Rebecca Wolff
[108 pp, $13.95, Norton]
Cascade Experiment, Alice Fulton
[205 pp, $14.95, Norton]

I have known the name Rebecca Wolff for several years, because she is the editor of the poetry magazine Fence, one of the finest U.S. cutting-edge poetry magazines. Perhaps the best. The last issue I saw (Summer 2005) startled me by having a cover that was indistinguishable from (and not a parody of) a top-shelf man’s magazine. In her editor’s notes to that issue (entitled ‘Summer Fiction Tits’) she explains that she is not a post-feminist, still ‘just a feminist’. The cover, she explains, is a ploy to increase the flagging sales figures for the magazine. Tits, she says, are symbols of plenitude and desire. Her own baby ‘has an entirely unconflicted relatioship to my tits: When she’s hungry she wants them; she cries out; they are delivered to her. So why not, I thought, give the people what they can also be metaphorically understood to want.’ She may be right; I certainly like tits, but you would need to survey some female poetry readers to see if they feel the same about the cover. She is not selling the magazine to breast-feeding infants and ‘the people’ elides male and female. So I feel uneasy, not just because I did not want to take my copy of Fence with me to read on the train. I want something to mark the difference between a (great) poetry magazine and a girly-mag. Thinking her argument through, it begins to seem increasingly thin. If you really wish to give the people what you want, would you actually be producing a poetry magazine? One that often contains difficult, dark, unpopular poetry? I would not suggest that the cover to Fence is exploiting anyone, but I feel that a difference should be kept symbolically between the politics of an apparently left-leaning and certainly interesting poetry magazine, and that of Rupert Murdoch. The cover denies this difference; her notes to justify this are certainly gymnastic, perhaps naēve.

But the poetry of Rebecca Wolff is not naēve in any simplistic way, although childhood, and particularly the gulf between childhood and adult behaviours, is a major preoccupation. One of the first poems in the book is ‘Autobiographia Copularia’, here quoted in full:

I fell ill
and then I wasn’t ill anymore

like all children
I missed my illness. It had kept me

from so much.
Like all children, I had never really wanted

to go outside--
fairs, rides, clowns, bundling, clones, the

spent, the sweat.
Expend in stealth, keep your shirt on, feed

without the fervor.
There is a place for autobiography:

in the home.
Meeting other people and fucking them never

entered my mind.

This poem riffs off Frank O’Hara’s ‘Autobiographia Literaria’, an outwardly more simple and immediate poem in which the ‘I’ of the poem, a solitary child, in the last quatrain ends up in the present:

And here I am, the
center of all beauty!
writing these poems!

Wolff’s poem departs in striking ways from O’Hara’s, although they are both concerned with an ‘I’ who wishes for or chooses to be solitary in childhood, with the final lines concerning a present moment that punches an about-turn; they are punchline poems, depending on a reversal. I don’t think O’Hara would ever have presumed a generalisation such as ‘like all children’; the fact that it is repeated perhaps asks us to take it ironically; or to take it as the (adult) narrator’s paradoxical desire to have been
like all children in desiring solitude. It certainly does not sound to me like a universal truth. There is much I like in Wolff’s poem, which is characteristic of her voice in the volume as a whole. An enjoyment of lists, of words that engender chiming but unrelated words (clones and clowns), A loose formal structure, undermined at the end (O’Hara has simialr short two stress lines, in his poem at the end of a quatrain, calling to mind Keats’s La Belle Dame sans Merci. He keeps to his structure.). A convincing conversational voice. A paratactic jumpiness. Humour.

But at the same time, for all of the skill, the poem feels like a set-up. Of course a child does not think about fucking people. Jokes have punch-lines in which the distance between reality and expectation is suddenly exposed. This is why jokes so often confirm prejudices; reality is what you know. A good poem should punch you with a difference that you did
not know. O’Hara’s poem, although technically not so interesting, is ‘truer’ in that we feel genuinely caught up in the narrator’s reflexive delight. Wolff’s poem is punchy, but the punchiness for me dissolves into a sereies of refractive and disturbing questions: the progress of the list from fairs and rides to ‘the/ spent, the sweat’ and the repeated ‘like all children’ implies some subtext in which (unlike all children) the child does think about fucking people, and represses it into emphatic denial. There is a similar double-take moment in the O’Hara poem, which opens

When I was a child
I played by myself in a
corner of the schoolyard
all alone.

Played by myself, or
with myself? There is something about the childhood solipsist in both these poems that implies sexual transgression, or at least premature knowingness; perhaps I am not alone in seeing a campness in O’Hara’s last quatrain that casts a different light on the image of the isolated child who both hates dolls and games.

I could probably write about as much material about any of the poems in this book, which I guess is a recommendation. The poems may take you places you don’t quite want to go, and there is a kind of coolness which can seem like a lack of affect, like the stare from someone wearing mirror-shades. This can be interpreted as lack of compassion; but in the end it is just that you don’t know what the starer is thinking.

I would like to enrich our current critical discourse by suggesting a difference between parataxis and elision. Parataxis is a break in grammar or sense suggestive of some disjunction or broken discourse within a poem. A gaping seam. It tells us something about the impossibility of making a whole from the fragments or parts that the poem offers us. Elision is when two contradictory discourses are stiched together. For me this is not an evaluative distinction but a practical one. Both techniques have a function. Wolff is a stitcher of elisions, a welder of slipped meanings. She calls to mind the etymology of collage (from coller, to glue). These are gluey poems; different discourses are pasted together with an inevitable effect of hapharzardness, but lacking the desperateness of earlier modernisms with their wastelands and abysms. She wants to put things back the way they should be, like a child with a gluepot and a broken toy.

One half of the title of Alice Fulton’s Selected is appropriate. It is certainly a cascade. But the wildest extent of the experimentation in these poems seems to be occasionally right-justifying the margins; in some of the later poems there is some eccentric punctuation. Otherwise, everything is spelt out, sometimes several times. Even readers of the most mainstream poetry publications must surely find these experiments a bit tame. I read this book through twice, conscientiously, to try to find something nice to say about it; I struggled even to find a line that I liked. The problem seems to be that Fulton is essentially a derivative writer. The early poems are mostly in the style of better poets such as (clearly) Robert Lowell in the following poem, experimentally titled ‘The Great Aunts of My Childhood’ (p.10), here in its entirety:

Buns harden like pomanders
at their napes, their famous good
skin is smocked like cloth.
Stained glass wrings out the light
and the old tub claws the oilcloth.
Kit makes cups of bitter cocoa
or apricot juice that furs my throat.
Mame dies quietly in the bedroom.

She pressed the gold watch
into my hands, wanted me to take
her middle name at confirmation:
Zita, Saint of Pots and Pans;
but I chose Theresa, the Little Flower,
a face in the saint’s book
like a nosegay. I chose this

blonde room sprouting jade
plants, electric necessities
and nights that turn
my nipples to cloves
till dawn pours in like washwater
to scrub the floors
with harsh yellow soap.

This is one of the best poems in the volume, tightly written, with some of early Lowell’s metrical tightness and control. But much of the language seems weak or wrong. “At their napes” is not necessary after the (rather good) “Buns harden like pomanders”. “Smocked like cloth” eludes me – why not simply smocked? The anecdotal second paragraph is a little too neat; we are already told that Theresa is The Little Flower; it seems superfluous (although it keeps the theme of smell-repellants from pomander) to say her face was “like a nosegay”; a slightly askew image anyway, because of the ‘nose’ in nosegay. The third stanza presumably takes us to the poet’s present. Everything is different, but in an image I find hard to interpret, the night turns her nipples to cloves – meaning they grow harder, or darker? Presumably not smelling like cloves. It in fact just seems to be there to chime with the earlier pomander. The last three lines has ‘dawn’ both as washwater, and as a personification, scrubbing the floor. It can’t be both. This poem seems a bit too eager to round out the narrative; the poem is not about Kit and Mame at all, but about the poet.

As Fulton’s career progressed, she seems to have become dimly aware that interesting poetry was being written that was not just autobiographical. The usual tone later in the book, in the ostensibly more experimental poems, is garrulous, over-explanatory, direct. Sometimes this comes over as banal, as in this short extract from a long poem about her family’s gift-giving habits (‘Self Storage’, p. 54):

Maybe all presents are presumptuous.
Giving, we test our affinity
with hidden wishes. Yet asking
changes both desire and deliverance,
as when lovers must say touch me
there. No matter.

No matter, exactly. This is marginally more effective when a persona is being used, although not really different in voice from the non-persona poems. Here is one paragraph from a longer poem, ‘My Last TV Campaign’ (p.117):

You know that existential twilight
found in rooms lit only by TV?
How the consuming starlight
grinding from the screen will pass
for dusk no matter what
the hour? I ask you. The sun never sets
on “Dynasty”. And somewhere
you can bet “Bonanza”’s always
inflicting its tempestuous Western fairy tale
on the air.
It means to throw seeds.

There is meant to be a speaker here, a retired advertising executive. Again, the metre is OK, there is an approximation of real speech rhythms, but the language is inconsistent, the imagery too eager to clear a point than be accurate: how can a twilight (as described by an ad exec) be existential? Rooms lit by TVs seem to me to be whatever colour the TV screen happens to be (this was written in the late 80s, well into the era of colour). And surely the unfortunate transition from eternal dusk to the sun never setting on
Dynasty is not deliberate? If intentional, it is hard to see the point. And a bit too much telling us what we know, making the interpretations for us about Bonanza (which I remember in one image of a burning homestead).

I think some readers might get something from this book, but I found it sloppily written, over-talkative, and expecting too little from a reader primed to expect an ‘experimental’ volume. Cascade, as a title, would have been fine.

© Giles Goodland 2006