Monday, May 28, 2007

Cynthia Fuller (PBS Winter Books III)

[This is the continuation of my post on PBS Winter Books. See part One, on Jane Hirshfield's After, and Part Two, on Tiffany Atkinson's Kink and Particle.]

The list of other books available at the end of my post on Tiffany Atkinson's book makes the next Recommendation, Cynthia Fuller's Jack's Letters Home, even more of a surprise than Atkinson's. I read Fuller's book in one day—in fact, I'm pretty sure I read it in one sitting. It hardly slowed me down at all; the poems were just flat and uninteresting, despite the book's interesting source (from the PBS website): "Jack's Letters Home tells the story of Cynthia Fuller's uncle, who was just 19 when he was killed on the Western Front during the First World War. The poems are based on real letters written by Jack to his family between February 1917 and April 1918. They tell of his transformation from shop assistant to soldier and show his determined cheerfulness in the face of harsh conditions and the omnipresent shadow of death."

Unfortunately, that story is more interesting than the poems. "Oh I do see life here, and no mistake," writes Jack in the poem "To My Best Girl"—but the poems describe that life without being alive themselves. That line appears on page 21 (of 71), and I would have liked to see it become a source of patterns like those I found in Hirshfield, but no: it is just another line in a poem written in a deadpan, everyday language that would have been fascinating as a soldier's letters but is not when presented as poetry.

Only when Jack is in France and Flanders, and Fuller begins to really turn her material into poems, does anything begin to really happen:


It was the French schoolroom that did it.
Last time we were out of the line
I sat in a schoolroom at a school desk
writing my letters home.

I'd been laughing at the size of the desk
at my big soldier's boots, my legs too long
pretending to be a schoolboy again
writing my letters home.

A pain came like a wound in my side
stopped my breath, brought tears to my eyes
that I wasn't a school boy in class
writing my letters home.

All I try not to think about hit me
the chaps blown to bits and lost in the mud
the pictures that come that I cannot tell
writing my letters home.

Don't worry over me, dear Mother,
dear Winnie, the words I must say.
The censor would cross out my true words
writing my letters home.

I can't say I am frightened and sickened
by all that I have to do, I can't say
that I do not expect to come through
writing my letters home.

How I wish I could be that school boy
learning his ABC, a young boy
knowing nothing of shelling and guns

Here, the refrain allows a tension to build up that simply does not appear anywhere earlier in the book (we are now on page 53 of 71). When Fuller turns to such repetiton again, a later poem again does more, "Dead-beat and Done-up," in which Jack is out of the trenches because of what is called "trench feet," and the two thirteen-line stanzas end with the refrain "but it's ever so much better / than being up the line." Or in "Lucky," with Jack back in the trenches, and the first and third stanzas ending with variations on "I just hope I get through."

I was quite intrigued when I read the description of Fuller's project on the back cover of the book, but I expected the book to do more with its material. The few poems that begin to work up the letters into strong poems show how effective this project could have been. As it is, it would have been better to publish the letters themselves, or to push the literary potential of the material much further than Fuller did. The book ends up being too little of either letters or literature.

[This discussion continues: Part Four, on John Fuller's The Space of Joy.]

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