By Alice Fulton
W.W. Norton & Co.
Behind the main altar of the Basilica of St. Anthony in Padua, there is a chapel all chased in gold. To approach it, you get into a line of tourists and pilgrims that wends its way in and out of little capellas, eventually and inexorably bound for this apotheosis of decoration. Finally, you are there, and in the very center, under glass and against the most richly worked background possible, is the tongue of St. Anthony. Shriveled, dark purple. A human tongue.
It’s one thing, I suppose, if you know it’s there. But if, like me, you simply got in the line hoping to get a better look at all that wondrous decoration, it comes as not just a surprise, but an antithesis. Against all this shining metal fretwork, all this delicate but overwhelming artifice, a bit of unmade flesh, cut from an all too human body.
Reading Alice Fulton’s Barely Composed is a bit like encountering St. Anthony’s tongue. On my first approach, I was delighted. There were puns. There were rollicking sonnets and innovative villanelles. There were rhymed, drily witty observations, as in this selection from “Beaten Into Leaf”:
Or you could come equipped
with gold-faced mirrors
like the ones inside
telescopes that can detect
a single candle burning on
the surface of the moon.
Now there’s a pretty skill.
Though there is no candle
burning on the moon,
we marvel still.
There were allusions to famous poems of the past, as in “The Next Big Thing”:
It must be pleasing to bow a little
as you pivot and have your way with space.
To roll the world around a pen
to invent a center. Then forget the pen.
The Carriage held but just Ourselves—
Its motion sprightly, tilting side to
Side, while the axle spun so fast it looked so still.
There was a wonderfully rhythmically effective variation of long, sprawling sentences/lines with short, punchy exclamations, as in the opening to “Because We Never Practiced With the Escape Chamber”:
We had to read the instructions as we sank.
In a hand like carded lace. Not nuclear warheads
on the sea’s floor nor the violet glow over the reactor
will outlive this sorrowful rhyme. Vain halo! My project
becalmed, I’ll find I’ve built a monument
more passing than a breeze.
There was so much rhythm, rhyme, so much richly decorated fretwork, so much language whipped into a froth. There was so much to look at on the surface that I hardly noticed the substance underlying the poems, as they rushed along, buoyed on a cloud of sound, on swift turns of phrase and shifts in tone, like these in “Claustrophilia”:
Nearness without contact
causes numbness. Analgesia.
Pins and needles. As the snugness
of the surgeon’s glove causes hand fatigue.
. . .
And if anyone says what the hell
are you wearing in Esperanto
—Kion diable vi portas?—
tell them anguish
is the universal language.
You might think that even on a first go, “anguish/is the universal language,” would have tipped me off. But the phrase, while sardonic, seemed ultimately leavened and lightened by all that surrounding sound. Later, of course, it didn’t. The sound seemed born of desperation, an attempt to throw order, civilization, and control over plain and terrible facts. Under all that glorious aural shimmer, the poems spoke of illness, uncertainty, pain, and death, as in this excerpt from “Wow Moment”:
From the guts of the hours, I hear my mother crying
for her mother and wish I understood
the principles of tranquility. How to rest
the mind on a likeness of a blast furnace
formed in formica by anon. . . .
We would be soothed
by that slow looking with a limited truth value.
At all times in Barely Composed, her first book in more than a decade, there is the push-pull of Fulton’s yearning for tranquility and her refusal to accept a “limited truth value.” During my first charmed encounter with these poems’ crystalline, erudite surfaces, I thought of what one anonymous reviewer said of Marianne Moore: “emotion in her is calcined to a thin ash.” But on the second reading I realized that emotion in these poems is as often strapped, gagged, and fumigated, threatening to buck forth from the labyrinth of language in which it is trapped. The book is called Barely Composed, but to quote Fulton herself: “It [is] not composure but containment.” Consider this passage from “Doha Melt-Down Elegy”:
We will give the truth teller an anti-suicide smock.
A dark tunic from some dark satanic mill?
And wake him three times a night
to check that he’s alive. Because he did not cease
from mental fight nor did his sword sleep
in his hand? He will be boiled
This is one of several poems that attempt to grapple, not as direct witness but citizen, with the past ten to fifteen years of Torture Reports and whistle-blowing, the revelation that America is not the starship Enterprise, helmed by a charming and moral series of Jean-Luc Picards, ever ready to behave honorably rather than expediently. These are not “protest” poems, per se, which document specific heinous acts and their individual villains. Rather, they confront how a nation’s actions tar its citizens’ lives, making them complicit in crimes they did not personally commit but benefit from (or perhaps worse, neither benefit nor suffer from – useless crimes):
Just to be near it == in propinquity,
is a taint. The page under
the == the
page in restraints, starved, a famine under wraps,
its negative space headthrobbingly bright.
Revelator, if my voice shrinks
to a whisper say it
in plain American which
cats and dogs can read. Say say it
in Swiss Army Knife. It will cure your throat ache.
honor its victims and prevent its recurrence. But this sentiment is complicated by “Reckoning Frame,” the poem that follows “A Tongue-Tie of Vet Wrap,” reusing and repurposing the same phrases and interspersing them with black bars like those from a censored letter, concluding: “Even the XXXXXXXX will die. XXXXXXXXXXXX”
In a similarly ambiguous vein, in “Forcible Touching,” the most conventionally ambitious of the poems, at least in terms of its stitching together of disparate information, it is fundamental need to express pain that is advanced, rather than any preventative efficacy in such expression. The poem juxtaposes the story of Philomela with language taken from manuals for children’s grief counselors with a quoted first-person account of an immigrant’s job-gone-bad putting animals “to sleep” at the pound. Each element is grotesque enough on its own; Fulton braids all three into an agonized crescendo, concluding:
Come on so. The vice of the shuttle is overness.
So many times I’ve cut out my own tongue. Never tell the child
When there’s a story you cannot speak
you weave. It is too bright to rest your eyes on
But if you contort yourself your shadow will fall
over it. It is a good idea. It is quite surprising.
Fulton’s poetry repeatedly enacts this sort of mortification of the mind—an ascetic’s refusal to look away, or to let the reader look away. She has a particular dislike for weasel-words, for words that obfuscate the world rather than make it clear. (Fulton would be hell in a PR department). But while it’s true that the world is full of pain, after reading Beyond Composed you might think that’s all it’s full of—reality as designed by H.R. Geiger, seen through the demons’ mirror from The Snow Queen. As Fulton puts it in “After the Angelectomy,” “where my organ of veneration should be—/wormwood and gall. Grudge sliver.”
Fulton’s no snow queen, though. Again, she practices not composure, but containment. Her emotions checked, but never extinguished, she is a master of withering sarcasm: a mode of expression that emanates from no still or tranquil place. She’s capable of verse sere enough to give wind-raked Saharan dunes a run for their money. In “Personally Engraved”, a poem so scorching that, were I its object, I would seriously reexamine my right to continue to exist, she writes:
There are many opportunities here for unrequited friendship,
the offer letter said. All you need is a chainsaw and die grinder.
In this spirit I force my eyes across your message,
revisiting that due diligence tone you do so well.
I’m searching for some whispered twist or shout,
but all emotion’s leveled, they way a child will draw
a snowman and a mansion the same size.
What is a dedicated icemaker
dedicated to? . . .
But it’s all not righteous dismay. There’s also the creepy-tender “Still World Nocturne,” which wonderfully evokes the numbed, battered despair of a hospital vigil, and two lovely, if not consolatory, elegies – elegies for concepts, rather than people. The sonnet “Sidereal Elegy” opens:
Time is in the details. Someone had to tell Polaris
it would not always be
the pole star. That important standard candle
though it was, eventually, vast ages hence,
Earth’s fickle axis would fix
Meanwhile, “Mahamudra Elegy” concludes:
While fire thinks fire
is what everything aspires to, time thinks
through its helpless locks, its ambergris
flocked with a sailor’s buttons, its mud wasp
buzzing like a mini vac. Every solid is a clock.
Both of these poems illustrate an obsessive undercurrent that runs throughout the collection—a fretting fetish with time. Fulton writes that time is not the “truth revealer,” but her poems abound in clocks and church bells, in heartbeats and weather-systems, in problems of memorializing and, more specifically, of needing to keep the past in the present, to keep it alive. In this vein, Fulton regularly employs allusions to famous poems of the past, inverting and rewriting, re-living lines from Dickinson, Moore, Whitman, Keats, Shakespeare, Blake, Cavafy, Donne. Time may not be the “truth revealer,” but as Fulton’s repeated re-inscription of the past suggests, it’s the constraint we labor in.
Fulton also leans on neologisms, mostly in the form of compound words, like “sparkscale” and “crydrops,” evidently in an attempt to get at “better” sounds than can be prized from words in dictionaries. These linguistic Frankensteins work best, ironically, when least controlled—when her portmanteaux pile up on each other like multi-car wrecks. One dropped into a poem calls too much attention to itself, interrupting the poem’s flow, as in this example from “A Thinkable Rampage”:
free from light amazespace!
of reflection, it lets me
see what’s on the surface when I’m well
below the waves.
Amazespace? I think it’s amazeballs her editors let Fulton get away with it! But when a number of these monsters are forced together, the effect is to reinforce the perceived inadequacies of language that drove their creation, making them feel nearly as natural as their dictionary-housed companions. Go big or go home!
One gasp and she was rebegot
of nightness nullsense nilthings
that are not.
. . .
Writing is the fire
that burns fire. Every silence quotes
a greater silence. Hushdriven
ashquill. Clasping recombinant
thornglove. I’ll call it summery mix.
Fulton has an ascetic saint’s sensibility – intelligent but relentless. One can imagine her in a cave, staring at a flame until she goes blind, in the name of whatever god will speak to her, if only it speaks true. The later poems in Barely Composed see Fulton flirting with forgiveness and redemption, with a desperateness for grace reminiscent of Donne. But she never quite gets there. As she writes in “Daynight, With Mountains Tied Inside”:
like the sea. Keeps going. Over the same wrought
ground. The whole spent moan. Praise dies
in my throat or in the spooky rift
between itself and its intended.
St. Anthony wasn’t an ascetic. He was made a saint because of his persuasive preaching, and his tongue is preserved in memory of his eloquence. He is also the patron saint of lost things—from house keys to children to spiritual grace. Now I’m roughly as religious as a walnut and put St. Anthony about on par with my horoscope. But it’s hard not to respond to the pain in Alice Fulton’s poetry, to her evident yearning for respite from despair, a yearning made all the more keen by her refusal of comfort. So, at the risk of sounding sappy, impertinent, or both, in case St Anthony’s around, maybe he could look in on her, help her find what she needs? It seems like she could use it.
Maureen Thorson is Open Letters Monthly’s poetry editor. Her second book of poetry, My Resignation, is available from Shearsman Books.