on Rising, poems by Farrah Field (Four Way Books)
“In a poem,” wrote Laurie Sheck, “it is not enough to tell the hidden story. The question is also how to look at the subterfuge, the cover, how power functions to block out what it can’t absorb, what would undermine it.” She maintains that language, usurped by insidious forces, must be interrogated, broken down, and re-educated before we can trust its allegiance to Us, not Them. Ann Lauterbach seems to concur when she says, “Poetry is the aversion to the assertion of power. Poetry is that which resists dominance.”
Poetry has always hijacked the language for its own ends. Yet it also wields power, or rather, it gives voice to strengths that would displace power or at least nudge it off its game. “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting,” said Milan Kundera. Memory kindly reminds us of what we actually are, and that is because we forget just like the power-purveyors. Sometimes memory so successfully reminds a poet how fragmented she is that her subject becomes the inefficacy of her attempts to capture the essence of her grief (or anything else). She tries and tries. What is the “power” that disables her ability to find peace after tragic experience? Or is she just creating theater, exerting power over a passive audience?
This brings us to Farrah Field’s debut, Rising. One of the most curious things about the collection is a mid-book poem called “In Opelousas.” Field generally prefers abrupt segues, wrenched syntax, and shredded context, but in this poem she unexpectedly devises a longer, prosaic line and a relatively straightforward narrative. The poem begins:
I wore a picture of my sister throwing bread to ducks at the candlelight
memorial for victims of domestic violence. Only so much is let out
of a face and I read in folk Someone killed your someone too.
The voice here is about as even-tempered as it gets in Rising. The recollections appear as congealed, whole impressions: “A year ago, Mama admitted that he once pushed my sister out of his truck / on the highway.” The final lines: “After kissing her casket goodbye, // I cried so hard I forgot who I was. Someone touched my arm. What’s an arm?”
Field works her way to this rendition of her sister’s death via poems that are more jittery and fragmented, such as “The Telling”:
A young boy was on TV, explaining
how he found my sister’s body,
I sometimes begin. Eyes redden.
The newspaper’s words: “Heather Field,”
“husband” and “murder-suicide.”
The telling has its own rhythm.
First she was beaten,
then struck with a hatchet.
Then casket, cakes from neighbors.
Her daughter was in the next room.
I never say the mother-in-law
cooks in that same kitchen,
never say there was no garage door;
he lifted her into his truck in daylight.
Murders happen all the time.
I really lost it walking from her new grave
to the car. Then the subject changes.
Someone tells me I’m so strong.
The shock of memory is embodied in the rattled obliquity of the remarks, a fashion connoting originality as well as emotional authenticity. Such a stylist makes (or at least strongly implies) two not quite conjoining statements about her own language. First, I have found a language appropriate to the terrible thing I want to speak about. Second, this telling “has its own rhythm” and I’m not entirely in control.
But there is a third statement, obscured by the foreground of the other two: I have the power now, I have survived this world, and I have the microphone. In “The Telling,” “Someone tells me I’m so strong” (meaning the “I” in the poem feels unstable). But the “I” who speaks is someone made complex and ambitious by the experiences she relates.
This is the kind of poetry that falters when trading too insistently on emotional damage, a broken thing too brightly or ominously lit, its shards too gaudy or ghostly. For the work to succeed, the breakage may be final but not its significance. Somehow the poem must live as a whole thing, overcoming its own circumstances. Field is fearless in this sense, refusing to understate the profound source of agitation, allowing a certain raggedness in her diction to reach the border of affectation, a speech constantly a step behind its object. The telling in “The Telling” never says what it would.
Rising is superb in its design and pacing, especially in the progression toward “In Opelousas” at the mid-point. Its materials are various, sorting out memories of childhood, family, transiency and locales, life in the country, adolescent and adult sex, and the immutable fact of the murder of Heather Field. The persona in charge of integrating everything is both haunted and haunting. In “Vixen,” both aspects swirl around together; the one speaking wields the vixen’s intuitive power, the “you” she addresses is a candidate for vixenhood:
He whispers your name and it is louder
than your maneuver of dressing, louder
than the door’s inchcry. Fey vacillation:
chin tucked in the cowl of your sweater,
he won’t take what you won’t give, tamed
distance and the work of it, nimble or not.
Field’s speakers live in the furious aftermath of knowledge, having recognized their similarity to the world they live in. But they are still antagonistic to it, angry with it. In “The Disturbed Mississippi,” the river is a “Bible-leather Vesuvius … weird and monstrous, heart / and damned.” The river teaches “We suffer / violent learning that terrible things are great things.” The landscape signifies a brooding, implacable, and sometimes ruthless force that impregnates everything and everyone. In “Louisiana Phone Call,” Field writes, “If my sister hadn’t been killed, / I’d tell you about my new man, // where I met him and his humming,” concluding with “Everyone who can think has a weapon.”
Rising is fixated on the difficulty of using language to generate meaning when this other, indistinct, merciless power (suddenly quite distinct when raising a hatchet to kill) invalidates the conventional ways of explaining things. Field’s efforts are a word-at-a-time reconstruction of a self. “There is wisdom I crave to own, / but I heard you crying on the couch,” she writes in “Heart-Certain.” But simple communication merely distracts: “Mississippi clouds crouch low / for interrogation: Tuesday meat loaf // and where did you put the wooden spoon? / Strength is nothing but coloring my dark.” Again, we hear the disparity between the poem’s “I” and the speaker, weakness and latent strength, powerlessness and influence.
Stark scene, homespun detail, bits of dialog, the pared-down wisdom in local sense and private reckoning: these are the elements of many of Field’s poems. The first half of “Porch Music” below, Field’s slouch into odd phrasing stiffens up and the details ably carry the weight:
A train came through once.
A wheelbarrow rusts. You drive
to Lafayette to watch drunk men
chase a chicken and this is not odd.
The mold on your house warms
the porch music of mosquitoes
and neighbors’ nods. This is what it is,
wisteria’s clench and crack: you have
three shirts and a chapped mouth.
In “Febricity” (does she mean “febrility?”), Field writes, “Some beings force others / into poor adventures.” The poem’s scenario is obscure. A female (“Miss Hot”) and a male (“He’s like a bruise to press, // not quite black or blue, / just the soft part of a banana / or Texas”) enter a room. Some “poor adventure” is about to transpire between them. Which of the two is doing the coercing? Perhaps both. Field is usually successful in elevating fragments of cryptic observation into monuments of malfeasance, but sometimes a sliver is just a sliver.
Farrah Field is a poet with compressed, coiled powers that could very easily manipulate us into “poor adventures.” Instead, she manipulates us into a fitfully imagined, shrewdly arranged, fiercely spoken, startling world of desire and ruination. Rising recruits its readers to wreak vengeance on what would block our humanity by unblocking the language we use to describe what actually happens.
[Published March 15, 2009. 72 pages, $15.95 paperback. Recipient of the Levis Prize, judged by Tony Hoagland.]
This review is reprinted from the online literary and book review The Quarterly Conversation. Please visit by ckicking here.