B. H. Fairchild Essay - Critical Essays


Various commentators have observed that B. H. Fairchild’s work is that of a mature poet writing during his middle years, his first full-length book having appeared when he was forty-two, and they have likened him to authors such as Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, and Richard Hugo, whose first books also were published later in life. A considerable number of his poems look back to his boyhood or to the 1950’s and early 1960’s; accordingly, the major risk Fairchild takes is that of nostalgia. An affectionate regard for the past, however, need not be branded with the negative connotation of “sentimental.” Memories in Fairchild’s poems will strike most readers as vivid, often ironic, occasionally painful, sometimes humorous, and nearly always dramatic.

David Mason begins his essay on Fairchild’s poetry by citing Thomas Hobbes to the effect that memory and imagination are one, and he maintains that Fairchild is a more “thoughtful” and complex poet than has been recognized, indeed a philosophical poet, and he advises that “these poems are imagined as much as remembered.” Christopher Bakken describes Fairchild’s poems as “the work of apotheosis” and asserts that he writes “a poetry of the sacred; but his theology is earth-bound, material, and entirely mortal.”

Reviewers and other commentators have also remarked on the tension encountered in nearly every poem between allusions to individuals (often popular performers and athletes) and brand names and to individuals (often writers, artists, and composers) and titles or quotations. For example, in the frequently admired “Beauty,” the opening poem in The Art of the Lathe, the reader encounters a Motorola radio, the popular 1960’s television show Father Knows Best, an Allis-Chalmers tractor, and actor Marlon Brando mingled with Plato and Aristotle, nineteenth century art critic Walter Pater, author Robert Penn Warren, poet Hart Crane, and Donatello’s fifteenth century bronze David. The first-person speaker in the poem and his wife (presumably) are visiting the Bargello gallery in Florence, but when the subject of beauty arises, naturally enough, the speaker reflects on everything from the price of soybeans and Oklahoma football to Uncle Ross’s tap dancing and the autumn light pouring through venetian blinds in Kansas. A black Corvette figures in, and so does a line from James Wright’s poem “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio.”

Although long lines typical of much narrative poetry dominate Fairchild’s books, he celebrates the lyrical qualities of language through subtle use of repeated vowel sounds (assonance), as in the following passage from the title poem of Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest: “Cattle stare at flat-bed haulers gunning clumps/ of black smoke and hugging damaged drill pipe/ up the gullied, mud-hollowed road. . . .” Here and elsewhere in Fairchild’s poems, the occasional alliteration (damaged/drill) plays a minor role to the music provided by the vowels.

The Arrival of the Future

Fairchild’s first full-length collection, The Arrival of the Future, consists of forty poems. The opening poem, “Machine Shop with Wheat Field,” portrays a boy sleeping amid “hunks of iron turning to rust, mud pumps,/ rat-hole diggers, drill collars, odd lengths of pipe. . . .” These ordinary objects, Fairchild implies, provide suitable images and fit language for poetry. In “Angels,” Elliot Ray Niederland...

(The entire section is 1443 words.)