Reviewed by Zackary Sholem Berger
“In the aftermath of September 11th,” begins the editorial foreword to the new issue of Fence, not in the editor’s own voice, but in italics: a quote, a reference to the flood of post-9/11 musings that has swept over us. This, plus the next sentence (“we sat down together to discuss what an appropriate editorial response might be”), might seem unpromising. What does poetry have to tell us about September 11th? What about this historical event is accessible to the poet that’s not available in overabundance elsewhere? 9/11 was elemental and tragic just like whatever else overwhelms, puts into context, explodes or illuminates our miniature individualities--in other words, everything treated by poetry. But several paragraphs later, one finds with relief that this acknowledgment of 9/11 is of just the right sort, a pair of unassuming revelations from the editorial mountain: what the editors want is “more emotion in poetry” and “positive definitions of our desires.”
These two short phrases aren’t a bad summary of the many honest, untricksterly, powerful poems to be found in this issue of Fence. (The only failures, in fact, are the overtly political poems that indulge in cartoonish demonizations of their opponents, in the service of the Michael Moore or Matt Drudge schools of rhetoric.) I’m not going to spend limited space on the reprinted “Canto One” by Nabokov, the issue’s opener, but will leap right into the grisly shock-and-awe of Lara Glenum’s “Prayer in the Time of Terror.”* The poet addresses herself to a “Lamb of God / O ringleted Lamb,” a “bright-fleeced,” skipping angel which is done in by a sickeningly effective line break: “with your face so entirely / blown away.” A cheap, graphic trick? No, because the dismembered lamb, “cooked and steaming on a silver platter,” “illuminated / by a sniper’s nest,” is also the Bodiless Lamb, paradoxically an even more faithful fulfillment of the Godliness of Agnus Dei. “O Little Lamb,” concludes the poem, “Why can’t we be like you? / Headless / Eating clouds”: like a lamb, but without being subject to slaughter; like an angel, but able to eat.
Glenum’s weirdly spiritual meditation is paralleled by a similarly sobering piece in the second half of the issue (the axis of which, among many other works I don’t have space to treat here, is a collection of drawings and sketches called “The Three L’s of Real Estate”), a short quasi-fable by Heather Smith called “Burn.” It’s a children’s story gone wrong: “The sparrow asked the boxwood, Boxwood / Why Are You All Black?” The answer is more than a just-so story. A spark “flew from a train” and set fire to an entire town “as far as the mosque of Sulejman / to the home of Fadilbeg.” Though there is nothing here to indicate that the fire wasn’t an accident, the smoke of foreboding hangs over the aftermath (perhaps because of the other poems in this issue). Last, and terribly, the children themselves become part of the fable, with a survivors’ mixture of confusion and mutual aid. The boy “asked her, Does It Burn? The girl / turned to her brother. Does It Burn?”
This issue, in its very length (a crammed-full 180 pages) and ambitious variety, includes more than poetry of prayers, forebodings, and tragedy. There is Jennifer C. Manion’s “At Three, the Girl in Red Shoes Leaves,” a precisely rendered appreciation, bathed in a Vermeerian light, of the three-year-old’s walk and touch. Its tender sharpness is shown clearly in its last few lines: “Where she steps / Is sensitive to light, / As paper // To scissors.” Kevin McWha Steele’s “Brooklyn Criollo” is a lover’s Whitmanesque litany with the soul of a Wendell Berry rhapsody to nature and a Lucie Brock-Broido’s rococo vocabulary, with rapidly succeeding (and near-unconnected) images: “I am the spinning wheel . . . the ocarina . . . the ether.” Here there is no didacticism, just a lesson to be learned about multidimensional personification, the poet that goes anywhere and is anything.
Here, too, are sequences from longer works. Alistair McCartney’s “The End of the World Book” is an alphabet of grim images with the sidelong sneer of an Ambrose Bierce. There is more than just scare-the-bourgeois in the pleasure derived from “V,” an excursus which leans a violin up against a boy: “But still, we enjoy contemplating this. / The boy’s ribs cluck against the ribs of the violin. / This is corresponding. / This has consequence.” But then, directly after: “This has no consequence.” The poem is not sure whether the violin is important, cannot provide evidence “that the nerves of boys were ever used to string violins.” These are playful, insouciant, maddening lines, whose indecisiveness is their charm and their weakness.
The jewel of the issue, tucked away at the very end like a prize for reading all the way through, is Thalia Field’s “Story Material” (an excerpt from her forthcoming Incarnate Story Material [New Directions, 2004]). It’s an Odyssey, or at least an excerpt, with the Cyclops and Circe both identified with and exploded by the poet-narrator. At least, I think so. Field’s is an approach shorn of many linguistic aids (conjunctions, punctuation, identifiable, non-shifting points of view), which gives the unsettling sensation of being both on the island and on the ship, out to sea:
[. . .]                               Oblivious we sail          stuffed with oracles
Stepping right into spiraling              Recording smells and senses, riddles
this violent episode            stops or doesn’t                  Land or not
This isn’t an easily quotable piece. Each brick-laid stanza invites multiple interpretations, reweavings of the ancient stories, and many attempts to rethink what is actually going on. This is both invigorating and frustrating. Similarly, at the end of this multi-variegated issue, with many directions to take for future poetic acquaintance, one feels more oriented to the possibilities of poetic variability, but less sure about what “positive definitions of our desires” can be forged in the light of that heterogeneity. As the end of Field’s piece has it, ushering us into the sea with Odysseus:
Home or nowhere          a Hero,           two eyes          open two eyes          shut
* Note: Lara Glenum worked with Verse until May 2004. Because Fence does not provide contributors’ notes, the reviewer was unaware of that.