Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1900
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...
(The entire section contains 1900 words.)
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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.
On the other hand, in the next to last poem of this collection, “Warmth Sculpture,” the poet celebrates the all-embracing power of love. The triggering memory involves an exchange between a mother and daughter, but the overpowering realization that permeates the poem from beginning to end is that connectedness through love bridges any severance that mind or nature, life or death can make. The first line leans on Wordsworth’s famous opening to one of his Lucy poems: “Strange fits of passion!” Wordsworth agonizes over the imagined loss of his beloved Lucy; the speaker in Fulton’s poem, in ironic counterpoint to Wordsworth’s anxiety, reflects on the hit-or-miss indifference of emotional contact; how tenuous and accidental “linkage” is in the world and yet how defining it becomes when the moment strikes:
Surfaces in contact/ do not touch everywhere./ Just so = = Just there.
Not only does contact (or linkage) take us toward the fulfillment of whatever humanity is within us, but it also provides an overview of all that excludes or that cannot accommodate itself to our limited needs and perception. The paradox deepens. Through linkage we develop a tolerance for the inevitable severance that defines our consciousness in a universe too vast for us to feel at home:
When every moment’s full of severance/ what is left but to revel/ in the delible/ unlingering, precisely this/ goldening = = dawn = = silo = = bird/ singing contrapuntal above/ the edgeless mono calm of/ appliances, this century’s ambient sound.
Despite her casting off of her Catholic girlhood in the earlier poem (“Maidenhead”), Fulton conveys much of the ecstasy that is associated with the strongest religious poets, poets such as Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889), the famous Victorian Roman Catholic poet. Here are the opening lines of his poem “God’s Grandeur:”
The world is charged with the grandeur of God./ It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;/ It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil/ Crushed.
There is also a similarity in the phrasing and imagery. Fulton has something of Hopkins’s famous “sprung rhythm.” Her use of “epiphany” in the following lines, which bring to an end the verse paragraph already quoted, evokes both the visionary meaning of Catholic ritual and the aesthetics of high modernism as exemplified in the work of James Joyce (1882-1941) who used “epiphany” to construct the aesthetics of his hero, Stephen Dedalus, in the 1916 novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:
It isn’t simplicity that epiphanizes me, it’s
saturation, the maximal, interwoven
thrombosis and richness of
contributors to each morsel of
what-is: this density
in which all entities
exist. It works. It wilds = =
The delicate balance between “linkage” and “severance” is finally weighted toward the former because the poet must live on memory, and memory needs linkage in order to crystallize impressions into thoughts, what was only touched into what can be felt across time and space:
I wish I’d loved her—well = = with more immersion = = showing—
a close to close and mind on trust and trust in touch
that left her less alone. . . .
These are the opening lines of “Garish,” a poem about, it appears, the poet’s mother, who is described as a hard-working waitress with a joy in life that made her choose a “scandalous flash.” The reader does not learn what that flash was, but the poet does convey its brilliance by refusing to dissolve the gem in order to fully grasp its nature. The mother figure remains lost in the shade of the greater “density” that made her a mystery even to her daughter. Nevertheless, the mother, perhaps precisely because of her ultimate inscrutability, was a light-giver to her daughter. In a touching close, Fulton captures the essence of the relationship (linkage) between mother and daughter:
and I still see her coming up the path
with souvenirs—a paperweight for me—taken
from the Petrified Forest where she’d been on vacation.
“Let’s shed a little light on the subject,”
she’d say, reaching over my head, the smudge I cast,
to drench me in a dazzling skirt of lamp.
The daughter returned the favor by shedding light on an enormous variety of particulars, a cross-section of phenomena. Fulton’s poems touch the world in all its plenitude. In “World Wrap,” she recalls her first sexual experience and lets her mind wander to the years of protest against the Vietnam War. In the process, a great variety of images, from school erasers to tricycles and diaphragms, are gradually composed into a grand design, her own version of Hopkins’s “Grandeur of God,” the plenitude of experience wrapped in the fragile perfection of memory’s “snowflakes:”
Each snowflake clots around a dust
to form its null abundance
Snowflakes take on an emblematic signature in Fulton’s poetry. She lets them fall on the ground, both fore and back, in many a poem:
Taste another snowflake, always flavored
with symmetry and quick. Taste it just by breathing.
And isn’t it cool
all snowflakes taste alike.
The end result of her voyages through felt memories results in a celebration of the ordinary. She resists the temptation to luxuriate in epiphanies too private, too precious to maintain her linkage to the ebb and flow of everyday life. Fulton ironizes constantly, but never lapses into cynicism or detachment. Severance is unavoidable, but merely a resting place to plunge back into the snowfall of life. Always ready to puncture her own abstractions, she reaches out eagerly for the particulars that chain us to the earth. Deep down she knows that “all snowflakes taste alike,” that everyone’s personal emotional life, though different from all other lives, yields to the symmetries that sustain us all:
. . . gazing up into the oversoul and seeing
astral writing but no sign
of planes, just this sentence
from the cosmos spelled in spits of cloud:
nicorette gum now in mint.
Let’s go buy it! . . .
Some may find Alice Fulton’s free fall through experience a bit too lightheaded for comfort, but she is very much a poet of her time. Reconciled to indeterminacy in language as well as life, she relies on the postmodernist trajectory for her sense of direction. There is, of course, inherent contradiction in holding to an aimless course. Yet discovery often results from not knowing where you are or where you are going. Fulton trusts in things felt, and in a world disinclined to rationalize its goals there are, perhaps, few alternatives for authenticity. In her case, the best that can be said of her work is that she takes her craft very seriously and is always true to what is being felt, no matter how graceful, absurd, or brutal.
Sources for Further Study
The New York Times Book Review 106 (April 15, 2001): 22.
Publishers Weekly 247 (November 20, 2000): 64.
Yale Review 89 (April, 2001): 170.