[This is the continuation of my post on PBS Winter Books. See part One, on Jane Hirshfield's After, Part Two, on Tiffany Atkinson's Kink and Particle, and Part Three, on Cynthia Fuller's Jack's Letters Home.]
At this point, I had read one very good book, one okay book, and one very weak book. I was not really prepared for what came next: The Space of Joy, by John Fuller. Imagine reading a collection by someone who has published 17 collections, but you have never heard of him, and the collection you are reading entrances you from the first page. On top of that, he has written nine novels and seven books for children, along with work as a critic and as an editor.
The first poem in The Space of Joy is a sonnet sequence called "The Solitary Life," based on the life of Petrarch. First I responded to lines from individual sonnets:
But live within the life you have created. (7, The Source)
The vulgar sparrows chirp their perfect French. (12, The Sparrows)
But water answers to our looser shape,
Restores our sense of the large wastefulness
And playfulness of all material things ... (16, The Echoes)
... the reckless violence
Borrowed from the gods in chasing all
Beauty ... (18, The Puzzles)
And not until the wine is in the glass
And levelling the future and the past
Is the soul shriven. (19, The Shriving)
I see the bishop standing by my bed
In the deliberate way that bishops do
When they are keen to talk, and also dead. (22, The Debate)
'How may we dare to hope to have no hope?' (22, The Debate)
I surely marked that last line in part because of Hirshfield, and like Hirshfield, Fuller pursues the theme further: "Hope is a prisoner of the future" (23, The Occupation). And in the next sonnet, he addresses another theme that Hirshfield had also caught my attention with: "One year the summer will be here, not I" (24, The Summer). Then came a few more lines:
I gave the world a book but not a daughter. (27, The Glory)
Out of old clothes is shining paper made.
Out of old lives are poems written on it. (28, The Process)
And then came what I had been waiting for, a sonnet in this sequence that stood out on its own terms, not as part of the sequence, and not because of individual lines, but for itself—and this is the one that I have been able to find on-line (in a slightly different version that I have edited here to correspond to what is in the book):
29 THE RELICS
And after all, paper is all we know
And yet we feel antiquity about us.
The world's a room in which we come and go
And once the world was much the same without us.
A field turns up the blades of victory
Although it is forgotten now who won.
The fig-tree is the grandson of the fig-tree
That was the great-great-grandson of the one
That Petrarch knew, and now in Luberon
You can go strolling up a brambly plateau
And see Lacoste, the home of the de Sades
(Laura's relations, it is said), all gone
When revolutionaries sacked the château
And sold its stone for middle-class façades.
And then more lines:
... the stream of truth:
Not pure at its source, but after it's been tested (31, The Truth)
... And everything that in her case
Gave her a chance to choose what kind of good
Lies in a certain life in a certain place
Must be worth more than all the lines he wrote. (32, The Reconciliation)
The final sonnet in the sequence also shook me as a poem on its own:
35 THE ABSOLUTE
All that we worship is an absolute
You'd maybe call the world behaving well.
Its core is tenderness: the poise of fruit,
Its bloom and moisture as it starts to swell;
The baby sleeping at the trickling breast
And sucking now and then as it recalls
Why it is tucked in there; we know the best
We wish for lies within our own four walls,
The welcome shape of things as what they are
And our entirely willing doing of them.
We say their beauty pleases us, but clearly
They are our life's realised phenomena.
Our recognition is the way we love them
For being hints of our perfection, really.
As if that were not enough, the book continues with six other poems of two to nine pages each. "Coleridge in Stowey" offered the birdwatcher in me these lines:
The heron has the patience to be patient,
Though there be never a fish in sight.
Heron, worm and poet share the doom
Of laboring for a scant reward!
"Arnold in Thun" climaxes with these lines:
Are we mere tourists in our
Own as yet unexplained lives?
Shall our paths sweetly meet
Just as we once hoped they would?
Unseen the hidden Aare
Leaving the lake undisturbed,
Flowing on, who knows where,
And the lake so beautiful,
Just as it always was, there.
"The Rivals" are the characters in Wagner's Die Meistersänger von Nürnberg, speaking in groups of sonnets. First comes Hans Sachs: "My eyes and tongue are mortal enemies." Then Sixtus Beckmesser:
We each have this unique tremendous chance,
Luck carelessly worn, the gift of song,
The formula for love learned at a glance:
And then you realise you got it wrong.
But it is yours. Still is. You live with it,
This vast mistake committed without coercion.
... The spider on the shelf
Knows everything a spider needs to know.
It all comes to a preparation for
This moment. It gathers with proprietary
Fondness like a father at the door,
Hiding, to hear the ending of a story
That once when he was young he thought he knew.
It is the forbidden second chance of time.
It is the chalk scrawl of equations, true
At the proof. It is the undiscovered crime
That lies behind the questions of the present,
A history of expectation and
The characters of pleasant and unpleasant
Pieces in a game as yet unplanned
But somehow played already. It's a mad
Look at the future you've already had.
Then Sachs responds to Beckmesser in a third and final set of sonnets:
Why did I think that love itself would win
And so create the only thing it makes?
Song is the beauty we are perfect in.
Song is the interest our self-loathing takes.
How can we claim desire at second-hand
Or offer prizes to unhappiness,
Lonely as ever when we take our stand
And closing palms mock with their loud address?
Better to give, if giving there must be,
The things that can be shared only in art
And soothe the feelings with new melody:
Better the rules are broken than the heart.
Songs will redeem our passions if we let them.
Songs are the means by which we can forget them.
After this wonderful opening, this final section also contains some more strong passages:
The song is his, and somehow he conceived it
Out of an air electric with his urge
To be, and bring to being.
Your life outstretching mine simply in years
Defines a dizzy breach too deep to mend,
Both wound and weapon, fantasy and fears.
I see it waiting for you, undefined
Except as waiting.
After "The Rivals," Fuller returns to Switzerland with "Brahms in Thun," a poem in unrhymed iambic pentameter sestets. As with "The Solitary Life," it is lines that first grab me:
The voice is hers, and yet the song is his ...
Death, too, is there, and also a wild hope ...
Then three stanzas stand out:
Wonderful Thun ... the steamer on the lake
Hoots at the afternoon; its paddles ply
The Aare to the harbour where he sees
Such parasols in clusters, greeting, retreating.
Beyond, a train is puffing into the station,
Like an old gentleman expecting treats.
Later he might allow himself to walk
Down there again, a brandy at the Freienhof,
And in the Markt the smell of girls and herring.
And will one come again, will such a one?
It haunts him like something about to disappear.
He tries to put a name to it, but fails.
Perhaps it is something he has always missed,
The sound of laughter in another room,
Hands at his knee, hands tugging him away,
The playing, the watching, the kissing and the dancing,
The faces echoing their other faces,
That strange projection of the self, like art.
Again and again, Fuller circles around the relationship between the artist and the work, the uncanny experience of the creator watching his or her creations enter the world and return to the creator, changed, "a strange projection of the self." Later in this poem, he reaches another peak:
There are mistakes too terrible to be made,
When to approach them, as to an upstairs room
Where light invites the idle passer-by,
Is to stand upon a brink of fascination
Whose logic is a desecration and
Whose music is a series of farewells.
Those moments one can look back at and wonder what would have happened if one had done the unexpected thing—or what would have happened if one had not taken that risk. "The only respite is a dark Kaffee":
And a cigar, of course. And in its wreaths,
The music for a moment laid to rest,
He lives within the mood it has created:
And will one come again, will such a one?
Is it too late? Isn't the paradox
Just this: the one mistake committed is
The one that will transcend both fear and error
And in its act be no mistake at all?
And will one come again, will such a one?
I found myself unable to resist typing in more and more of Fuller's lines and stanzas. Again and again, his explorations of the experiences of his figures, creators all, push through multiple limits at once: of what is acceptable speech in contemporary poetry, of the types of phrasing available to formal verse, of richness of language pushed to extremes while still maintaining an immediate semantic coherence. What more could one want from poetry? "... he must play his part, / A heron among herons by the shore," Fuller writes in "The Fifth Marquess," but this is not the poetry of just another heron.
And then he starts to channel "Wallace Stevens at the Clavier":
But music has no pages. It expands
To fill the empty spaces where it plays
Like any calculated melancholy.
And should the sun be parsimonious,
Reminding us of summers lost, no matter.
Since summers once existed, let us go
Over to the Canoe Club to make hay.
The poem pursues variations on the relationship between Stevens and his wife Elsie: "I tried to give up poetry for you." There are many lines, and several stanzas, that I could type in without comment, just for the sheer pleasure of typing them, but I'll settle for the final stanza:
Said Hamlet of Polonius to the King:
He is at supper. Not where he eats, but where
He's eaten. This is a prince's poetry.
So much for the company of worms.
And so his play, like any music, plays
Upon the octaves of the living spine
And the hair rises erect, as at a spook
That sways her intermezzo from the grave
To speak mad words or clutch your frozen fingers.
The worm's your only emperor for diet
But poetry's the only heaven we have.
The book concludes with "Thun, 1947," the one complete poem here that I could find on-line. I am especially enamored of the conclusion (the poem is not broken into stanzas on-line, but it is in the book):
All that survives of those long days is what
My parents built for me in reaching out
Towards each other, something like an arch,
A space of joy, above me, out of my sight
But in my interest, the inscrutable
Design of their shared, not solitary life
Which an unsearching boy must keep somewhere
Like a toy too old for him, that cost too much.
High on the tilted uplands above the lake,
Just for a moment, I became myself,
Not for the first and not the only time
But at the end of something, and a beginning,
There on a grazed meadow at Goldiwil,
Knowing the distance between the Alps and me
To be no more than a foot-throb from the earth
Beneath me, yet somehow further than the stars.
In some unvisitable yet certainly
Recorded locus of our continuum
I am there still, alive from top to toe:
The lock of hair falling above a grin,
Falling like the long end of my belt,
The cricket shirt, the elbows brown and crooked,
The deep shorts, and the socks reaching to the knees,
The sandals doubly buckled, slightly turned in.
And long I stare at myself without staring back,
For the past, though winding, is a one-way street
And the future unfolds few maps. To be alone
Is a condition of the observing brain,
And something that's remote is better seen,
Like stars or mountains. And the heart goes out
Fiercely if frailly from its uncertain darkness,
Like coloured fires along the terraces.
I surely would have chosen Fuller's book over Hirshfield's as the Choice, but I realize, too, that that is a matter of taste. Some readers will surely find Fuller excessive: too formal, too rich in his language, too "poetic" in his themes and in his overall approach. But I was simply captivated by the book from start to finish, and I am looking forward to getting my hands on more of his work. Perhaps the final distinction for me between Fuller and Hirshfield is that: I am looking forward to getting more books by her, but I probably won't go out of my way to do so. I will for Fuller.[Part Five, on Jacob Polley's Little Gods, still to come.]