Ugh Ugh Ocean by Joanna Fuhrman. Hanging Loose Press, $15.
Reviewed by Jerry McGuire
Jeffrey McDaniel, in a characteristic razzle of enthusiasm, has picked Joanna Fuhrman as one of his "Real Chancellors of American Poetry," paying special note to her work at the Poetry Project at Saint Mark's. Ugh Ugh Ocean is her second book (following Freud in Brooklyn), and it rings with the eclectic energies of that noble venue, which is to say that its virtues (which are many) like its vices (which are not so many) are both interesting and fun.
Fun is kid stuff, of course, of which more later. It's worth first identifying three tendencies of her writing that combine in a distinctive way to shape her voice. The first is an enthusiastic anteing-in at the game of chancy image-making sometimes called New York Surrealism. Second is an investment in postmodern mythophilia, in the Barthesian sense in which myth signifies incipient symbolic realizations of the cultural imaginary from Advertising to Zeus, with nods to Bible, Fairytale, the Holy Company of Muses (Berryman, Berrigan, and Spicer, to be sure, but also Duchamp, Judy Garland, and Will Rogers, as molders of her imaginative possibility), and Chance itself, as the locus of coincidence from which our overdetermined flashes of insight bound upon us like the weirdly familiar monsters they are. The third psychologizes the surreal and mythic tendencies in personifications and near-personifications--more a loopy leaping among, and connecting, the inner life of objects (window, door, hydrant) and the narrative suggestions of mythic grandees (Zeus, Orpheus) than a technical enactment of je est un autre. It's not true ventriloquism, but it's close enough to give her wiggle room for imagistic extravagances and catachreses that might otherwise seem no more than the reproduction of a school insignia--the way, sadly, much leaping--image stuff feels. Fuhrman's associations don't just leap, they bounce.
But back to the matter of fun. Generally (sadly) this tends to be the province of poets who aren't "serious." "Serious" ideas may be ironized for tropic scrutiny or deployed according to their tragic repercussions, but not orchestrated in Spike Jones (or Jonz) extravaganzas of play. The exceptions to this truism are good for real, deep pleasures: John Ashbery and Bill Knott, Bernadette Mayer and Heather McHugh, the Charleses Simic and Bernstein. McHugh and Bernstein, in particular, seem like a Sublime Maternal Wisegirl and a Paternal Mensch Supreme to the younger poets--of whom McDaniel and Fuhrman are preeminent examples--who've defined their projects in terms of a two-faced attention to worldly sadness and verbal pleasure. In McDaniel this intersection tends to lead to dark humors; Fuhrman's world is brighter, though wetter.
The reason for this distinction is partly in Fuhrman's investment in the oceanic imagery indicated in her title. More conceptually than formally (there are a sestina and a villanelle here, but the poems aren't adventurous in their spatial expression), Fuhrman's poems feel much more open than McDaniel's, whose distinctive space is both claustrophobic and vertiginous--the "bad pilgrim's room" in which his speaker was confined as a child, for instance, or "The Mirror in Which I'll Be Judged" or "The Everlasting Staircase" (from his Splinter Factory). Fuhrman's spaces feel lonely, perhaps, but not strictly isolating. They're much more likely to make one feel lost than confined, confused than imperiled. Even for her book's primary epigraph, instead of choosing Stevie Smith's poem in which a swimmer who appears to be "waving" is in fact "drowning," Fuhrman quotes Jules Supervielle: "A man in the sea is waving and screaming 'Help' / and the echo is replying, 'What do you mean by that?'" This steers Fuhrman's oceanic preoccupations away from tragedy and toward puzzlement--indeed, toward a perspective of childhood.
For one lure of ocean is regression--think of Stevie Smith, or Cummings--and Fuhrman frequently indulges a bigeyed wonderment in the face of largeness, mixing a diction of child-sized straight talk (“BAD STUFF / STILL HAPPENS / EVERYWHERE”) and a babble of syllabic play. The key to poetic regression has always been two-fold: first, the child one becomes still feels transported by the wonders of language and the world; and second, the poet and the reader/other have both been here, have shared this language in its freshness by virtue of having been children before being anything else. It is also a regressive impulse, I think, that puts the special bounce in Fuhrman's imaging. Of course, "bounce" is no simple concept, but a variable effect dependent on a variable spin--leaping with english on it. It has a distinguished history in music, especially jazz. It shouldn't be confused with rhythm, which can be, and often is, a quasi-mathematical set of values, admirable but abstract. When "bounce" comes into play, rhythm engages the imaginal body and turns into dance. Its analog in poetry, too, entails a bodily connection--not rhythm under the abstract cover of formal variations from a metrical structure, but rhythm as a manifestation of the body danceable, the body prior to being shamed into abstracting itself.
The poets I've named above all have that function in some measure, and many of today's performance poets (though not McDaniel or Fuhrman) are willing to sacrifice other poetic virtues to sustain it. Such sacrifices are an old story in music, too, as "bounce" has been lifted from the synthetic complexities of jazz and reduced by various "pure" dance musics to a sine qua non and, sometimes, the only thing happening. There are excellent reasons for this--more people want music to make them dance than to make them think, or even to make them feel some sort of aesthetic complexity. Popular younger poets like McDaniel and Fuhrman, too, are faced with a special problem of balance that has already been solved in very different ways by jazzmasters like Ashbery, Bernstein, and McHugh--how to satisfy the thirst for bounce that your position as public poet constantly imposes while holding true to other conceptual and formal demands that your cultural experience tells you are critically important. McDaniel's provocative list of "Real Chancellors" reflects his own preferences for balancing such competing public and personal demands. Ugh Ugh Ocean reflects some struggling on Fuhrman's part, I think. If it were necessary to point up a failing in the book, it might be an occasional lapse from bounce--or, better, an occasional refusal to sustain the expectations she's set up because she needs to articulate something that doesn't have much bounce in it--having established those conditions, some complexity of thought or figuration forces her to abandon them. Failures like this are evidences of rigor and integrity, and ought to be welcomed.