Reviewed by Heather Toohill
Just looking at the cover of Curtis Bauer's first book, Fence Line, gives the reader an immediate feel of what this book is all about. Bauer's work is consumed by boundaries and borders. He uses “fence” imagery in an obvious way when speaking of his childhood and his return as an adult to Iowa and to the farming culture, and more subtly throughout the book when speaking of geographical borders. He also expands the image to describe the “fences” we may use to shield ourselves from others and the barriers between generations and cultures.
One of the main topics of Bauer's poems is growing up in the Midwest. His unique stories and images make these poems both personal to Bauer and accessible to the reader. He focuses on relationships with his male family members and dedicates the first poem of the book, “A Fence Line Running Through It,” to describing the way he was taught to work around the family farm.
Bauer also includes many poems about love in Fence Line. In “A Splinter Becoming a Burning Plank,” he captures the innocence and anxiety of a first kiss: “like the night twenty years before / when you sat in a ditch with a girl / and two other boys and waited your turn / for a kiss.” He is also masterful at writing about more mature love without making it clichéd or unrealistic: “I'd look north toward Minnesota / wishing I could see the girl I thought I loved / to tell her how the stars looked further south.” In “I'll Say It This Way,” Bauer lists all the things his lover is, and while this strategy is not unusual, the objects--a new pair of shoes, an obituary, radio static--are.
In his poems, Bauer can connect strangers in a way so natural that it seems almost inevitable. In “The Cats of Fuchosa,” he starts in a grocery store, focusing on the owner, and then moves outside to a woman, then the man beside her, and so on until the reader has been connected with every character in the scene. His ability to move a reader into all these places and people without losing them, as well as his ability to do so without sacrificing the momentum or pace of the poem, is impressive. The motion from place to place and person to person seems effortless. He's also masterful at twisting back in a poem and re-examining each situation as he makes new discoveries. Bauer's poems can take on a “walking tour” feel. In many of his poems he moves the reader from street to street, describing everything. This fresh story-telling style gives the audience a vivid picture of where they are in Bauer's world.
Bauer also focuses on his adult return to his hometown. After spending time in other countries, Iowa seems both suffocating and comforting to Bauer, as in “Imaginary Homecoming”:
If you stand here you can see the barn.
You can see it from every point on these two hundred acres,
but this spot is the closest.
Here's a fence post--use your imagination--
that used to be a corner post
for all the fences on this farm.
There's a lot of focus on “becoming” a certain man or woman in this book. At times he uses it to describe someone's potential or maturing: “Somewhere // in this I became the man who took / the hand of the woman you became.” And other times he asks the reader to “become” a person in a scene, “Today you are a woman beside a man / at the end of that street.” Bauer also focuses on people's identities before they have undergone some sort of change, as in “Breakfast with the Neighbors”:
a woman and a nude
man without a laugh track
falling out of love and forgetting
the words and tears that kept us
awake the night before, or
who they were
before they fell asleep
Bauer's first book is fresh and thoughtful, speaking across the fence to all audiences. Fence Line does not need to be flashy or bold; it grabs the reader's attention with its sincerity and maturity.