rules: it must be visual velcro …" There's a double meaning on "TV rules," one implication being that it rules in the sense of dominates. But the poem also is listing various rules for the production of a TV commercial, such as "… it must be visual velcro / at four grand per second." What does "TV rules" mean to me? Let's see … I grew up watching it, but I never liked it very much truthfully. As a kid there were certain shows I watched. I can't really remember what they were, but by the time I grew old enough to think—at twelve or so—I wasn't watching much TV anymore. My parents would have it on, and I would be up in my room listening to records or reading.
What was happening to music in the sixties was more powerful to me than anything I saw on TV. I always found TV kind of vacuous and boring, in fact. Other people seemed to find it mesmerizing, but at that time and I guess even today, I don't find it very engaging. I can walk away from it, turn it off. My husband, for instance, says that he can't do that. He gets sucked in; he's a visual person, a painter, and he finds it much more engaging than I do.
I tend to disagree with many of the values encouraged by TV. In "My Last TV Campaign," the ad executive, after a life of selling dish soap, et cetera, is given the chance—finally—to create a campaign for something she or he believes in, a big idea that could have a positive social impact. The poem considers the difficulties of presenting or "selling" ideas that are not already part of culture. At least, that's one thing the poem does.
I wonder if "TV rules" dictate, or give you a structure from which the quick cuts of your poetry are derived. Is there an influence there?
Well, in "Vanishing Cream" there might be an influence. That poem quotes from ad copy the speaker is trying to write. It is a little disjunctive, at times. But the disjunctiveness in other poems of mine probably comes more from what I've read and from postmodern ideas that question continuity and unity. Shifts of viewpoint and diction are a means of disrupting the poem's surface. I'm interested in dismantling the single, firm, unified speaking voice. Rather than the continuity and smoothness and polish of a steady subject, I'm interested in plurality of voices and registers of diction. My notion of poetry itself suggests quick cuts—those moves that used to be called poetics leaps. They allow the reader to fill in the gaps and participate by recreating the poem's meaning in their own minds. Poetry, to a greater degree than prose, depends on what happens between the lines. The gap between meanings is wider in poetry. My concept of poetry depends upon deletion and non sequiturs that the reader can reconstruct into meaning. To me, this is a component of poetry. It has nothing to do with TV.
I noticed when you were reading last night that some of the poems that I took to be monologic, actually seemed to have a couple of voices coming in. It suggests to me that often lines that are taken off the left-hand margin indicate another speaker. Am I making that up?
In one poem, "Some Cool," I used indentation to show shifts in thought. When I read that poem, it has the effect of being in different voices because the poem's speaker—me, in this case—is remembering the various voices. She's putting a string of pig lights—those lights they make now in the shape of animals—on the Christmas tree. While doing this, she's remembering two voices: her neighbor and the text of the Elvis cookbook she's received as a gift. But these various languages take place in the speaker's mind and in that sense are part of her shifting sense of self.
In this poem and other ones there's counterpoint—so I think you're right to pick up on that. To make it easier for people to hear them when I'm reading them, I'll say, for instance, "This poem is in the voice of an ad executive." But you don't have to read it that way; it can be read as parts of a sensibility, rather than parts of a single steady speaking subject. There are various polyphonic ways to look at the poems.
The first time I picked up the book, I cracked it open to one of the poems in "My Last TV Campaign," it was the Valentino poem, "Passport," and I thought, "Oh I'm not sure about this." When I realized it was a dramatic poem I felt much better. It made sense as the mind of this TV person. But at first I took it as sincere: this is Alice Fulton speaking.
You used the word "sincere," just as I might use it. But I wonder—what do we mean by "sincere?" Are autobiographical poems necessarily "sincere?" It seems to me that lyric poems often assume the pose of sincerity, and I find that posture off-putting, sometimes even offensive. I don't like it when manipulation insists upon its innocence or tries to pass itself off as guilelessness. All writing is manipulative, but writing that admits to its manipulations—by use of surface effects, tone, disjunction, what have you—seems more honest, perversely, and therefore has a better chance of convincing—or moving—me.
Even in lyrics, where it seems I'm the poem's speaker, that sense of self and voice is something of a fiction. I'm wary of being completely identified with the words being said because that way of reading fails to account for the mediation—those screening, selection, censorship—that inflects all writing. On the other hand, I have to admit that whenever I create a persona some of my own beliefs come through.
Basically, I think that autobiographical poetry needs to be viewed as a construct rather than as a "sincere," unmediated slice of life. At the same time, poetry in voices—or poetry that creates characters—can be read as mediated autobiography, mediated sincerity, if you will. During the late seventies, I worked for a brief time as an advertising copywriter in New York City, and there's a part of me in "My Last TV Campaign." I sympathize with the intentions of the speaker and the outrageously benign ad campaign she or he is trying to devise. But unlike the persona of the poem, I knew I couldn't stand advertising right from the start. I used to come home, go into the bedroom, and cry. I couldn't have lived the life of the ad executive in my poem. For me, that job was a horror. Yet to write that character, I had to have some area of sympathy or congruency.
Some readers have mistaken "My Last TV Campaign" for a satire on advertising, but that wasn't my intention at all. Advertising is a satire on itself already. The poem is much more "sincere" than people might think.
Dramatic monologues or dramatic multi-logues, as some of your poems are, do seem to give a poet a lot of freedom about hiding and coming forth.
"Multi-logues" is a good term. It describes contrapuntal poems very well. I began writing them because I got so tired of writing from my own experience, writing about my own life; it didn't include everything in a certain way. There were areas of human experience and thought that I wanted to experience vicariously; I wanted to go deeper into otherness. One of the ways of going more deeply into otherness is to write from the perspective of someone who's not you, of course. So that was how I began doing it, just trying to stretch that lyric sensibility a little bit. Now I'm going back more toward my own life and experience and away from other personas.
"My Last TV Campaign" seems to have one speaker—although it's difficult to say just who that speaker is.
People read my sequences, like "My Last TV Campaign," and sometimes don't know if it's one speaker. I have no objection to reading the poem as polyphony, but when I wrote it, I thought of it in terms of a single character.
The poem's speaker is deliberately androgynous. When I started reading the sequence I just took it to be a woman, because you're a woman. Very naive. As I got halfway through I thought that maybe it was a male speaker, but it's actually deliberately left fuzzy.
Right, the speaker's sex and gender are left open. But people always inscribe it. I think that's because the mind has trouble seeing two things at the same time. You could envision a transvestite or someone who is androgynous, but to envision both a gendered male and gendered female together is, perhaps, impossible. The poem is meant to oscillate between them. Some people inscribe it as male and will tell me about the man in my poem; others will say the woman. But it can be both; it can be either. The two overlap, switching back and forth, shuffling and flexing.
Have you ever written dramatic monologues with a male speaker?
Yes, yes. Several times. A sequence in Powers of Congress called "OVERLORD" is spoken in part by a soldier who's landing in Normandy on D-Day. That was definitely a male speaker. And in a recent issue of TriQuarterly, I published a poem called "World Wrap" that was in the voice of a man I'd describe as a feminist.
When you write a poem and the speaker is the other gender (if there is just one other gender) it makes one think about the role of gender, or the role that gender is. What's that like for you?
Before I answer let me be clear—when I say "sex" I'm referring to biology, while "gender" refers to the social and cultural construction of the self. Now that we've cleared that up—I think gender is a great inconvenience. I'd like to get rid of it. I don't mean the word "gender," which is very useful, but gender in action. For women, it's terribly constricting. The female gender role involves much more artificiality and contrivance than the male—though neither role is "natural."
When I was writing "OVERLORD," I tried to imagine my way into the consciousness of a soldier in World War II, who found himself in that particular historical predicament. I thought about what his background might be, and I thought of how he regarded women—that was one of the interesting things for me in the poem. When he's at war, he's remembering sex and the woman waiting for him back home.
More deeply, the poem's concerns had nothing to do with character. It thinks about the connection between childbirth and warfare as triumphant spheres of endeavor. Since antiquity, childbirth has been woman's means of transcendence and heroic endeavor, and war has been man's. "OVERLORD" is a means of meditating on that deep structure. There's a childbirth poem, in the voice of a woman, too, in that sequence. It gave me a chance to engage with sensibilities and thoughts that I wouldn't have encountered otherwise, and become more of a "chameleon poet," as Keats said.
You obviously believe, as most poets of consequence do, that "the poet thinks with the poem" as William Carlos Williams said. You mentioned meditation. How do poems begin for you? How does meditation happen?
It depends on whether it's a commission or whether it's something I choose to do on my own. Writing without an assignment is in some ways ideal because you're free to follow the deepest passions and interests. With commissions, the challenge lies in finding a connection between the assigned theme and your own urgencies. When I'm writing on my own, I look into notebooks I keep. And I look at what I have written and see where I was, where I left off, where I was deeply engaged last.
And then, what I haven't said is of interest to me. Have I neglected anything? Was I shortchanging some aspect of a subject that interests me? Have I shied away from it? Have I been uncourageous or have I been wimpy about something?
In a way, that's how I got interested in writing more about emotion. Language has always attracted me in poetry. When I read poetry, it's the way things are said that appeals to me. So as a poet, that's very much where I began. That was the praxis or center for me. It still is. But as I thought about it, I realized that I'm also very drawn to poems because of their emotive qualities, because of what they make me feel. That's very hard for the poet to guess, to do, to control. I don't think you can control it really. But by not thinking about emotion at all and just letting it happen if it did, I felt that I was not taking on something that was finally important to me and important to poetry.
On the other hand, it seems to me that too many poets cultivate emotion at the expense of language. There's a lot of sappy poetry being written and published. The language in the poems might be plain—monochromatic, beige language—but the content is florid and gushy as cabbage roses. I have a horror of writing that way. When it comes to emotion, I prefer poems that err on the side of austerity. Most contemporary poems want to move the reader. But the emotions I feel when reading them are not the ones the poet intended. I might feel anger or disgust because I sense that the poet is trying to manipulate me with sincerity. All language is manipulative, but the poems that move me are those that seem somewhat surprised, taken aback, by their own emotional developments. I believe that can happen when feeling seeps into the poem without calculation on the poet's part. That's why I've allowed emotion into my work as an accidental (not an accident, but a fortuitous, unforeseen chromatic alteration), and maybe that's why the emotion in my poetry tends to go unnoticed.
With emotion, you can't only think, because then you're back where you were before, with the analytical. But it's possible to be analytical at first and then to allow spontaneity and feeling. To think and then let the poem rip, in both senses of the phrase. Let it be more vulnerable. Poems of "desire" or loss are the safest, least vulnerable poems imaginable these days. It is far riskier, more vulnerable, to allow contrarian feelings—humiliation, vulgarity, perversity, humor, et cetera—into the poem than to express loss. The emotional range of contemporary poetry seems far too limited. When I think of the poetry of emotion I think of surfaces that tear. Things are exposed that maybe you didn't intend to show. Those can be the most powerful points in writing.
Did those moments happen in your notebooks or only when you move from the notebook to the poem? I'm trying to imagine your notebooks now.
I have so many notebooks. Some are just collections of words and phrases that I like. But in them I'll put things I notice, things that I might feel. They are full of observations, aphorisms, about emotions or things that I've noticed about how people are acting—little things that I could work out and develop in a more nuanced and complex way in a poem.
I have a friend I talk to who's a scientist, John Holland, who's a colleague at Michigan, and we have wonderful conversations about science and literature, and I keep notes on that. So I have many different kinds of notebooks.
Do you carry them all around with you?
Never, no. That wasn't why my suitcase was so heavy! I don't because I'm afraid I'll lose them if I travel with them. I keep them at home. I have one small one that I carry with me sometimes, one where I might just jot something down, like a diary, if something happened. I also keep language in it that strikes me—bits of phrasing and words. There's nothing to notebook-keeping that's a "should-do." And I like that.
I was wondering if you feel you need a subject to bounce off of to begin the poem, or do you sit down and wait for the poem to say itself to you?
I usually have something in mind. Very often what I have in mind isn't where I end up. But at least it's something to start from, something to meditate on, to think about, and something that interests me. If the poem is a commission, of course, I'm given that start. Then the difficulty is connecting it to my own deep interests. But I don't start with absolutely nothing. The blank slate is off-putting, while words give rise to words.
Do you meditate on words or images?
I always look at entries in my notebooks. I've occasionally stared at visual images—such as photographs. This morning I was thinking of book titles, and I came up with the word "vinyl." To me it's an interesting word. And not a "poetic" word, not "desire," not "angels." A poem name that came to me was "dirt." I'm interested in the word "failure" as a poem title. America is so much about success. The idea of admitting failure, of admitting weakness, is interesting to me at the moment. I'm very interested in the connotations and the feeling and the taste and the texture of particular words. Sometimes I'll copy down a beautiful sentence from someone I'm reading.
There's so much energy and tension in a good sentence. I think of prose writers as people who write great sentences. With poets you think great lines. What's the difference between a sentence and a line?
Well, for me, the line is still the unit of composition, which might be a little bit old-fashioned at this point. It's a shame that the possibilities of the line are being neglected. It's a linguistic structure that I'm not keen on giving up, though writing in lines is certainly a lot of trouble. The line is something that poetry gives us that prose doesn't, a little sculptural thing on the page, a unit of thought with a brief rest at the end.
A line should be interesting in and of itself, and then it has to work within the context of the sentence. The line provides an opportunity for syntactic doubling—a wonderful term I learned from Cristanne Miller, a scholar who writes brilliantly about poetry. It is possible to create one meaning when the line is decontextualized and read as a thing unto itself, and another meaning when the line is connected to what follows. This sort of syntactic doubling depends upon the multiplicity of the last word in the line. But a word within the line can also act as a syntactic door, opening and closing on meaning, changing from noun to verb, for instance. "TV rules: it must be visual velcro," the line you cited earlier, is an example. "Rules" can be read as a noun or a verb. It isn't something poets want to overdo, but it can add to the richness and ambiguity of the poem. This particular linguistic effect is not possible in prose.
The line makes poets and readers think about language very closely. The end word in a line receives a great deal of pressure and attention. It's interesting to try to move the weight toward the beginning of a line. Enjambments that end the line on function words like articles, little words like "a" or "the," the seam stitching of language, are less teleological or end-driven. They lighten up the right side of the poem. Beginning with a noun or verb places more weight to the left, frontloading the line.
The most common way to lineate is to simply write lines that follow the syntactical pauses of the sentence. Poets who support this lineation sometimes call it naturalistic and say that it mimics speech. But if you listen to people talk, they pause in ragged places, leaving the prepositions in midair.
The line adds multiplicity and depth to poetry, while asking the reader to slow down. The wide margins of poetry should be read, just as much as the text. The white space and the silent rest at the end of every line conduct the music of the poem.
But When I quote poems, I probably remember phrases rather than lines. I think in terms of the phrase. Last night I was quoting Dickinson, "I like a look of agony, because I know it's true." I don't know how that sentence is lineated. I'd have to look it up.
What about those dashes in Dickinson? You use them too, and then you also have invented a new form of punctuation, the double equal sign, which is a kind of double dash and must at some level has something to do with the effect of Emily Dickinson on you.
Yes, oh absolutely. Her dashes are so mysterious. In her work, I feel the dash has been done to perfection. And that's partly why I made up another sign that could be something to think about in terms of punctuation. It wouldn't be the dash because I just can't imagine anyone using it as well as Dickinson. She uses it in ways that let you become more involved with the poem's syntax, you can fill it in, inscribe it. The dash is an empty space, but Dickinson's syntactical deletions often ask to be filled in; they exist to be recovered. Recovering the deletions makes reading her a very active, reciprocal experience. You feel like you're building the poem with her as you read. Sometimes you can't recover the deletions. The phrases on either side of the dash remain non sequiturs. Again, I have to credit Cristanne Miller, whose marvelous book on Dickinson, A Poet's Grammar, articulates these effects.
I also love the way the dash looks like … well, sewing. It suggests the way Dickinson sewed her manuscripts together. For me, it has a feminist aspect: it looks like thread, it looks like sewing, holding the lines together. But mostly I love it because it allows multiplicity. And I like the story of Dickinson's reception. I love the way that they tidied her up and put the periods in, and by regulating her punctuation, removed the single best thing, for us, that she did.
It seems to me that one of the reasons that her reception was so belated was that readers had to have already been trained with a little bit of modernism, by Marianne Moore perhaps, to understand those dashes as dashes and not as little Emily's mistakes.
I think that's true. She seems postmodern in fact. We needed indeterminacy, we needed all these twentieth-century ideas about turbulence before we could really appreciate what she had done.
Now your revision of a dash into this double thing. It's a sign that's not voiced when you read the poems so it's a form of punctuation …
—and therefore it's a visual sign—
—and you just mentioned that good lines of poetry reminded you of sculpture, which makes me think that you see your lines before you hear them. Always tricky to make a judgment about that, but maybe you could talk about the relationship between sound and sight in your double dash, or "bride" as you call it.
Although the sign is visual, as you say, when I'm writing a poem the sound comes first, the music. Again I think I'm old-fashioned that way. Not that the poems have a steady meter, but I hear the music of the words and rhythm. The bride sign is silent and it's mostly for readers of the page, because when I read the poems, you hear a rest or pause, but you don't know what the punctuation mark looks like. There's so much going on, I think, not only in my poetry, but in most poetry, that it's very hard for listeners to hear it and take it in if they haven't read the poem on the page. So, that's the kind of writer I am, the book kind, not the performance kind.
Well, having seen you perform last night, I want to qualify that. You read your poems beautifully and you do make the poems complex in a different way, by revealing a play of voices or slight shifts of inflection which give the impression that there is more than one voice.
Oh good, it's nice that there's a reason to read them. Thank you.
You were talking last night about your "Daphne and Apollo"poem, and you used a wonderful image about how Daphne had been "stirred into" a tree at the moment of metamorphosis. This curling image reminded me again of a word you like a lot: "turbulence." I began to wonder if the bride sign [==] is silenced because it's also a bride—perhaps a woman who has been silenced and who is full of turbulence—it marks a moment of transformation.
Oh that's really lovely. I think it is a moment of transformation; I'd like it to be that. It could also be a hinge; I see it that way too—the hinge that allows the door to open onto another realm. That threshold moment is transformative. Actually, one title I considered for Sensual Math was Transformer.
I also think of the double equal as the sign of immersion. The single equal sign retains the separation of whatever is on either side. We know that separate is not equal. The double equal, as I said in one defining poem, "means more / than equal to == within." It signals an absence of boundary, that two things are immersed in one another, as in metaphor. A simile is separated by "like" while a metaphor is transformative; one thing actually becomes the other. So, I think of the double equal as a metaphorical sign and a feminist sign, imbued with the qualities of the background, of negative space, of reticence. Yet, it's also very visible. It calls attention to itself because it's a mark that no one has ever seen in a poem before. I like the fact that it both recalls the reticence of women, the way that women have been in the background historically, and it also brings them visibly to the fore.
I also think it's a turbulent sign. To make up your own sign is probably in some ways not a good idea. It could cause some anxiety and hostility. I was aware of that, but I think poetry should be a bit turbulent and should raise arguments. It should have people saying "Why are you making me notice this?" Those are valid things for poetry to do that it hasn't been doing. It's been disappearing and being decorous. It's been behaving itself. In making that sign I wanted to take a bit of a risk, the risk of being called gimmicky and contrived and all that. That's part of the turbulence for me, that's the risk of it.
It will be interesting to see if this sign will proliferate.
Well, that would be the ultimate compliment. That would be an honor to me, because if you wrote a poem with that sign in it, you'd be saying to me that you weren't ashamed of being associated with the ideas that we've been talking about, that you were a fellow traveller. If others were to use the sign, they'd be supporting a world view. I have to add that I don't expect to see this.
It's amazing how conservative poetry is. Many people who get involved with poetry seem to be fearful, easily threatened. Maybe that's just human nature. But I do wish the world of poetry weren't so small and mean. If you change a tiny aspect of poetics it's "Off with her head! Off with his head!" It's as if you've done something very rude and conceited, calling attention to yourself and so on.
It sounds like you've caught some flak about the sign already.
No, in fact I've been lucky. I've just been counting my blessings. I'm waiting for it, it might happen next week. There's a book review coming out next week, and it might be in that, I don't know.
It's always in the next review.
In the next one, sure.
You'll get slammed—
Yeah, you're just waiting for it.
Insofar as the sign does have this sense of the feminine, we can interpret the term feminine very broadly to suggest all that is disorderly, contaminated, seductive and therefore problematic in an ordered, male, analytical, philosophical world. The sign seems to remind us that the silence of the silenced is always turbulent, must necessarily be turbulent.
Yes, under the surface there's writhing.
It reminds me of your Daphne, stuck in a tree and looking out through the cracks in the bark.
Waiting for her chance to be seen. She's a figure for what's happened to women historically. I didn't just think of her as a woman in American culture, because women in this country have a much more comfortable way of living than women do world-wide. I was thinking of her in terms of what has happened to women in the biggest ways. At the end of "Turn: A Version," she peers out of a tree waiting to see and be seen. Apollo had installed mirrors in the tree, so that Daphne's reflection of herself is his construction, his idea of her. All she could see was the image of herself that was given to her by the male god. She's trying to open the tree to see the world from her own point of view, and to have someone see her as she is.
If there were such a someone, who would it be?
I think it happens when women become more culturally dominant. It occurs when women are empowered (if it ever happens. I don't know that it ever will.) If women came to the fore of culture and were more visible, everyone would start to see what women can do. Women's image might not be limited to stereotypical or essentialist notions that define women as part of nature because of their association with child-bearing and child-rearing. Women could redefine themselves through opportunity, showing that they could do science, they could do math, they could be analytical. The world gaze would be their gaze.
I'm beginning to see that the person looking through the crack on the other side might first be a woman poet, or a woman philosopher.
Yes, she could be in any number of fields as long as she's a pioneer.
Because you mentioned vinyl earlier, because we were talking about growing up in the 1960s, has the poetry of rock 'n' roll influenced your work? I mean, you said that when you were twelve, you were upstairs listening to records.
I don't actually hear them in your work as I've read it, but—
No. not really. I think they wrote wonderful songs, but I'm sure you've noticed if you write down those lyrics, they don't do very much. It's the music, it's the phrasing, the production that gives them life.
It's the particular sneering way they get sung.
Dylan certainly sneered. The difference between song lyrics and poetry is that, with poetry, the music has to be in the language itself. The language of the poem has to do everything. Musicians have instruments behind them and they have their singing voices and so on. If I wrote words like theirs, the words would fall flat without the tunes and chords.
The pretend book called Vinyl sounds like it might have to do with records. Records are a big image for you. I know you were a DJ once. What is it about records? Say something about vinyl.
O.K. Vinyl is a highly artificial, human-made substance with associations of resiliency, longevity, cheapness and sleaziness. I'm thinking of vinyl car seats, now, not only records. Vinyl is much tougher than natural substances. It doesn't biodegrade, which is very bad from an ecological point of view. Vinyl is forever. It's a petroleum product, and it looks like solid oil. Vinyl is used in place of leather, but considered declasse, less lovely. However, vinyl is less cruel than leather, a material that evokes suffering—the suffering of slaughterhouses. Leather is fetishistic because it evokes the living and the dead. It's a fabric of domination—evoking not only sexual domination, but the human domination of the natural world. Leather is much more expensive than vinyl, and displaying leather is a means of asserting wealth, taste, class. Vinyl, on the other hand, is a subject of jokes and dismissal. Yet, as I've said, vinyl is more eternal than leather. Vinyl is kinder. The vinyl used in records is a repository that looks unassuming—dark, uninteresting—but within its negative space are sonic complexities, beautiful, invisible harmonics.
You reminded me of something else with your question, actually, about the effect of rock lyrics. (They were all on vinyl, for me.) I think one thing they did for me was not make sense. In those days, the sixties, seventies, lyrics were things that you puzzled over. You heard them again and again, appreciating them for everything that they didn't say clearly. You appreciated the mystery of them. Who is "the Walrus" in the Beatles' song? And Dylan was terrific for lines that had resonance but couldn't be pinned down. I think today's popular music is clearer. I don't mean the sort of marginal music that is played on college radio stations but the mainstream. I've asked students, "Don't you listen to music this way anymore?" A way of listening that appreciates something for what it retains and conceals, so that you had to hear it again and again. That is the appreciation I took to literature. The need to read that poem again and again was part of the pleasure. The places where the poem interested me most were those places that retained a residue I couldn't completely excavate. One of the deepest pleasures of literature for me was the sense that a work had no bottom: it was infinitely understandable because it couldn't be completely understood. It couldn't be seized back from connotation into denotation. There would always be a layer of meaning that I couldn't retrieve.
Where did that happen for you? Do you remember a time when you picked up a poem and couldn't get to the bottom of it?
All the time in high school. My sister was an English major, and her books were up in the attic. Around the time I was listening to records, I was also reading poetry anthologies. I'd write out Keats and Shakespeare's monologues in my own hand as a way of appropriating them. I was doing that with the song lyrics, too. It was the same appreciation. They both were mysterious and wonderful things made of words that I wanted to memorize and internalize, but even at the time, I recognized that the rock lyrics were not as good as the language of the poems. When you took away the music, the song lyrics fell flat, while the poems didn't need any music, outside of the music they made themselves. Since I'm not musically talented, I had to write poems rather than music. I would have probably become a musician if I could have.
Right, who wouldn't? But I couldn't. If you could sing! To me, that's the best. Many poets really want to sing, especially lyric poets. But since I couldn't, I came to poetry.
Who was the first poet who grabbed you with the same intensity as, say, the Beatles must have grabbed you?
Gosh, I read so many, but probably Dickinson, from way back. I loved her work when I was in high school and then, of course, you just go on and find out that there's a lot more than those pocket-sized, gift shop volumes of her love poems. That was where I started, and then I realized that it didn't have to end there. Dickinson had this big body of work, and so she carried me through. I became fascinated with her biography. Of course, the legend of Emily Dickinson seems so romantic when you are in high school, you buy into it. You believe all that, the romantic mythology—
—her lowering the little basket out the window—
[Fulton:]—exactly, the white dress.
Who was the first contemporary poet whose next book you would wait for with the same eagerness?
Probably Adrienne Rich. Denise Levertov, Elizabeth Bishop, Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin. I didn't start to read contemporary poetry till the mid seventies, when I was an undergraduate in college. The first course I took was "Women Poets" at Empire State College. It was a very small seminar, with only about four people, and our teacher, Carolyn Broadaway, was outstanding. She took us to a feminist poetry conference at U Mass., Amherst, where Adrienne Rich was reading and speaking, along with other poets of the day, feminist poets. So I actually was sitting, literally sitting, at Adrienne Rich's feet in this informal meeting. Hearing her speak, hearing her read, and I'd already read all of her books to date, in the course, along with all of Denise Levertov. Rich is one poet who made me think this is the kind of thing I wish I could do. She was an inspiration.
Is she still that inspiration for you?
She'll always be a wonderful poet for me.
A final question. Where do you think poetry's going? Which is just another way of saying where do you think the culture's going?
Oh, it's so hard to say where poetry is going. I don't think it's going to become more popular be-cause electronic media are on the rise, our lives are changing. Maybe not mine, I'm very old-fashioned and I don't have much to do with television or computers, but I think electronic media are increasingly important within world culture. I also think books and poetry will always have their place. Books offer a particular kind of intense, complex, imaginative experience that can't be found electronically or through visual images. Reading requires a more active reimagining than viewing a screen. TV and film do a lot of the work for the viewer. That's one reason they're popular. But for those who learn to read as children—I mean those who learn to love books—reading is a kind of deep intoxication, a means of experiencing otherness deeply. That, nothing can replace. As long as kids still learn to read that way, I believe some of them will value books and want them around. As long as there's a written language, I think people—centain small groups of people—will prize poetry as the best example of an elegant, and thrilling, linguistic structure.
Source: Alice Fulton and Alec Marsh, "A Conversation with Alice Fulton," in Triquarterly, No. 98, Winter 1996–1997, pp. 22-40.
In the following essay excerpt, Grosholz discusses the language distortion and the influences of love in Alice Fulton's poetry.
All poetry distorts language. Formal patterns wrench it from its everyday cadences, and figures from its accustomed ways of referring. Alice Fulton's poetry puts especially intense pressure on English. But she understands very well that in art, distortion is expressive as well as inescapable. Indeed, the studied distortions of art are not only meaningful, they play an essential role in the way we make the world mean, which is often how we make the world tout court. In fact, undistorted representation is just as impossible as meaningless experience.
Recognizing that distortion must be consciously studied and also made intelligible, Fulton is distinguished among poets of her generation for language that is at once radically inventive and communicative. She escapes both the hermetic incoherence of the Language poets and the prosiness of the new formalists, perhaps because she has taken as her guides two poets (one nineteenth century and one contemporary) who also elude those traps, Emily Dickinson and A. R. Ammons. The study of Dickinson led Fulton to pay careful attention to poetic surface, its compressions and amplifications, its oddities, even its visible deletions. Yet Dickinson's inspired mannerism, that draws so much attention to the way her words work, never obscures her vision; her poems sing as clearly as the hymns whose metrical patterns they borrow. Likewise, Ammons's generous inclusion of the more obvious realms of science and philosophy into the more mysterious, conventionally literary realms of his poems is never prosaic, for it is balanced by a series of wonderfully inventive combinations of the discursive and lyric by which poetry is not impoverished but enriched. Ammons was in fact Fulton's teacher at Cornell University, and his influence, strong but not anxious, is still apparent in her work.
In her earliest book, Dance Script with Electric Ballerina (1983), Fulton writes about the art of painting, and the curious distortions involved in representing the three-dimensional world on a two-dimensional plane of canvas in the poem "Picture Planes." What the poet observes about the distortions of painting holds all the more true of poetry. For there is at least a partial morphism, describable by projective geometry, between a painted image and what visual perception yields; the link between experience and words is even more indirect and mediated by convention. The poet distorts not only what experience presents, but linguistic patterns and poetic conventions.
For instance, painters
resent a form's excursions
in the third dimension, live to smear
slithery light and branching
shapes onto solid sheets, pillage
the world in a war so contained
it goes unnoticed. They'll take
a sea monster, say, and force its image
to a picture plane, intact. To do it
they must slice the thing in half.
A profile expels a hissing double
on the world, while a front view sets free
the flickering hinderparts. That's why
artists seek extremes: only the scaliest
dragon, snowiest angel will do.
Thinking of its dimensional soul, condemned
to wander, they leave cowed
monsters, fleeced seraphim.
Some of Fulton's most characteristic distortions are visible here. Like many post-modernist poets, she plays with enjambment, ending lines and even stanzas in unexpected ways. But her play is never careless; she gives close attention to the ambiguities and resonances those suspensions of sense, in the thin air around the printed word, create. The reader must think, and feel, her way over the abysses crossed by Fulton's invisible threads: "painters … live to smear / slithery light and branching / shapes onto solid sheets." The small nothing between "smear" and "slithery" echoes the formal, white margin of the canvas, and the gestural pause the artist's hand waits in, before moving on to illuminate and shape the picture….
Who are the loves that anchor Alice Fulton's poetry, that keep it dense, well-formed, grounded, and substantial? One set of loves is the originally working-class family she grew up with in an Irish-Catholic, middle-class neighborhood in Troy, New York. (Her father owned and ran a hotel, affectionately recalled in "A Union House.") Fulton explores the landscape of her youth in a mode that is monochromatic (curious in a poet so interested in painting) and wintry. In most of her poems of home, snow is falling, evening is lowering. Winter takes its time in upstate New York, and does in fact dominate the rest of the year, and one's memories. Winters so long and harsh impose their own telling distortions on human life; so do the constraints of petty bourgeois life. Harsh weather is an overriding figure in Fulton's poetry, true and false to the conditions of her childhood….
In the poem "Perpetual Light" in Dance Script (a poem about visiting a cemetery with her mother, and dedicated to her), Fulton gives her mother a kind of originary, funerary speech evoking the people who populate so many of her poems:
Later you studied the glitter
in the dull or rosy stones, wondering
was it smidgins of the perpetual
light you prayed to shine upon them.
"The things we survived
or died from!" you exclaim.
"James to pneumonia, as you know.
Fran lay huddled on the sofa
for months with typhoid.
Her hair fell out in hanks
and she never touched milk again.
Mother said it was skunk oil
cured her. Sickness, I remember,
had a different smell then. After Azalea's
scarlet fever they fumigated the house…."
And mumps brought Fulton's mother hallucinations about the return of her dead siblings, tapping on the window to call her out to play. With an imagination overheated not by fever but by poetry, Fulton too almost believes in revenants, "the mysterious / half-world we know exists / if only we could find it," though unlike her mother she hopes they're not much entangled in the intentions of the living. Invoking her lost loves abroad in the universe, Fulton gives the last stanza of the poem a twist of diction that is like a teenager's, spinning the poem suddenly away from her mother's mode of speech. Let the dead, she writes in her own, younger voice, "hotfoot it through the universe / like supple disco stars: their glamor sifting / into our rare, breathtaking dreams, our rarer prayers / mere twinges in their unimaginable limbs." In these lines, the voice that echoes is not her mother's but Rilke's, nuanced by the phantasms of MTV.
The poem "Everyone Knows the World is Ending," from Palladium, includes the observation, "But in the love, the grief, under and above / the mother tongue, a permanence hums." Her mother uses remembering, as Fulton uses poetry, to consider and counter the impermanence of things. Confronted by the title's claim,
my mother speaks in memories,
each thought a focused mote in the apocalypse's
iridescent fizz. She is trying to restore a world
to glory, but the facts shift with each telling
of her probable gospel. Some stories have been
trinkets in my mind since childhood, yet what
clings is not
how she couldn't go near the sink
for months without tears when her mother died,
or how she feared she wouldn't get her own
beribboned kindergarten chair, but the grief
in the skull like radium
in lead, and the visible dumb love like water
in crystal, at one with what holds it.
The price of the artful constructions that hold things fast, is that they distort as well as secure: "She is trying to restore a world / to glory, but the facts shift with each telling / of her probable gospel." There is no narrative without distortion, for we must reorganize experience so that it has a tellable beginning, middle, and end. But then again, there is no experience without the organizing narratives we construct to make it memorable. The other price we pay for memory, or poetry, is grief, for by calling up the departed, we revive our love for them and our sorrow at their passing. Indeed, the perpetual grief of the cemetery or poem casts its shadow everywhere, since all that we love is mortal. In reviving her mother's childhood grief at losing her mother, Fulton mourns her own mother, a little, in advance. As in "Perpetual Light," the two strange and powerful images of this poem quoted above wrest the diction away from mother to daughter, so that the daughter can express her own proper grief. The analogy between mother and daughter, condition for the possibility of Fulton's remembering in her poems, is also fraught with difference.
Two other loves figure centrally in the romance of Fulton's poetry, playing analogous but obviously distinct roles: her father and her husband. The importance of these two people is especially clear in the book Palladium, which of all her first three books has the most obvious narrative structure. It is a structure articulated in terms of place, though the opening sections are very strangely located.
In a sense, the book opens in nowheresville. The initial three poems of the first section hover, outside of space and time; the final three treat hell and rather hellish, phantasmagoric cityscapes. Throughout the first section, the poet's persona seems lost and disoriented. Of course, the confusion is studied and carefully structured; all the same, the poems are hard to place. In this context, Fulton's poem for her father, "Nugget and Dust," is a sheer lament, a regret, despite its wit and self-consciousness. How could I? she asks, the question hovering without a question mark at the end of the first stanza.
How could I
admit I withdrew from him
as from a too-gentle thing I wanted to live
forever? I couldn't stand the forthcoming
sadness. Love, if true, is tacit.
It accumulates, nugget and dust, arcade of sweet
exchange. I argued the self-
evidence of all enhancements.
Yet we were camouflaged. I told lies
in order to tell the truth,
something I still do.
Camouflage, and silence, serve their purposes in life, as in poetry. If there were such a thing as the whole truth, we would not tell it to anyone we love; love is too strong a mixture of aggression and devotion to be served up straight.
The loss of her father leaves Fulton's world unregulated: he had always dispensed remedies for illness, unwavering moral dicta, and advice about how to maintain a car, that indispensable vehicle for getting into and out of the scary, confusing grids of American cities. It was hard, she observes,
to imagine a world in tune
without his attention
to its bewildering filters, emergency
brakes, without his measured tread. Diligent world,
silly world! where keys turn and idiot lights
signal numinous privations.
The pages that follow are full of idiot lights and numinous privations, some of them shaped like language, as in these lines from "The Body Opulent": "Outside, the night was laced with bright fillips / of pidgin English: Glassbenders, / in bins among transformers, standing / burners, the din and smell of lightning, / formed these Lifesavers and double helices of neon…." Here and in the following section, Fulton's love of mixing up different vocabularies goes wild, as if she were "The Wreckage Entrepreneur" she writes of, dealing in old words instead of keystones and gargoyles.
Just at this point, Fulton introduces "My Second Marriage To My First Husband," and "Fables From The Random: to Hank." In the first, the ordinary American wedding looks phantasmagoric; its rituals keep the lovers apart just at the moment of marriage, recorded forever in the photograph album, de rigueur.
Bring squeeze boxes, gardenias,
a hybrid of the two. Congratulate us,
chums. Smile and freeze: our dimples stiffen
to resolute framed stares. How adult
we look! Our eyes burn
stoplights in the Instamatic squares.
The problem, summed up in Fulton's ironic instamatic of a poem, is an excess of order and external scaffolding. Love needs spontaneity and inwardness. Thus in the second poem, she contemplates the accidents at the heart of love, from which it constructs its own necessities. All true creation, and love itself, she argues, have to involve the random.
When I tossed bouquets through the open
window of your high and empty room,
some weedy flowers drifting
on the bed, some dangling
from the sill,
you returned to wonder
how I'd managed without a key—
the daisies were so sweetly placed.
With this act of random caress, Fulton begins to believe that she can manage without a key, that the world without her father's ordering can still make sense. And here, the book starts to go back home, to a real place: Troy, New York.
In the next sections, the figure of father recedes behind a flurry of mostly female relatives, and the figure of husband flickers into congeries of imaginary and remembered boyfriends. Trying out varieties of love is propadeutic to finding the Friend, the Person, the Other; experience on the whole is a likelier way to arrive at marriage than innocence. These poems are especially tactile, even when they talk about the suspension of touch in fantasy, or fear. In "Fugitive," Fulton's younger self learns to play a rock star's songs on her guitar to bring him near, even sacrificing her long nails to the new skill: "The strings left pink / incisions backed by fugitive / strings, surprising / after years of not touching." In "Scumbling," she writes with a ghostly, glancing touch that transposes some of Emily Dickinson's more spiritual invocations of mood into the realm of eros.
So I watched feelings hover
over like the undersides
of waterlilies: long serpentines
topped by nervous almost—
sunny undulations. I had to learn
largo. I had to trust
that two bodies scumbling
could soften one another.
All these amours, deeply and superficially felt, rush together and announce their worldly station in the poem "Another Troy," where Fulton seems finally to live through and down into her birthplace. This city really is where I come from, she announces. It's not so pretty, and in some ways it's moribund and icy. And now, a woman of letters, I can't even say its name without referring to that other Troy. But it didn't imprison me after all, and in many ways those cold winter mornings got me started, and saved me from the laxity that easier climates tolerate.
In time, I escaped the ruinous romances,
but Troy remains. Today the eccentricity
of its willful brick begins
to look like character.
Oh, if I sing of icicles
dangling like syringes from friezes
"neo-grec" or French,
of roses battened down with sackcloth, trees
lumbagoed under lumpen winters,
I'm minting an insignia. Take this, "Troy—
the City without Glibness,"
for your spartan tribute.
So it's just at this point in the Palladium process where Fulton is ready to move on. The place she moves on to is Provincetown, in the book's two final poems, "Semaphores and Hemispheres" (dedicated to her husband) and "Traveling Light" (written for and about her father). Provincetown is home to an artist's colony, the Fine Arts Work Center, where Fulton and her husband Hank De Leo lived for many months, plying their arts as poet and painter, protected and rewarded for doing what they want to do. When this happy confluence of need and desire happens for the first time, it seems like a miracle: the external world actually acknowledges one's secret art! The poet goes so far as to add a splash of color: "crocuses poked up like palette / knives thick with yellow / oils."
Fulton's happiness (can a poet dare to be happy? why yes) finds expression in her specialty, a series of brilliantly incongruous images that conjoin the natural and artificial by compressing disparate levels of diction.
the ocean, too, forms
coigns more restless than the set
coigns of a crystal, and turbulence
in the air makes the stars
everything squares. The lighthouse oars the night
as if its white trunk could go soaring
up, concentric and outgoing
as a helicopter, unhurried
as a ceiling fan in old movies
of the tropics….
Some days we're simply happy
to be just where we are,
where the lighthouse strokes
the hemispheres, a cane for the voyaging
blind, who chart their lives
by a star of the 19th magnitude
that shines unseen tonight but shines.
"Somehow everything squares," even the amorphous ocean. The lighthouse is a helicopter, a fan, a cane; the poem generates all those bizarre associations, threatening to explode, and yet holds them together by the force of linguistic attraction and the logic of beauty. Fulton manages to hold the protean shape of her life in her arms, despite so much estrangement, and it becomes a book.
The act of integration should not be underestimated. The life in Troy that sent Aunt Fran to work forever in the cafeterias of Troy High and the Daughters of Sarah did not encourage Alice Fulton to become a poet or enter the academy. Even her father, had he lived longer, would not have understood Fulton's wish to write poetry. In "Traveling Light," looking around at the ramshackle paradise of Provincetown, Fulton wonders of her father, "What would he have made of this off-season / resort? Though he never lived to see it / I can hear him say, "Don't worry, / Al, if the poetry don't go / I'll buy you your own beauty shop." The love and incomprehension in those lines is very touching.
So too is the last poetic gesture in the book, at the end of this poem, where Fulton brings her father back on the tenth anniversary of his death, rising above the surface of the wintry Atlantic "rip[ping] itself / out sideways, thoughtless as a torn seam," beyond the dunes blanched to the color of seashells.
I'm half-prepared to see my father,
to whom the world gave nothing
without struggle, rise up beaming
anyway upon it, as if he never meant
to let it go. Saltboxes appear and disappear
in the slurry fog. Gulls open
against the sky like books
with blank, beautifully demanding pages,
and behind me the stolid ocean
slams itself on earth
as if to say that's final
though it isn't. Behind me the ocean
stares down the clouds, the little last remaining
light, as if to remind me of the nothing
I will always have
to fall back on.
Nothingness, cast in the image of a horizon where earth and sky may no longer be distinguished, recurs at the end of all of Fulton's first three books. Two kinds of nothing interest artists. One is the white blankness of the page when it is used to frame and order. Then the white surround isolates the image, bringing attention to it as an image, individuating it and calling attention to its beauty. Any multiplicity in the image is presented in series, according to conventions of spatial and temporal sequence. But in the contrasting second kind, images seem to boil up from the white page, melt into and interfere with each other, and threaten to recede back into it. Then the blankness of the page is like a plenum, a womb-grave that ceaselessly spawns and devours.
To use Nietzsche's well-worn vocabulary, the first is Apollonian, the second Dionysian. The first exhibits the distortions of art, which mask with order the chaos of underlying being. The second exhibits the distortions of being, which disturb the smooth homogeneity of nonbeing. Fulton's poetic nothing in "Traveling Light," by means of which she closes the poem and her book, has both the pathos and roil of Dionysus, and the stability and articulation of Apollo. Her poetry, playful and wise, anarchic and restrained, inhabits a middle ground that the philosopher, in love with his distinctions, did not imagine.
Source: Emily Grosholz, "Distortion, Explosion, Embrace: The Poetry of Alice Fulton," in Michigan Quarterly Review, Vol. 34, No. 2, Spring 1995, pp. 213-29.
Blasing, Mutlu Konuk, "The American Sublime, c. 1992: What Clothes Does One Wear?" in the Michigan Quarterly Review, Vol. 31, No. 3, Summer 1992, pp. 431, 432.
Boland, Eavan, "In Perspective," in Partisan Review, Vol. 60, No. 2, Spring 1993, pp. 317-18.
"Contents of Agriculture Table," U.S. Census Bureau, http://www.census.gov/statab/USA98/dd-ag.txt (February 24, 2006).
Fulton, Alice, "Art Thou the Thing I Wanted," in Powers of Congress, Sarabande Books, 2001, pp. 105-108.
Norris, Kathleen, Review of Powers of Congress, in Library Journal, Vol. 116, No. 2, February 1, 1991, p. 80.
Review of Powers of Congress, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 237, No. 40, October 5, 1990, pp. 94-95.
"U.S. Divorce Statistics," Divorce Magazine, http://www.divorcemag.com/statistics/statsUS.shtml (February 21, 2006).
Addonizio, Kim, and Dorianne Laux, The Poet's Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry, W. W. Norton, 1997.
This book, written by two published poets, comes highly recommended for students who want to explore their own abilities to write poetry. The authors' advice addresses subjects about which to write, the craft of writing, and the things that might distract one from writing.
Butler, Christopher, Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2003.
This is a very readable, accessible, and short introduction to the basic tenets of postmodernism, with a particular focus on how the movement is defined in art, philosophy, politics, and ethics.
Henry, Brian, and Andrew Zawacki, eds., The Verse Book of Interviews: 27 Poets on Language, Craft & Culture, Verse Press, 2005.
This volume contains interviews with working poets collected by the publication Verse over the years. American as well as international poets offer their insights on their art.
Mayes, Frances, The Discovery of Poetry: A Field Guide to Reading and Writing Poems, Harvest Books, 2001.
This book can help readers understand the nature of poetry. Mayes, best known for her novel Under the Tuscan Sun, which was made into a movie, also teaches creative writing; in this volume are several essays taken from her teaching experience.
Paz, Octavio, The Other Voice: Essays on Modern Poetry, Harvest Books, 1992.