The first thing that strikes any reader new to Alice Fulton’s poetry is the authority of her rhythm. Almost brazenly, the power of her line announces that neither rhyme nor formal meter are necessary to the energetic progress of her chant—and it is a chant, a strange halting music than never blurs or gasps for breath. The pauses and caesuras are brilliantly placed and give the impression that a never-ceasing voice, relentless and sure, has all the force it needs to carry ideas and impressions as far as they dare to go. Enjambment (run-on lines) often threatens to turn poetry into prose, but Fulton uses it to sharpen her phrasing, which in turn is remarkably sure and strengthened by the vividness of her imagery. Take the opening sentence of the first poem in this collection, “Slate:”
Neither pigeon, taupe, nor coal/ black. Not a braille/ pen embossing points on bond, the entrants/ in a race, record of events, or gray/ scales meshed in roofs.
In the second run-on line, “black” acts as a break on the eerie progression of gray to blue in the first. The pause after “black,” accentuated by the shortness of the line, introduces the writing instrument of the poet, who is labeled as blind, but nevertheless is moved to compete in a race with the fleeting and evasive powers of creativity. These in turn trip over themselves, blindly stumbling through a host of intertwining and isolating memories. Enjambment pushes “the entrants” into the race, and the powerful image of layered memory—roof tiles brought to wriggling life as fish scales—stands alone in a single line, bringing this verse sentence to a close.
Fulton is wiping her slate clean; as she says a few lines later, preparing “the future/ scrubbed with fleshburn brush . . .” She needs a perfectly clean slate to “sculpt the is, the I am.” She is engaging her readers in a noble prologue to the drama of deeply felt impressions telescoped with the idea of texture, felt as cloth or fabric; “felt” as subject and object (or surface) and the indissoluble connection between them. The reader needs to touch (or be touched) in order to feel (or have felt). There is nothing wrong with any of the colors or surfaces—pigeon gray, brownish gray (taupe), or the deepest blue-black—but somehow they must all blend (“all of the above”) to be sufficiently clean for the fresh dots and imbricated patterns (“scales meshed in roofs”) necessary for her art. This is an invocation to background, to the canvas (her poem “Close”) or felt on which she will etch, draw, or paint, or into which she will stitch, sew, fold, the poems that follow.
In a long poem near the beginning of the collection, entitled “Maidenhead,” the poet reflects on her girlhood in a convent school—a long meditation triggered by Emily Dickinson’s white dress. The uniform of Catholic High is exchanged in Fulton’s mind for the challenging embrace of Dickinson’s “deep white . . . crepe ivoried . . . tartered like a tooth” dress. She cannot turn away from Dickinson’s “aptitude for inwardness and godlessness,” and already at seventeen rejects the “habit” of the nuns for the withdrawn, tremulous, and isolating “bone lace/ favored for Victorian veils” of that other felt, the secular felt of the meditative poet. In a marvelous extended metaphor in which image yields naturally to symbol, Fulton reimagines the very “membrane” of a maidenhead as the feeling organ of a poet’s mind coming into its powers. The seventeen-year-old convent schoolgirl loses her “maidenhead” not through sexual transgression but in a far more willful and creative act of self-transformation. This is conveyed in a series of stately lines, unusual for Fulton in that they are carefully balanced; their binary phrasing, almost Johnsonian in severity, celebrates the poetic imagination as a power that transcends the physical and, sheathed in the abstracted body of Emily Dickinson’s spectral white dress, even challenges the godliness of the nuns:
a membrane nervous and dispersed/ throughout the body, more human than female,/ both linkage and severance, the heart and brain/ sheathed in its film of flesh and pearled/ palladium effect. . . .
The paradox of “linkage and severance” points toward a delicate balance in Fulton’s sensibility. She “grasp(s) the magnetism between flesh and flesh,” but “fair use” demands that “what is absorbent” remain “unharmed by saturation.” Synthesis can be blistering:
Listen, I didn’t want your tears in my eyes./ I wanted to keep my distance, put a silence/ cloth = = ironic = = lining = = frigid = = interfelt = =/ between us....
(The entire section is 1900 words.)