Art Thou the Thing I Wanted

by Alice Fulton

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1628

Stanzas 1-2

"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.

Stanzas 3-5

"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.

Stanzas 6-9

In stanza 6, the speaker continues to explore the feeling of being...

(This entire section contains 1628 words.)

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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.

Stanzas 10-12

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.

Stanzas 13-16

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."

Stanzas 17-19

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."