Hobblebush Books, 2013
Paper, 88 pages
Poets often claim they don’t imagine particular audiences when they write. Sometimes the same writers, however, define their poetry as an act of communication. I worry over this paradox all the time. Does a piece of writing qualify as a message if the author doesn’t know to whom she’s sending it, or why, or when, or whether to expect an answer? Further, is fourteen lines of rhymed iambic pentameter, for instance, even a modestly effective message delivery system?
Patricia Fargnoli’s resonant, evocative, moving new collection, Winter, brought these perennial problems to mind through its letters and petitions wrought from solitude. What I began to consider as I read it—she doesn’t say this, but she prepares the ground for the notion—is that all of us are already in communication, the way mushrooms communicate in a forest through a buried mycelium. Above ground, poems reach for connection through a medium, language, premised on our distance from one another. That aspired-for bond is impossible, beyond fleeting moments of grace. Still, there’s something about poetry particularly—rhythm, recursiveness, the perfect vivid strangeness of a metaphor—that hints at some hidden unity. We are lonely because we are connected.
The muse, medium, and emblem of relationship at the beginning of Winter is a fox: “down the hill running will come that flame / among the dancing skeletons of the ash trees. / I will leave the door open for him.” “Should the Fox Come Again to My Cabin in the Snow” inaugurates the wintry settings and sense of isolation pervading Fargnoli’s sixth collection. Winter is a season a New Hampshire poet must know all too intimately, but here it also signifies age, widowhood, depression, and the hopeful dormancy necessary for meditation and composition. Haunted New England winters are a stock trope of American poetry, but again and again Fargnoli estranges the long snowy hush with peculiar visions, often of animals. In “Still, Silence Moves Me to Speak,” stillness is disturbed by “the goat of chaos / always at cliff’s edge / with his yellow burning eyes.” I particularly love a dreamy apparition in another poem from the book’s first movement, “The Horse.” An awed speaker makes room in her small apartment for this great visitor. “I curried him all over till he shone,” she writes, “like black rain on the edge of ice.”
Winter’s middle section complements those mysterious, elliptical lyrics with narrative context. Fargnoli provides a glimpse of a long-ago secret pregnancy; fragmentary memories of parents lost young; and episodes of paralyzing sadness, as in “Biography from Seventy-Four”: “Here is a secret: / most days she sleeps / most of the day.” In “At the Allen Brothers Garden Center,” the speaker, inspired by a friend, is determined to find “connections between strangers.” Her attempt to share her joy about a butterfly, though, goes horribly wrong when the stranger at hand starts spouting apocalyptic warnings to stock up on food and water: “Even Glen Beck says so. You must listen. / The Lord is coming.” The poem’s unlikely mixture of sweetness, humor, and despair concludes with the fear that “we cannot save each other even if we want to,” and the scaled-down optimism of planting a pot of basil.
Throughout Winter’s three parts, references abound to communication gone awry. Fargnoli’s speakers discover forgotten love letters under mattresses, can’t get a straight answer over the phone, and pray to a god who will not reply. Some of the ekphrastic poems in the collection at first seem ill-fitting, centrifugal, flinging our attention out to other works of art, while this is a deeply centripetal, inward book. There are probably a few too many poems in the latter mode; Winter is best when it exerts a lyric pressure towards interiority and cool reflection. Still, all the responses to paintings, photographs, and poems by other authors fit well with lost letters and misinterpreted messages: by answering other artists, Fargnoli is scribbling addresses on envelopes that may never arrive, leaving unexpected replies on forgotten answering machines.
“When I Meet You,” one of Winter’s final missives, could be a religious poem or an apostrophe to a specific human being, but it reminded me of Walt Whitman’s invocations of his future readers. That’s an unlikely comparison, perhaps, for Fargnoli, who seems to have more in common with Whitman’s introverted antithesis from Amherst, Massachusetts than with self-promoting, sexy public bards. Yet in free verse couplets with no terminal punctuation, Fargnoli anticipates walking into a forest toward an uncanny encounter:
when I meet you for the first time you will
step out into shielded light
surrounded by the cries of the birds
and the harsh barks of foxes
what will be the sound of your voice I wonder
and how will I come to understand you
when I meet you
when I meet you for the first time
I read these lines towards the end of a cold, dreary Virginia winter; outside the window I could see dirty heaps of snow finally dissolving into the ground. I was surprised by the poem’s use of the future tense, relatively rare in lyric poetry, and that eerie sense of being addressed in printed verses by someone I’ve never met, as in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” That’s when I started having epiphanies about fungi. “We are all connected” is a rather ordinary revelation in the age of ecopoetry, but an enormously helpful one for a middle-aged striver. Maybe my mushrooms will be fat, juicy, and appreciated, and maybe they’ll decay unnoticed. If the latter, though, they’ll nourish poetry’s mycelium and new plants will fruit, if spring ever comes. The contemplative spirit of Fargnoli’s Winter, the beautiful landscape of latency it conjures, is a kind and welcome gift, although you might want to conserve its fire for the next season of endless frosty nights.