On the face of it, it seems a difficult task to write about things that have never been seen or known. Perhaps this task is one for painters, splashing paint on large canvases in ways manifestly human yet, at the same time, unrealized and unrecognizable. Writing about what is not yet known might involve an amount of destructiveness, a rejection of things that are known. Futuristic conceptions invariably seem to me tinged with fantasy--creatures with six eyes, space suits, ray guns, being jettisoned to workplaces. Not much help. Where’s the groaning, the tedium? Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court should have been pointed in the other direction: Connecticut Yankee in the Court of Ming the Merciless.
In her new book of poetry, Dovecote, from Edge Books, Heather Fuller claims to be fashioning a poetry out of avowed ignorance but it really is out of disavowed faith. Her premise is a good one, perhaps dating to the nineteenth century and Mark Twain to some degree. As they attempted to establish themselves, art, literature sought exalted concepts such as ‘the divine’ ‘the beautiful’ ‘the noble.’ As they gained maturity, these artistic disciplines began to search into dubious realms, the bedroom, for example, or the mighty Mississippi River, with its hard falls, its crooks, its black smoke. In Werner Herzog’s movie Aguirre, the Wrath of God about conquistador explorers, the whole expedtition is wiped out in the middle of nowhere.
The sum of this journey is that artists, writers (I do not exclude musicians or any type of creative artisan) are free to embody, describe, separate into fundamental parts any concept, not merely the ones previously considered suitable. A modern painting can portray ‘ugliness’ rather than ‘beauty’. A literary work can capture meanness rather than nobility or sadness rather than joy.
I say all this because a substantial number of readers might read Dovecote and think it isn’t poetry. They might think it isn’t good poetry which would be a mistake. Perhaps I’m too defensive. But it seems a point worth making that what for the sake of this discussion might be called ‘modern art’ is oblique. It is what it isn’t. It is what it seems to be. If it is confused that is because it is representing life’s confusion. If it sends a message of desolation, that may be because it isn’t in the mood to cheerfully advise. If it seems to be sick it could be that it is positing a viewpoint of unhealth. If it lacks traditional ‘words to live by’ that may be because its universe is predicated on uncertainty.
More and more, writing, artworks are universes, cosmologies, products of the writers’ and artists’ divine laws. Books of poetry are generated from predetermined parameters. They are demonstrations of the metaphysics of words. They don’t tell you what to do; they prove the importance of certain considerations. They give evidence of existence.
It seems useful to compare Dovecote to another recent book of poetry The Good House by Rod Smith. Both Fuller and Smith are Washington, D.C. poets. Along with others, including Buck Downs and Mark Wallace, they are active in editing and writing especially poetry that searches contemporary society for basic, unchanging elements. Dovecote parallels The Good House. A dovecote is a pigeon coop, a house of doves. Both books sketch a frame of moral or ethical architecture. I think Smith’s book is more straightforwardly philosophical, more tenets and statement. A pigeon coop has different connotations than a house. It’s messier. It’s put together more with only chicken wire and a few nails. It would be more symbolic, both dove and pigeon being birds with many associations. In the Old Testament, the dove, unlike birds of prey, was a ‘lawful’ animal to eat.
she who goes back therein
a family of boxes is liable
to go Cartesian A B
to be around to save the kin
she is around as if she will stick
around as long as saving
is a magic bullet in the myth
of staying the magic bullet in
the likelihood of a stereopticon
Dovecote is a book based on laws, although these are literary and artistic and sometimes idiosyncratic laws. Its writing is a textual ether of moral order. It may not make sense in a grammatical manner but underneath it gives the feeling of sense. One of its laws is that only rejected material has relevance to the future. Another is that the scrap evokes the teeming sum. Another would be the law of its medium: the printed word is inescapably faceless and philosophical.
(from ‘full logic system’)
installing the Baltimore Glassman
in benefactor’s quarters
in another institution
where there was first aid
but no Inspector
for every tax incentive
the geese or the Glassman
the door or the pocket
every article slipping
In the poem ‘stricken [from]’, the listing of words and phrases with double spacing in between, set off by typographical graffiti, succeeds in becoming a list of decrees or club rules: ‘houndstooth/ accordian attache/ bounty hunter provisions’. From Fuller’s pen, all words amazingly gain a specialness. Anything and everything are included. Poems I liked were ‘The Hopper Cult’, ‘You Follow’ and ‘junk’. But the poems are uniformly fun, rich, free. The excellent design and layout of the book highlight this.
Dovecote is slapdash and thrown onto the page, like throwing out greasy dishwater. It switches styles, strains consistency, includes drawings. It’s all over the place and rightly so. It’s somewhat crazy, creating little worlds/ poems by repeating words like ‘glomming’ and ‘poking your eye out’ and ‘somewhat sick.’ It talks about the living as though they were dead and about the dead as though they were living. It is occasionally descriptive, not out of nostalgia for home but out of a wish to tack up some surface referents, like the ubiquitous houses on the sunny hill or the ‘left turn only’ sign.
More than anything, it is obscure, as though at some point it was a nice, clear, understandable piece of writing that its author decided in protest to turn backward at every place that it appeared nice, clear and understandable. Only the criminals really know anything about ethics. Dovecote is like a Hebrew pilgrim that each day penitently walks to a tall wall to pray about his sins in poignant contrast to the enormous corruption hidden on the other side of the wall. In focusing on the actual it gives a genuine idea of the possible.
The business of poetry is not clarity but a sense of unknown things to come, of perfection, of exhilaration in the face of despair.