Alice Fulton Essay - Critical Essays


Like both Emily Dickinson and Annie Dillard, Alice Fulton is an explorer of the mind, individuality, societal roles, and ultimately the cosmos. Fulton is sometimes even called a postmodern Dickinson because of her dense vocabulary, her spasmodic pace, and her mingling of the personal and the abstract. Fulton also shares with Dickinson a view of poetry as the play of the mind. Words are tried on like dresses to offer new explanations for old situations. With only a vocabulary and a different grammar, Fulton holds up old verities to new light: Like Dickinson, she “tell[s] the truth but tell[s] it slant.” With this technique, Fulton casts societal suppositions and inherited myths into different frames as she goes about with a new vocabulary, making the familiar unfamiliar and strangely making the unfamiliar familiar. Questions become more important than answers in her vocabulary for a world ever more unstable, fragmented, and formless. Like Dickinson, she seeks to redefine life by emphasizing the periphery, thereby rearranging the focus of the reader’s attention; the expected is never there.

Although Dillard operates primarily in a different genre (nonfiction), Fulton, like Dillard, wants to go beyond the seen and the normal to relocate herself in a larger milieu that reaches beyond time and currency. To place herself in a different sphere as she redefines her world, Fulton uses different references for her explorations. She uses terms from chaos theory, fractal forms, and physicist Werner Heisenberg’s theory of indeterminacy to map out the concealed elements of life that shape people because poems, as she said in 1986, “are linguistic models of the world’s working [and] our knowledge of form includes the new concept of manageable chaos, along with the ancient categories of order and chaos.” Fulton the poet is like a fish noticing and defining water for the first time. To this end, in her essay “Inconvenient Knowledge” (1997, 1998), she calls for writers to “become cultural outsiders. . . . Imagination [poetry] is the transfiguring force . . . pressing against cultural assumptions in order to reinvent them.”

Another common element that Fulton shares with Dickinson and Dillard, besides their pushing against type, is an association with Catholicism. Although Dickinson is seen as a prototype of the New England Protestant, she actually spent much household time talking with the Irish workers employed with her family. Because of these conversations, she dropped her negative attitude toward Catholicism. In fact, the pallbearers for her coffin were the family’s Irish Catholic workmen. Dillard, also born a Protestant of Calvinist origins, converted to Catholicism in her adult life, and Fulton was born Catholic with Irish ancestors.

Like other poets in the line of writers who do not produce the norm and follow tradition, Fulton has to be read and reread. Her poems present spaces that lyrical poetry has overlooked. In a course description of Fulton’s English 535, “Postmodern Fractal Poetics: Writing in Three Dimensions,” which appeared on the University of Michigan’s Web site, Fulton provides her own, best guide to her poetics:Fractal poetics is composed of the disenfranchised aspects, the dark matter of Tradition: its blind spots, recondite spaces, and recursive fields. . . . [I]t exists on a third ground between “high” and “low” terrain, resistant to those classifications. . . . Fractal poetics has dispensed with fidelity to the “normal” and the “natural,” to “simplicity” and “sincerity.” Instead of reproducing speech, the poem makes a sound-unto-itself; its music is not so much voiced as built. . . . The disjunctive shifts of fractal poetry . . . are akin to nonlinear interactions [an allusion to mathematics] in which the value of the whole cannot be predicted by summing the strength of its parts. A fractal poem might contain purposely insipid or flowery lines that would be throwaways if taken out of context. When juxtaposed with other inclusions, however, these debased lines establish a friction or frame greater than their discrete presence would predict.


In “Fix” (from Felt), Fulton reaffirms her ties to Dickinson. She comments on science and natural forces, as does Dickinson, but the clearest parallel is contained in her first line, “There is no caring less,” which she repeats three times throughout the course of the poem. The line is metrically identical to the opening lines of Dickinson’s poems; it is also stylistically identical, making a seemingly uncomplicated, blanket statement about the nature of things without obvious justification. It is a thoroughly ambiguous sentiment, devoid of any clear meaning, and it is this ambiguity that works to Fulton’s advantage as she explores the various ramifications of there being “no caring less” throughout the poem. However, despite the different meanings she tries on—which lead the reader to view the idea through the screen of the universe’s indifference to humanity, the apathy of the “you” she addresses in the beginning of the poem, and her own devotion to the same—what is left at the poem’s conclusion is still a statement that can be played with semantically any number of ways, but it does not provide closure. There clearly exists “no caring less,” but at the final moment both subject and object are absent.

“The Orthodox Waltz”

“The Orthodox Waltz” (from Powers of Congress) is a slow poem, full of suggestion and implication. In this, as in her other poems, Fulton feels no need to provide her reader with background information, preferring to begin in medias res and allowing the readers to sort out the situation for themselves. The poem is a metaphor for the typical pattern of courtship; it is a dance and a highly orthodox one at that, as the man leads and the woman must follow. However, although the man may lead, there is a necessary give-and-take in such a dance, and each party seeks...

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