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Thomas Fink reviews

Ugh Ugh Ocean, by Joanna Fuhrman

Hanging Loose Press, 2003. 72 pages,
TP: 1-931236-17-8, $13.
HC: 1-931236-18-6, $21

This piece is 850 words or about three printed pages long.

Fuhrman book cover image

In the longish sequence ‘Admonitions,’ Joanna Fuhrman announces that ‘BAD STUFF/ STILL HAPPENS/ EVERYWHERE’ and ‘We are going/ Everywhere at once/ At the speed of a dark/ Question mark and/ Grammar will not help’ (29). Ugh Ugh Ocean, her second collection, responds to the ‘bad stuff’ and the uncertainty by furnishing a witty, surreal environment, where ‘Pigeons arrive at my window in leg braces’ (‘May 26, 2000,’ 65), and delightfully useless aphorisms abound: ‘They say: cut open the intestine to feel intense’ (‘Fable’ 43). This is a locus where lively linguistic imagination and ironic desedimentation can refresh the weary traveler. Self-management, for Fuhrman, never changes the ‘dark/ Question mark’ into a confident period, but it makes for comic pathos: ‘I decided to mark my shoes. ‘Happy’ on the left foot. ‘Sad’ on the right’ (‘Knowledge Blobs’ 23).

The breezy ‘Orpheus’ Post-Orphic Confessions’ narrates the tormented bard’s whacky adaptation to contemporary ‘reality’: ‘The sun was a dying fish in the sky/ so I took the job as adman. Can you blame me?/ You trying eking a living singing about/ chop suey addicts and balloon animal/ connoisseurs’ (13). Orpheus is not ‘against the soul or anything,’ but considers it ‘one of [his] embarrassing favorites’ like a childhood transitional object: ‘I no longer bark in competition/ with the toothy stars or their invisible/ high-fallutin’ motion.’

As for overwhelming loss, his new girlfriend ‘looks enough like Eury in the dark/ to keep him from wailing.’ Many of Fuhrman’s poems refer to the possibilities of poetry, and in this case, I sense a curtailment of the poetic hunger for the sublime, a pomo acceptance of diminishment. The double de-subliming of the ocean in the book’s title is one example, and another ‘How Jejune Is This Apocalypse, Hon?’ (60), the title of a poem.

For Fuhrman, the emergence of poetry as fruitful untruth is a source of fascination. Afraid of being hauled off ‘to poet-jail’ or ‘poet-hell,’ she asks in ‘Interiors,’ one of the book’s several quasi-love poems: ‘Is it a violation of you for me to write like this,/ as if I had access to your psyche’s life?’ (40). Even if the answer is ‘yes,’ violations will continue. In ‘Essay on What I Am Most Afraid to Write About,’ Fuhrman imagines performance art in which aesthetic violence bursts through any reasonable threshold and produces tragic ‘reality,’ but a meta-moment quickly destabilizes the effect:

If the quality of art depends on the degree of emotion
it inflicts . . .

then the theater piece where I dress up as Socrates and administer
hemlock to the crowd of well-dressed subscribers

would be the ultimate achievement and the corpses
the rave reviews.

But art, I’ve heard is supposed to
protect us from real suffering.

Pure feeling, like a body within
the sidewalk’s chalk outline,
should be removed. (50)

If much art aims to induce emotional catharsis, its status as mediation — as a re-view that a reader/spectator re-re-views — disables this effort to the extent that this secondary experience cannot and perhaps would be lethal as ‘real suffering.’ Instead of a singular emotional pitch, poetry can ‘inflict’ both secondary emotion and thinking about the causes and effects of emotion.

Further, as in the work of poets associated with the ‘Language’ and ‘New York Schools,’ average attempts at ‘natural’ communication and ‘scenic’ representation are exposed as vain stabs at keeping the artifice hidden: ‘I know it’s too late now to try/ whittling sunrise to fit between/ the lines of a lit parking lot’ (‘Meaningville’ 47). While some witty poems like ‘On Glimpsing John Berryman Reborn as a Hasid’ find a kind of ‘thesis’ in their romp through ‘Meaningville,’ I find the poetry of Ugh Ugh Ocean especially exciting when connections between lines or sentences are rather difficult to fathom, as in section 3 of ‘Knowledge Blobs’:

Board a voice.


‘Just throw a glass of water in my face and I’m happy.’

Free as a dash in a crumpled letter —

Make me the last straight line.

My belief?

Trees. (24)

Since the poet probably adopts the view that no single version of a self necessarily fits a particular individual’s multiplicity, this passage can be said to refer to the strategy of adopting an available ‘voice’ provisionally and figuring out what effects it might produce. The voice of masochism is one possible choice, and the ‘freedom’ afforded by this move is especially enigmatic, because ‘a dash’ could signify a burst of energy, simple, neutral evidence of transition, or physical dismemberment/ destruction, while a single written ‘letter’ of the alphabet, an entire epistle, or legibility itself (often opposed to ‘spirit’) could be the object ‘crumpled.’ And need I even mention the ambiguity in ‘line’? ‘Belief’ in ‘trees’ may involve a faith in rooted, organic experience or, more likely, in a branching from any center.

At their best, Joanna Fuhrman’s good-natured, surreal, self-reflexive, spiralingly ironic poems resemble either ‘a sort of lyric submarine, powered by the swishing/ of optimistic pink goldfish and babbling clams’ (40) or ‘a kazoo/ so powerful it could blow brains into and out of position’s/ billowing wig’ (65).

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