Review by Catherine Staples
by B.K. Fischer
Truman State University Press
Kirksville, Missouri 63501
2011. 89 pp., $18.00
Self-assured, lyric, and deeply moving, B.K. Fischer is a mesmerizing reader. In March, I heard her read from her T.S. Eliot-prize-winning volume, Mutiny Gallery, at the AWP conference in Boston. Within about ten minutes, I was fairly certain that she, like me, was a mother of three, though I cannot say why. Perhaps it was her comprehensive riff on children’s books, all the classics my husband and I had read hundreds of times, then, too, there were her knowing sketches of a young boy’s gestures and perceptions, a keen accuracy of age and development. Since then, the book has traveled with me from bedside table to car to coffee shop to the breakfast table; all the while I’ve made notes, dog-eared pages, and admired.
Mutiny Gallery is a mother/son road trip in verse, punctuated by stops in quirky, all-over-the-map roadside galleries—many drawn from a book of museums, others more closely approximating metaphysical and psychological states. The “mutiny” alluded to in the volume’s title is a rebellion against the tyranny of an abusive relationship. This road trip is essentially a flight fueled by fear; mother and son flee an abusive husband/ father. His appearance is brief yet sobering. The father’s random violence defines Claire and Max’s itinerant existence—from the necessity of Fritos for lunch to the twin credos of “keep the deadbolt on” and “he’ll never find us if we keep moving.” Fischer brilliantly distills the icy economies of their predicament:
out of reach of direct deposit
and his arm flung heavy as gold
over her chest while she slept.
You feel the gold-laden weight of that arm, pinning her down. Even the rhyme seems to conspire with the dire equation of ample funds and imprisonment: “deposit,” “chest,” “slept.” Although domestic abuse and poverty give the flight the knife-edge of reality, it doesn’t so dominate the book’s varied strands as to preclude all else.
Fischer pulls off an array of shifting tones, a complex and believable weave of voices. The shifts in tone are like the give-and-take of light when swimming in extraordinarily deep-water: peril is counterbalanced by fierce delight, then shot through with fear, and then steadied, despite all circumstance. In “Museum of Motion,” you feel the exhilaration of the escape, the last-minute flight, the mother’s resolve reflected in the haste of their departure, the tripping rhythms of her thought:
No more minutes,
only miles, breaking it down into distance:
five, ten, fifty. Shot, jigger, fifth. Flare
jack, spare. Make like a banana and. Like
a prom dress …
These lyric alliterative shifts—from miles to numbers to liquor to car parts—whip loose into the not-quite-ellipsis of phrases with missing words. We’re already so complicit, we nearly shout out: “split” and “off.” (For those without sassy teenagers, the expression is “off like a prom dress.”) In the next poem, the tone modulates, and gesture does all the work. You needn’t be a parent to intuit the boy’s startled joy at being invited into the front seat of the getaway car, “He knocks the rearview mirror sideways/ clambering over the seat to sit beside her” (“Geographic Society”). Anyone who has logged long hours reading classic children’s books will revel in her splendid mash-up of everything from The Owl and the Pussy-Cat and Curious George to Cat in the Hat, Peter Rabbit, and Runaway Bunny in “Museum of the Alphabet.”
The power of imagination is sustaining in many of these poems. Claire and Max’s freedom swells in poems like “Motel Turkey,” where the two kick off their shoes on the twin beds, playing at islands and sea—like the world of Peter Pan brought to life, where the impossibility of dangling a foot into the shark and crocodile-infested water is pure delight and respite. They become geographic explorers, adventurers who
… steer their dream canoe
all the way to the Orinoco. He says, in my language
the Y is always silent. A marshmallow counts
for less than a Cracker Jack peanut. She lets him
dribble milk on the straw wrapper to see
the snake uncoil …
Fischer is fluent in the language of childhood, its imaginative range. Set this piece side by side with “Frog Fantasies Museum,” and you begin to see how the galleries function as metaphors, revealing and furthering the portrait of the young boy. She writes: “They could live here forever/ between land and water, toes/ clinging to the underleaf, he, /suspended, splendid, in the stage/ just past tadpole.” The precise imagery and echoing interior rhyme celebrate this child on the luminal cusp until the conceit extends a bit further, and you’re snapped back by the thought of formaldehyde and a “novice’s clumsy scalpel.” Then, too, the reality of the all-night light of the Tropica Disco and an angry man’s shout impinge upon the brief idyll.
Another reason this road trip feels so real is because of the peculiar funky feel of these museums where you might find a box of shark teeth, all the words to the Beatles’ songs, and a stalagmite “shaped like a fried egg.” There are places where rooms double as churches and—when the chairs are folded up— become again a tribute to Ripley of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not fame. But they are also odd refractions, broken shards of mirrors that chart the changing states of awareness in mother and child. Max dreams his father’s scarf is choking him and wakes wheezing. And in another poem rife with Fischer’s characteristic fluent riffs, the tone comes about hard as the boom in an accidental jibe when Claire asks:
What if the one full moon had never
ripened, the one error never slipped,
traveled its telescopic distance,
caught hold, caught in her, become him.
Would she be free?
The question of faith is never far off. You intuit the Hail Mary’s and Glory Be’s long before you see the rosaries parsed on the grips of the steering wheel. Like the flimsy apparatus of the church’s folding chairs, the makeshift is good enough. This mother is not to be daunted, despite everything, despite all improbability, “she finds herself believing with the ragged force/ of renunciation, the anyway dangling off the I believe” (“Church of One Tree”). Max, like his namesake in Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, is sustained by a lively imagination and alert intelligence. Above all, for better and for worse, these two are bound to one another. What comes through most fiercely in this beautiful debut volume is the intensity of the mother and son bond and the deft capture of the child’s changing perspective as he swings forward towards adolescence.
Catherine Staples is the author of The Rattling Window (Ashland Poetry Press, 2013) which won the McGovern Prize. Her poems have appeared in Blackbird, Prairie Schooner, The Southern Review, Commonweal, Third Coast, and The Michigan Quarterly Review among others. Her chapbook, Never a Note Forfeit, (Seven Kitchens Press, 2011) was awarded the Keystone Prize. She teaches in the Honors program at Villanova University and lives with her husband and children in Devon, PA. (www.catherinestaples.com)