By Jessica Garratt
2008 Agha Shahid Ali Prize in Poetry
The University of Utah Press
Perfect bound, 96 pages
Link to Purchase
Jessica Garratt's debut poetry collection, Fire Pond, is a book of questions and answers. In fact, on my first read, I believed that every poem contained at least one direct question. I was wrong: a little over half the poems include questions (the official sort with question marks).
"Without" asks, "What happens when the two finally have it out?" "Neighborhood" asks, "Does it matter?" and the fourth section in the title poem "Fire Pond" (a longer piece comprised of ten sonnets true to rhyme scheme and syllable count) asks, "Is that what I've been doing here?/ Keeping something to myself, just to prove/ I could?" "Infidelity," ponders this:
When moving from the porch
to the bedroom
with wine-deepened lips,
a breeze lifting the corners
of poems lying on my desk, why
didn't he see? And why
did those words
not seek out the warmest entry
to his mind?
The remaining poems fooled me, gave me the impression of questions by describing longing and curiosity so intensely, I experienced them as requests. For example, "Cogito" depicts a college student's relationship to books, "which burden him with the suggestion/ that he might not be everything,/ or enough." We experience this as a question: Am I enough? Several poems imply questions similarly, including "The state of things," which Garratt begins, "She is suddenly convinced/ ... that she knows the answer" and "Fire Pond" (sonnet II), which says, "At dinner, I told a poet, I'm scared I/ think I might write for love." These poems never reveal questions, but we know they are present. The poems' narrator is relentless in her questioning; she constantly asks something of the world and her poems.
I want to be careful, using the word "answers" as a matched pair with "questions," as in my lead paragraph: "Fire Pond is a book of questions and answers." To be sure, questions permeate Fire Pond. Answers, however, are not only elusive, they may never unite with their respective questions. (In the poem "Fire Pond," the third sonnet tells us, "No sign/ told what to do once there," and its fifth sonnet states more harshly: "There's no such thing/ when wanting is the hinge on which you swing.")
Because of this, it may be helpful to talk about the theme of questions and answers in a different way, such as the exploration of openings (the questioning) and echoes (whatever reverberates within spaces). When we cry out, we often hear an echo. Even though it's the same voice repeating itself, even though it provides us with no new information, the response -- in a voice somehow changed -- is the answer. It is what follows, what comes next.
It is also what repeats, and in Fire Pond I enjoyed recognizing fresh manifestations of repeated images. Again and again, we encounter (though always in new contexts) stones, airplanes, safety and threats, needle and thread, hearts, Spring, Winter and space, which I will use to show how Garratt gives new life to revisted objects. "Mirador" shows us space as absence: "The space where she was, then wasn't." In "Permanence," we consider space as absence again, but with a twist. Garratt assigns to it an idea that takes up space instead of creating a vacuum. She writes, "I felt I was entering a great heart, swollen to its rafters/ with solitude." Finally, the seventh sonnet in "Fire Pond" fuses the two seemingly opposite interpretations, depicts space as full and empty: "The rift/ of air, where something was, no longer is--/ that is where we live, our true landscape."
Of course, the most central echo in the collection is the concept of "answer," which has numerous permutations in Garratt's poems. "Answer" appears as "theorem" in "En Route:" "the man's theorem chimes the chime/ of a grandfather clock -- with the benefit, I mean,/ of never sounding wrong." "Answer" is "object" in "True North:" "to feel desire/ loosen its attachment on any one/ object, to lose its focus/ on one." It is the proof provided by the sun in "Epilogue:" "I guess the sun was too, proving each one/ of our days to us," and it is "the bare gray fact" of a dead mouse in "Pilgrim." In addition, "answer" is a "conclusion" (about sex and poetry) in "Expression:"
The guy who looked right at me, said,
Let's make love
right before we did, not two full morning hoursbefore he helped me toward the conclusion
that this was only an expression --
not of feelingbut of syllables,
chosen for their flow, their gauzy, filmic effacement
of all we didn't mean.
"Answer" also evolves several times within the single poem "Mirador." We see it first as "theories" ("Something/ my mother told me just yesterday/ ... according to the theories she's learning") and later as "this is why," when characters in the poem are considering the suddenness and permanence of death and how to explain it to a two-year-old ("This is why we shouldn't have given up God,/ he said. I finished his sentence/ internally: so there'd always be something left to say"). In the end of "Mirador," "answer" becomes "what we know about things." (The narrator says, "We must not go on this way, friend,/ knowing what we know about things.")
Creating elaborate synonyms for objects isn't the only tool Garratt uses to establish echoes. She also utilizes repeated movement within the poems, relying most heavily upon circular motion, which works so cleverly with the notion of questions and answers (which lead to more questions). For example, the ends of many poems circle back to their beginnings. "Without" begins and ends with a stone. Here is its first line, "the reflected future of a stone in air over water" and its last, "groping inward toward that cold, intimate stone." "Leaving Sykesville" begins, "There's never an ill fit," and close to the end it repeats, "never is it not/ a perfect fit." The first task of the poem "Fire Pond" is to question the excuse a lover for not calling, and near the end, it calls the lover into question again ("You said, I'm only tired./ But I saw through).
The poems encompass perpetual motion, as well, what comes and goes and then returns, what flows one thing into the next continuously. Spring, for example, comes over and over, "blotting out whole histories/ of hurt and wrongdoing" ("Self-Preservation Ode"). In "Expression," the narrator describes herself as "a leaky fountain/ in the shape of a woman, giving itself away./ Have I, then, abandoned myself/ to motion?" The poem "Brooklyn, February" provides another sense of this sort of motion, round and round, beginning and ending and beginning again. Our narrator is on a train:
We were part of things, caught
in the narrow intimacy of that car, joined
to other cars, to the destination
and the people at the next station, facing the dark
tunnel, willing our train
to arrive. A feeling of pure
saturation: the this-ness
Like the train, which circles without regard for us, other systems operate independent of us because that's what they're designed to do. "Climate of Refrain," which implies repetition in the title itself, shows us how nature works this way: "Squirrels leap and swing/ overhead, as though squirreling/ were the only real business/ these days." The narrator considers her body in the same context in "Foundation." Though she fears something's wrong with her body, she notes, "The body too/ keeps reeling through its actions, even/ after something's gone wrong." In "Infidelity" we see it again: "Absurd/ how effortless is the architecture/ of being. Intention, judgment,/ forgiveness, these/ have no business being bound/ in the same warm knot/ as those industrious veins/ ushering blood to the gray in-roads/ of the brain."
The collection's most pervasive movement is revolution, a spinning motion. In "Transmission," the narrator considers the rotation of the earth: "spinning/ to avoid spinning's opposite." What an echo this is to the body reeling, how it keeps reeling no matter what to avoid the cessation of reeling!
It would be easy, if that were the answer: that the world goes on. But true to a collection of questions, Garratt takes a jab at even the most fundamental spinning, that of our planet, in the final stanza of "Transmission:"
I've seen, of course, the serene reels
from the satellite's oracle eye:
Earth's "spin" a mulling over
of motion, its revolution
She doubts even this concrete reality, which reminds us of the introductory poem in the collection, "Abstract." Its central image -- a cement truck's "gray steel football turns/ wise as a clock" -- at first leads us to believe we can trust the constant motion. Instead, Garratt attaches to it doubt:
appears, disappears, reappears
in big red painted letters, turning
for someone I can't see
on the other side of the truck, only
right side up.
The narrator tells us she thinks the world has answers, but she's not sure the answers will be given to her. She wonders about others and their answers: do they access them more readily? The poem, as an opening, is the perfect choice. We know right away our narrator is trying to grasp something out of reach. We know the world provides clues but isn't going to make it easy for us. Later, when we read about the earth turning "one of its faces/ in one direction, and someone driving to work squints, curses/ the light" ("Rotation"), we are brought back to the cement truck's "gray steel football" turning, and the narrator trying to read the word "concrete."
This continual struggle -- "to always believe/ in the circle" ("En Route") -- our narrator admits, is "exhausting." We can't grasp everything; we can't know what's real or true, no matter how close we try to bring the answers to the questions:
What if there never was a point
of intersection, after all?
If they've only floated in each other's vicinity
for convenience's sake (from "Infidelity").
Garratt delivers us to this place, where we stop expecting "answer" to be "resolution" and instead consider that the answer is this: being present in the space the question creates.
Fire Pond engages me on both the cerebral level and the instinctual level. Intellectually, it thrills me that each section ends with a poem about how our choices split us apart from ourselves. One of us goes this way; one of us goes the other way. The poem "Farewell" ends section I like this:
It wasn't clear who was who
until one let go -- the way a child lets go
of balloon after balloon, across years,
and only with practice is able to watch
that bright shape float away
and not feel herself go with it.
Section II, ends with the tenth sonnet "Fire Pond," which includes the lines, "So many strands. Can each be true?" and "A willingness/ to let the self loop out and back, to thread/ each You anew." Finally, section III, ends with "Fascicle," in which the narrator considers a future time when a lover will no longer be with her. She imagines, "Your smile fossilizes/ in the wall of a duplicate diner/ that has no walls; it will live longer/ there. I'm laughing, too, I'm there."
At the same time it makes my logical brain salivate, Fire Pond entices my heart most of all. So much of the verse makes me think: This is it, what we're all trying to say. The poem "Foundation" confesses,
I might disappear with so little to hold me.
I wanted someone to look at me
and never stop. Someone to say,
I'll notice, I'll fix it
if anything goes wrong.
And the eighth sonnet in "Fire Pond" says, visitors
feel the vulnerable indifference of
a place they've come to new, which hasn't need-
ed them so far, though they hope it will. Love
is similar. And so are other things.
I say, I want more. More and more poems from Jessica Garratt.