Reviewed by Allison Scott
Death, one of the oldest poetic subjects, and one that has forever inspired a very human combination of fear, sadness, and curiosity, becomes for Kevin Prufer a theme around which he builds unexpected combinations of images that lead the reader on four related journeys that approach, from very different angles, the moment of human mortality as an occasion to examine humanity itself. Fallen from a Chariot, Prufer's third book, explores the concept of falling, of fallen people, lives, empires, and beliefs, by knitting together, at times brilliantly, striking images of beauty and death, ancient greatness and modern destruction, an outward appearance with the insides of things.
The book is divided into four parts, each with its own set of central images that illuminate a different facet of the idea of falling. Part one integrates images of a fatal car accident with images of birds, angels, and a plane crash. Part two pairs the fall of ancient Rome and its emperors with anachronistic moments of modern-day warfare, and part three shifts predominantly to images of water and the sea. The last section starts by returning to the plane crash image and moves on to create other apocalyptic scenes while dealing with questions of god and the afterlife. Certain images, like those of birds and other winged creatures, planes, empires, and questions of identity and position, appear in more than one section, and add to the natural flow and cohesiveness of the work as a whole.
While each of Fallen from a Chariot's four sections has its shining moments and its own merits as it contributes to the overall work, the first half of Prufer's book is more successful than the second half, with the initial section probably standing as the strongest overall. In the first two parts, Prufer uses unique and open-ended imagery created with well-crafted language in poems that build on each other in sequence, connecting to develop a complex relationship of themes. The voice of his poems add as much to the pieces as what is said, as the speaker discovers the poem, and reacts to it, along with the reader. Some of the poems in the second half of the book lose the beauty of that simultaneous revelation and take on a more philosophical tone that leaves the reader wishing for more of the inventive details and descriptions that Prufer has shown he is capable of.
Also in the latter part of the book, the position from which Prufer's approaches his theme is a less creative one, and some of the central subjects and ideas (questions about death and god, loss of youth) are too expected. At times he is able to overcome the familiar subject matter with an original approach, such as his use of the onion imagery in "Youth and the Lie that Goes with It.” However, in part four's “Prayer,” Prufer starts with a very conventional premise--struggling to pray to an absent or seemingly deaf god--and adds to it archaic imagery and word choice, and the stiff sound of rhymed and nearly metered stanzas:
What shall I do if I never can reach him?
The bed is a harlot, all laughter and lace.
My teeth like a riot of bridges and gold
so how can he hear me? And what should I say?
The end result is a poem with very little about it that feels new. Other poems in the second half of the book begin with fresh, engaging images that build and develop as the poem progresses, but unfortunately fall a little short at the end with a clichéd last line, such as the poem “About the Dead,” which ends with the “the very best moment comes when we leave,” which is neither a new idea, nor a new way of saying it, and “Final Instructions,” a forceful and captivating piece in the final section that falters a bit at the end with “as though there were a heaven that waits for us all.”
The places where Prufer's originality shines in full force are parts one and two of Fallen, where his surprising language and imagery lead the reader along a natural development of details accumulating into scenes, people, ideas. The first and title poem begins with one of these details: “There is, first of all, her body,/ and the snow around it.” The voice is one of someone who is following his own thoughts just as the reader is following the poems, grasping at the pieces as they surface and trying to reassemble them. In the next part of the poem, the speaker must resettle himself and retrace his mental steps before continuing:
The snow, of course, from the trees, with the wind.
Or the car and the bridge it fell from, the rail
That like the body is twisted.
The broken windshield
From which the body flew and a hand below the belly
The starting over, or repeating, of the description, and the simple, straightforward listing of horrific details puts a beautifully transparent veneer of blunt, blank words in front of an emotional state that is very much in flux, and very much in control of the timing and movement of the poem.
The repetition and overlap of description in the first poem becomes a device Prufer uses quite successfully throughout his book. The second poem, “A Car Has Fallen From a Bridge,” directly echoes the title poem in its second and third stanzas:
And there is the death of the body, which was quick, the body
unaware and cooling against the dash.
Of course, there is snow, which wants so badly just to sleep, sur-
rounding the car and the body where they came to rest.
In addition to further developing the scene of a car accident, “A Car Has Fallen From a Bridge” continues the use of “the body” to describe the woman involved in the accident. The repetition of “the body” in these poems reduces people to objects overtly devoid of specific identities; “the body” becomes a placeholder noun to which other objects and people are related and by which the overall scene is described, as seen earlier in the first poem's line “the rail / that like the body is twisted,” or in a later line of that same poem, “her car / which, unlike the body, steams.”
Just as repetition reveals the emotion behind Prufer's seemingly stoic description, the repetition of the purposely generic “the body” gives the phrase its own kind of ghostly life, an eerie, echoing presence that follows the reader through the poems of the first section until the final poem. In the last poem of the section, “Dissected Bird,” Prufer finally offers a release for “the body” and a relief of the building tension with an acknowledgement of the importance of identity, “a feather to write your name,” as the last line.
Identity is a natural segue into part two of the book, which transports the reader back into ancient Rome. The poems in this section focus on the identity of Romans as a people, and on individual Roman rulers. The section opens with a poem called “My Life with Caesar,” which begins with the image of a blue heron, continuing the bird motif of part one. As the poem continues, the heron is linked with Caesar, and in “the whisper of feathers” comes the phrase: “There is no other king // than Caesar, no other.” The section continues chronologically through famous emperors of Rome, along with intriguing and complex anachronistic diversions into scenes in modern wars and yachts. These emperor poems reveal historical, great men in either first, second, or third person in their sad, private lives, haunted by the phrase “There is no other king than Caesar.”
Just as “the body” created a constant lingering presence in part one, the unattainable Caesar hangs above the failed, fallen, and falling men of part two until the very last poem:
We say it now, in retrospect: We have no other king,
had no other--even when the elms skittered into spring,
when cobbles wore our footsoles thin--
we had no other king but Caesar.
And so part two ends with a similar framing device as part one, returning to where it began, and in both instances the device is very effective in emphasizing loss and failure, while also serving to loop the poems back into the book's central theme. Each of these sections, more than part three and four, has a fluid and subtle evolution of moments, characters, and scenes where images flow into each other, and a body becomes a bird that becomes an angel that becomes a harpy while the bird becomes a plane that becomes a bomber, and then finally, in part four, a bomb. In this way, Prufer is able to ingeniously combine creative and diverse images, settings, and ideas into a work that speaks in a new way to the very old and very human fear of and fascination in failure and death.