on Earthly, poems by Erica Funkhouser (Houghton Mifflin)

Asked why he wrote so few poems, William Meredith replied that “poetry and experience should have an exact ratio … Daily experience is astonishing on a level at which you can write a poem, but astonishing experience would be the experience which is not astonishment of reality but astonishment of insight.” Since the insights are rare, so are insightful poems. Once the writing begins, there is a chance, however slim, that words will “begin to make specific the insight … where you feel honor-bound to see this mystery with the brilliance of a vision. Not to solve it, but to see it.” The poet begins with a premonition of an insight, a whiff. The great poems retain the sense of potentiality even while moving deliberately towards the light.

earthly.jpgErica Funkhouser is one of those rare honor-bound poets who keep as tight a ratio as possible between poetry and the experience of insight. Her work is built on a stubborn assumption – that there is a common language of feeling between poet and reader. Noting the absence of this belief among poets, Louis Simpson said in his essay “The Poet and the Reader,” “Writers have become terribly self-conscious about speaking out on any subject and also about buttonholing the reader and saying, I’m going to tell you a story, I’m going to give you this kind of poem. So what writers try to do is slide into the subject in an informal, casual manner … They involve the reader in the difficulty of having a voice … of making a plausible statement … It is a sign of the lack of a language of feeling.” These are not Funkhouser’s chosen difficulties. Speaking about subjects is her métier; the subjects are usually close at hand, though she has also written well about historical characters and events. The plausibility of her statements rests on the very dependability of those subjects – the way they suggest correspondences between the human and her immediate surroundings, and help her portray more than a simple dimension of “a passing phase of life.”

Here is a poem from her first book, Natural Affinities, (Alice James Books, 1983):

NOT STARS, NOT FISH

On a morning when we’re fastened
to the worst that falls
between us, I take a boat
and row out to the starfish
strewn upon their searock
as if tossed down by an archer
who found better gloves to wear.

Body upon body
flattened by wave-press,
the brown and purple stars
cling to each other in heaps:
the opposite of a Japanese garden,
where a few enduring stones
suggest the significance
of time and distance.

I can’t decide if the stars are happy.
They’re layered deep
from the tide-torn surface
down to their feast of barnacles.
You couldn’t map them from the air
or lay them end to end to count them.
Their hunger crowds them down,
exhaustion intertwined with will.

Everything in this poem amplifies everything else: lovers’ quarrel, press of waves, feast and layered pressure, hunger and exhaustion. The first two stanzas are complete statements, sentences. The third stanza, introducing a quick series of uncertainties and description that have the sound of assertion, produces a complete experience for the speaker, and creates another one for the reader. In the middle: a vision of the opposite of this world, a Japanese garden with its peaceful contemplations, is immediately followed by the speaker’s second and interruptive appearance. She has rowed out to effect a separation that intentionally turns back toward her own turmoil. The insight does not resolve its own tension. This is the poem’s pleasure. What this poem almost says is irreducible. This "something almost being said" is a form of eloquence, as Denis Donoghue describes in his recent book On Eloquence. Joseph Conrad wrote, “To snatch in a moment of courage, from the remorseless rush of time, a passing phase of life, is only the beginning of the task.” Funkhouser's temperament, her loyalty to the assignment, dictates a preference for cultivating over snatching, consideration over attitude. (There are, of course, honor-bound poets whose preferences are exactly the opposite. The beauty and provocation may be found, in both cases, in the management of the not-said.)

Through three subsequent books published by Houghton Mifflin, Sureshot (1992), The Actual World (1997), and Pursuit (2002), Funkhouser assembled an exemplary body of work that never hesitated to tell the reader, I’m going to give you this kind of poem. The landscape of the poems, farmland and seashore north of Boston, was both a locus and a lode, reliably presenting possibilities. Certainly, Funkhouser’s poetry is typified by a familiar set of materials; her attention is drawn to surrounding nature, the artifacts of domesticity, memories of growing up in the country. But for me, the poetry is defined not by its topics but by its reflective, confident tone of authority. This next poem from Sureshot is called “Leeks”:

The washing is legendary –
at every turn the interlacing leaves
took in muck and grit,
sucking it all the way down
to where they were keeping white.

I hold them under running water,
run my fingers down as far as I can,
thinking of the friend I had as a child.
She had lost the use of her legs.
My sister and I would carry her
into the fields, into the woods.

We carried her over our shoulders,
her legs thudding against our backs,
or we carried her between us
like a rolled-up rug.
Sometimes all three of us
collapsed laughing.

Propped up in a canoe,
she looked like someone who could walk.
In the river shallows
we scrubbed her with duckweed and moss,
capped her toes with freshwater snails,
almost believing decoration
could undo disease.

We had known her when her legs stilled worked,
so we believed their pallor
was full of potential.
As I search the washwater
for today’s succulent wicks,
my hands grow audacious and tender.

I would be perfectly content to type out several more poems like a scribe in the Great Library of Alexandria, since we learn the look and sound of insight through our susceptibility to the illuminating lines of others. To appreciate what is actually put before us is an audacious thing, and these days it takes audacity to celebrate that appreciation with “a common language of feeling.” The pallid “potential” of both disabled child and gritty leeks is a vector of insight that continues after we’ve read the poem’s final line. "The washing is legendary" -- a disruptive first line when one looks back, making the entire action and memory also "legendary," pointing beyond themselves to the mysterious enduring quality that lies within the poem's correspondences.

EricaF.jpgFunkhouser’s fifth book,Earthly, extends her string of remarkable poetry. Seemingly rooted in her homestead and garden, she has written a book of lively, strange journeys where we see “the otherworldly look of things / becoming other things before our eyes” (“Before Ruin”). In the opening poem, “Journey,” she writes, “In need of a journey, / I traveled all the way from the rose / to the potato / and kept going.” Long distances will stretch between familiar and loved objects, and memory will endow the poet with the avidity of horses eating apples, “huge animals begging for more, / all their impatience / in their lips.” The poems’ voices move through several transformations and registers. In the book’s first section, a slab of granite speaks, a visionary barn takes shape on the foundation where a real barn once stood, pumpkins multiply on the sided of a road. And, people we once were, remaining in memory, interact with those we’ve become.

RUBBING MY MOTHER’S BACK

She remembers me as restless
and impulsive, legs wrapped
around a gallop
or swimming until no one
could spot me,

so she is surprised when my fingers
with their large knuckles
stroll the miserable ridge
of her backbone
and turn up comfort.
Not a snap but a bend.

She was never one to imagine
her children’s secret destinations.
She let us stay away for hours
without worry.
In exchange for our privacy,
we brought her violets
or the skull of a fox.

Now her dry spine takes her
where it will,
reckless with age,
and she imagines the worst.

This, too, a mother:
cooing and sighing,
little gasps of horror and relief
as my hands let her know
where I am, where I am going.

We tend to recognize Funkhouser’s huge talents, mustered for and absorbed by the task at hand, in retrospect. Her work is beautifully styled, not stylish. But in the remarkable 15-part middle section, “Pome,” one is immediately struck by her virtuosity. The sequence begins with an empty apple crate: “The longer it basks in the sun, / the more the apple crate appears to fill / with plucked fruit.” The next fourteen sections fill the crate: memories of apple harvest, Johnny Appleseed planting saplings in advance of pioneers, a town edged with salt marshes, Thoreau and Stevens, names of apples, a widow mourns the death of her husband on Bunker Hill, the promise of an appleseed. But this is merely a list. Funkhouser brings all the tools out of her shed to make this series: persona poems, historical narrative, discursive imagination, description and statement, lines breaking all over the page with sudden insights. The “impatience” observed as a fact in the opening poem becomes a hunger to describe a world in “Pome.” From the eighth segment:

Town where it’s easier to get a halyard swivel fabricated
than to purchase a greeting card.
Where rhubarb, raspberries, and tomatoes for sale
are left on a table in the shade of a maple,
their prices taped to the cash box.
Where one angry citizen advertises his grievance
If you’d listened to me,
your tax bill would be $400 lower this year.

When the campfire speaks in part 14, it says our habits of perception will shed a strange light on the quaintness of the ordinary world. “A man who can see himself in a fire / is always trying to interpret the coals. // Pity, consolation, pressure -- / who knows what he drew from the heat?” And the ending:

Believe me, I know the world is cruel,
but when he stood over my circle of coals

at sunrise and the embers flickered
with the same violet-orange as the sky,

when the sizzle of my going out
made the same sound as the arrival of rain –

I was happy to be anything at all.
Anything. For as long as is allowed.

In “Gardener As Seen From Above,” the book’s prefacing poem, the gardener “will look down and down on earthliness”: “She’s sure that no one watches over her -- / a slave to earth, abandoned from above. / It’s true. We cannot keep her from herself.” This is the poet’s quiet but firm recognition, audacious, that her true self has fully emerged in the work, even though “She’s deft, or not. We’re never sure.” Louis Simpson said, “The poet’s theme is his true self. It is to be differentiated from the merely personal life.” Funkhouser qualifies the nature of who is doing the looking “down and down on earthliness” in one of the book’s final poems, a sonnet, “A Pure Production of Cells”:

A self, I thought, that’s what I want: a pure
production of cells, like ivory
or copper claws, or the ancestral azure
whose unilateral gaze meets mine exactly.

I wanted her to show herself, to ache
to brim, to banish all ambivalence,
whether she leapt out of a birthday cake
or tunneled through my blunt intelligence.

She’d master me, and in her mastery
I’d flourish like the brilliant spiral tusk
advancing from the narwhal’s alchemy
to penetrate the sea’s perpetual dusk.

Just here, our union shrinks to simile:
The beast swims on, and I am left with me.

To be earthly is both to recognize the emptiness of the apple crate as well as what is suggested by the crate’s sun-enhanced colors. The art occurs in the motion between those physical facts. Funkhouser brings a bountiful generosity to the task, but she is just as ambivalent as her world when it comes to conclusiveness. The one looking down on the gardener says, “All love’s a motion. Who knows if this is love?” Erica Funkhouser’s poems, moving out of emptiness, speak with complex and audacious answers.

[published 3/12/08, 80 pp., $22.00 hardback]