Cascade Experiment: Selected Poems

Alice Fulton

W.W. Norton, 202p

May 2004

Thursday, July 22nd, 2004

In the central essay in her prose collection Feeling as a Foreign Language: The Good Strangeness of Poetry, Alice Fulton argues for the influence of Emily Dickinson, or rather, she protests critics’ failure to see Dickinson as the creator of a literary dynasty. And in her 1994 collection Sensual Math, Fulton one-ups Dickinson’s dashes with double equals signs, a mark that she says “might mean immersion,”

the sign I call a bride
after the recessive threads in lace = =
the stitches forming deferential
space around the firm design.
(“= =”, 124)

While her critical prose and works-cited notes testify to an effort to come to terms with Dickinson, in this passage at least, the poets more likely on Fulton’s mind as she writes are A.R. Ammons and Marianne Moore, particularly the Moore of collage essays such as “Marriage” and “Bowls.” It’s just as well, as this “bride sign” looks for all the world like a typo; imagine Dickinson explicating her dashes.

In this country, when a poet appears to anticipate the charge of resorting to gimmicks, and then dives into the bag of tricks anyway, we call that impending fame. Fulton, a MacArthur fellow and winner of the Library of Congress’ Bobbitt Prize, gives the impression of being genuinely ambivalent about both the liberties she is inspired to take as well as the necessity of explaining herself. In her poetics statement, “To Organize a Waterfall,” she goes beyond comment to declare her “worry” that her fourteen-page poem “Point of Purchase,” with its annotations inscribed in the handwriting of four friends, might be “seen as a gimmicky effort or cute trick.” I am relieved to learn the poem in question led other readers of 1989’s Powers of Congress to imagine they’d purchased a used book at list price; “Point of Purchase” does not appear in Cascade Experiment.

To get back to influence for a moment: An eye for the phrase or fact that will keep the reader immersed and therefore keep the collage moving, and a double concern with appearances and ethics—these are two qualities Fulton shares with Moore circa 1935. Fulton, though, shows the marks of psychoanalytic literature written after 1950, thus escaping the impossibly high standards, the incontestably good taste Moore labored under:

I do not suffer
from the excess of taste
that spells embarrassment:
mothers who find their kids unseemly
in their condom earrings,
girls cringing to think
they could be frumpish as their mothers.
Though the late nonerotic Elvis
in his studded gut of jumpsuit
made everybody squeamish, I admit.
Rule one: the King must not elicit pity.
(“About Face”, 107)

Although the exuberance of these poems occasionally gives Fulton an opportunity to criticize herself (“flaccid vivacity” is the harsh and striking way she puts it), the affect that comes through is lively, the insight piercing. Since most of her work is first person monologue, these are fortunate traits indeed.

To digress: There is a ledger-book mode of criticism that continues to lead many public readers to find fault rather than to account for the experience at hand. There is also a ledger-book style of poetry, written to obey to the rules of a group rather than to pursue an inquiry or narrative; those who would rebel against a rule are often in fact obeying its inverse: e.g., the poem avoids/embraces cliché; the narrative is seamless/interrupted as often as possible. This is a fine black-and-white theoretical discussion, until you get to the subject of taste.

Driving home these bitterly Michigan nights
I often pass the silver bins of pigs
en route to the packing house. Four tiers to a trailer.
A massive physical wish to live
blasts out the slits
as the intimate winter streams in.
A dumb mammal groan pours out and December pours in
freezing the vestments of their skin
to the metal sides, riddling me
with bleakness as I see it. As I see it,

it’s culturally incorrect to think
of this when stringing pig lights on the tree.
It’s chronic me.
(“Some Cool”, 111)

As with Elvis, so with the swine to the slaughter; material beyond the bounds of good taste provides Fulton with the sufficient conditions for a poem. “Some Cool” is a horrifying poem, part matter-of-fact account of how pigs resist their mass-butchering, part self-examination of Fulton’s empathy for the animals as well as the people whose job it is to kill them. Try as she might to cast herself as a rebel against propriety—note the subliminally non-standard use of bitterly instead of bitter, and just what subcategory of the pathetic fallacy does the phrase intimate winter fall under?—she is something rarer and more substantial: She is real.

Some poets move on from the secure but stultifying habit of fulfilling some dead one’s proscriptions, a period sometimes referred to as apprenticeship, to undertake the frightening and rewarding process of learning to create on their own terms, whatever that means. For Fulton, the placeholders of her first book start giving way to memorable qualities on the second page of “The Body Opulent,” a poem coming early in her second book in which she relates visiting a steel magnate who doubles as a faith healer:

He put his hands around my neck and squeezed.
Each cell got busy, singing
the dawnsong of its name;
my body suddenly felt worth its weight
in light, as if I held the sky
above an earthquake—the magenta glow
made by electric fields and shifting
plates—inside each artery and vein.
After thirty minutes he backed off
to give the news. “It’s true, you have a cardiac
screw loose. But I’ll tell you what
to do. Smile. Meditate
like you did tonight. Remember
you don’t have to kiss anybody’s fanny.
You’re going to be all right.”
(27)

Fulton’s fulsome dawnsong and magenta could be written off with the shorthand “over the top” but as we’ve seen over and over that’s one criticism she’s always ahead of by a step:

Delacroix, old realist, got so excited
entering a harem’s room
he had to be calmed
down with sherbets. Passion!
(“Works on Paper,” 42)

It is to be regretted that Norton did not bring out a new collection at the same time as this selection. May Fulton produce new books as frequently as Ammons did, and not as seldom as Moore; I’d rather not wait four more years for the chance to fall for this hustle again.

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5 Responses to “Cascade Experiment: Selected Poems”

  1. Jonathan Mayhew Says:

    “calmed / down with sherberts.” That’s great. I need to be calmed down with sherberts after reading this review. I liked the observation about the “ledger-book” schools of criticism (and poetry). Very astute. I’ll have to look at Fulton’s poetry, which I don’t know at all.

  2. Lee Sullivan Says:

    Ah, the divine Miss F! I’m a fan of her work. Have everything she’s written at this point including this new book, and I second she’s important and real, has done really new things with language. I also second what you said about raising the bar with every book she’s published rather than just regurgitatimg the same successful poem. About those gutsy == signs — I don’t think she was “one-upping” Emily. Her essay on Emily is very respectful. Those == signs (especially in Felt) made language do things it hadn’t done before. Like Emily. But not better than Emily. (Wouldn’t it have been great if she had said something about her dashes? Might have saved us from a lot of balderdash being written about them today.) Nice going, Jordan Davis!

  3. Kyle Coleman Says:

    I just read an excellent interview with Alice Fulton on the Atlantic online site. She talks about some of this.
    http://www.theatlantic.com/unbound/interviews/int2004-07-13.htm

  4. Jennifer Russell Says:

    Hi Constant Critics,

    I’m writing to thank you for the provocative
    review of Alice Fulton’s new book. Though I
    sometimes enjoy reviews of books I’ve never
    read, I prefer reviews about poets whose
    work I know somewhat since then I can think
    along with the reviewer pro or con.

    I first read Sensual Math a couple of years
    ago when my math-geek now ex boyfriend gave
    me a used copy because he thought it might
    make him seem like he had a clue. It didn’t
    help and it doesn’t matter but the book is
    maybe the one good thing that came from a
    bad situation. It was good enough to get me
    to buy Felt, which I like even more. Anyway,
    I have a comment on one sentence in the
    review that caught my attention and made me
    think: “In this country, when a poet appears
    to anticipate the charge of resorting to
    gimmicks, and then dives into the bag of
    tricks anyway, we call that impending fame.”
    Since the reviewer is generalizing, I wonder
    what other poets he has in mind? Jorie
    Graham’s rampant dash or midline blanks in
    The End of Beauty? I also wonder whether
    “gimmicks” is a word people use to control
    and discourage change or “experiment?”

    I don’t know Fulton, but if she does have
    ambivalence and self-doubt, that’s refreshing.
    Does anyone else get the impression that many
    A-list poets are almost sickeningly sure of
    themselves? I can relate to Fulton’s concern
    with appearances and ethics. I hadn’t really
    thought of her in those terms till I read
    this review, and it helps.

    A Constant Reader,
    Jennifer Russell

  5. William Donovan Says:

    To the Editor:

    I enjoy this site for the opinions it offers on current poetry — not just
    the reviews but the responses as well. The review and discussion of Lucie
    Brock-Broido is a good example of how constantcritic is helping readers
    better understand contemporary poetry.

    In his review of Fulton’s Selected Poems, Jordan Davis gets some things
    right, but I wish he’d pursued a couple of his opinions a little farther
    because at times I wasn’t sure what he was implying. For instance, he notes
    that the poem with hand-written annotations, “Point of Purchase,” isn’t
    included in the Selected, but I don’t know what he makes of this poem or its
    exclusion. When I first saw this poem in Powers of Congress, I was one of
    those who thought my copy had been written in. It was an inventive, bold,
    funny, mind-blowing long poem, and in my opinion, it remains so to this
    day. “Point of Purchase” was concerned with commodification, art,
    art-criticism, reader responses, the instability of the text, and many more
    “issues” that have come to the fore today. Jordan Davis quotes Fulton’s
    worries about the poem’s reception, but he doesn’t summarize her exegesis
    from that same essay, which convincingly shows how profound and inventive
    the poem is. With “Point of Purchase,” Fulton truly thought “outside the
    box,” pushed the conventional envelope. It was a mistake to leave it out of
    the Selected.

    One last thought: While I agree that it’d be nice to have books more often
    from Fulton, did your reviewer have to phrase the wish as “I’d rather not
    wait four more years for the chance to fall for this hustle again?” It
    leaves the impression that this thoughtful and daring poet is a hustler,
    which she definitely is not. She’s one of a few writers with the ability to
    change the course of literature.

    William Donovan

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