Review by Corinna McClanahan Schroeder
by Ann Fisher-Wirth
627 E. Guenther
San Antonio, TX 78210
2012, 85 pp., $16.00
Ann Fisher-Wirth, the author of three previous books of poetry, including, most recently, the book-length poem Carta Marina (Wings Press, 2009), returns to the individual poem in all its many forms in her latest collection, Dream Cabinet. Perhaps most stunning to me in this latest project is the breadth of subject material that Fisher-Wirth not only covers but covers well. She grapples with both the personal and the environmental and political, from her own family lineage to the BP oil spill. Through rigorous attention and self-reflection, she makes particular what is national and even global, and she opens individual experience beyond itself to the larger natural world whose cycles exceed the scope of any one life.
The book, divided into three sections, opens first with the prelude “Slow Rain, October.” In the poem, the poet takes her first of many steps outside of time, opting not for the mindless bustle of the day but for stillness: “Sweetness of not making the bed today, / not making the body today, not making / the life today.” Quiet and dissolution become their own kind of work, and the poet finds all that is familiar around her turned strange:
I die now for a little while: even the family photos
in the Welsh cabinet by the bed are strange to me—
parents marrying, parents aging, children small,
children grown, husband and wife
(that’s I) embracing—sixty years of family.
Meanwhile, “three white roses on the Welsh cabinet / open further, ripen, slacken, begin to bruise.” The roses are, of course, our poet too. She sees in the span of framed faces her own place in time, which is a realization of mortality and also the infinite to which we return.
Fisher-Wirth’s investigations into time and family continue in the first section, whose ordering works effectively as the poems journey backwards. We begin in 1982, with the poet traveling abroad with her second husband, all the while imagining “the family [she] broke / to be with [him],” and then we move to 1972, the poet reading Mann all day and suffering the California heat, knowing that her first marriage is ending: “One night she sits till dawn, the door is open, / crickets clamor in the lemon tree, / she is not reading now, just waiting.” Instead of following a narrative forward, then, we trace it back, and so the poems’ order mimics the experience of memory itself, how we carry the past with us, perhaps growing tired under its weight, even as we ceaselessly prod and try to explain it.
We take another step backwards in time with the resonant “1928. Girl Riding,” in which the poet imagines her mother on a train bound for her freshman year of college, being carried “deeper / into twilight’s beautiful estrangement.” The poem ends with a direct address to the mother, which is also a protest against time:
get off the train you will become my mother,
so don’t, don’t, because then I will lose you:
ride forever through the tender night, as smoke
drifts around your carefully drawn lips and soft hair.
Impressive, again, is Fisher-Wirth’s ordering, as this poem of intimacy is followed by a very different kind of loss, which is the loss of never really knowing: “Heretic Narrative” reads, “[M]other, father, how little / I knew of your lives.” The poet is simultaneously connected to her deceased parents and held irredeemably apart. All the complexity of a lived life is present in these poems, and the multiplicity of emotional responses is held tensely open, never stifled in favor of one narrative.
Midway, the first section reverses its direction–having reached back, the poet now reaches forward to a grandchild, “dream-filled,” “her cells / a riot of growing,” who is, in the poem “Of a Photograph,” in the process of recognizing her own reflection perhaps for the first time. In “Family Gatherings,” too, the poet reaches to her own daughters, grown now, with “lines that are just beginning // to come around their mouths and eyes,” while she herself admits:
The power that will cast me
like a wad of leaves in the muddy river
is growing in me now. So many years I seemed
unchanging, so many years I ran through life.
Lines like this, honest meditations on one’s own mortality, one’s own self which will pass, mark some of the strongest and most poignant moments in the book, as in “Now Vow,” in which the poet admits, “The world makes you no vow. / Flies want what you offer.” In the end, then, what is there to do but enjoy the world: “The hay is white and golden in the wind. / The thistles, crowns of thorn, with light on every sepal.”
The second section is occupied by Fisher-Wirth’s long poem “Dream Cabinet,” written in eighteen sections of varying lengths and forms. The poem is, in essence, a series of observations, mediations, and protestations made during a summer stay on an island in the Stockholm Archipelago. “Dream Cabinet” works much as a fulcrum in the book, continuing the first section’s investigations but also introducing the ecopoetical concerns that continue to gain importance in the third section.
The poem begins with the poet awakened by a nightmare, and as the title indicates, dreams and the dreamlike rhythms of the world–“the lip, lip, lip of the quiet water between the islands”–are crucial to the poem and function simultaneously alongside lines written against very real environmental devastation. Indeed, the poet is working through how she can rectify desiring peace and “the silence of myself” while living in a world in crisis:
Surrounded by trees and water, I want
to be writing of peace, want to be moving into that deeper
harmony where earth and sea and sky seep into, into,
every pulse of my blood. But I keep thinking
to write of peace right now is to be a tourist.
Fisher-Wirth is not afraid either to implicate herself or to say it like it is, and throughout the poem, there are many overt lines of protestation, such as when she aptly warns that “[w]e will tip // the planet past the healing point,” and that “death will be the kind one, yet so plenteous // are our gizmos there will be no silence, no darkness / even in death. The grave, a brightly lit parking lot.”
Such blunt, even instructive moments function as one kind of ecopoetry, but another equally important kind of ecopoetry is closely-paid attention, of which Fisher-Wirth is a master. “Dream Cabinet” traces out Fogdö’s specific northern beauty, where one can “watch the sky that never turns black // grow light again,” and the poet celebrates the specificities of this place–“soft Falun red of the ramshackle summer house / soaking up shadows,” “the scrotal sponginess / of puffballs, luminescence of chanterelles,” “the tight green pinecones [that] ripen like roses.” Most importantly, the poet still yearns to enter the landscape more fully, desiring “[t]o know this place in the fullness of its seasons. / And watch the light on water, day after day, // empty out my everlasting self-regard.” This attention to detail and this insistence on knowing one little space of the world better and better is, at its core, ecopoetry. So too is Fisher-Wirth’s emphasis on putting the self in relation to the grandeur of the larger, nonhuman world.
The third section continues the ecopoetical work of “Dream Cabinet,” relocating us to the American South and Mississippi in particular, where Fisher-Wirth has lived for many years. The section opens with “BP,” which sets phrases from the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling January 2011 Report to the President against Fisher-Wirth’s own lines, revealing the fragility of a ecosystem in which a dragonfly scrubbing “its oiled face” can best be described as “filthy / iridescence” and pelicans “strain forward above the slick but / cannot rise.”
In addition to the destruction of the natural world and animal life, Fisher-Wirth also reveals the human cost of policies and actions that wreck the environment. In “Sweetgum Country,” for example, she writes of a student
burned by the sun
where pesticides sensitized his skin,
those years of his childhood, playing
in Delta cotton fields
and a Tallahatchie swamp where men and women “fish for buffalo, catfish, bass, / despite the fish advisories, the waters laced with mercury.”
Other poems in the third section are equally as political as Fisher-Wirth’s ecological poems. “Army Men,” for example, explores what war does to soldiers, including a student named Isaac, whose “eyelid twitches, small as a waterbug’s / ripples on still water,” and the poet’s own father, whose trauma she learned about only through her mother:
[M]y mother said, when she picked him up
at the Omaha train station, Christmas ’45,
she found him alone on a bench
at the far end of the room, huddled over,
head in his hands. When I asked her what was wrong
she said, If you don’t know I can’t tell you.
From here, the third section transitions, and the book ends with an incredible sense of both openness and fullness, which seem very much the result of being grounded in love and place. The poet, still vulnerable, still searching and prodding, is nonetheless at home. She is at home in her marriage in which, even during the “misery” of a fight, “this man and I are wedded at the marrow.” She is at home, too, in Mississippi where “[t]he scarlet vincas blanch and crumple” and “a strange peace rises.” She is at home even in “this old beadboard house / with its drafts and cracks and currents.” In “If Not, Winter—,” the poet writes of how, after surgery,
I have opened up my brace.
I have propped my betadine-yellow leg
and wrapped my swollen foot in cabbage leaves.
I lie here, simply breathing,
old wood of this house holding me.
Even in recovery, in pain and limited by crutches, the poet praises each element. She praises “the glacial knit of bone, / ebb of lymph, gradual shrinking of elephant skin.” She praises her husband who has cared for her and even “these bandages stuck to my knee” and, finally, “the seasons that slowly heal me.” It is this infectious attention to and appreciation of experience which makes Fisher-Wirth’s personal poems so much bigger than herself, leaving ample room for the reader to enter. She also rightly acknowledges a few pages later, in “Credo,” that, as wonderful as the world is to experience subjectively, it is much bigger than our individual lives:
But the cardinal, the birdsong, do not need you,
to pulse forward into the light. The peaches do not need you,
to swell and soften, dark with the sugars of summer.
Oh you can be the flesh their juices run down,
but you do not make the seed nor the earth it grows in.
Such lines are representative of Fisher-Wirth’s poetry, which celebrates the self and its value but warns us against putting all our stock in that self as well.
In “Over All a Mist of Sweetness,” the second-to-last poem, Fisher-Wirth writes of the “thousands of berries / these warm September days / [which] keep pushing forward,” “the little ones / lin[ing] up, still green, awaiting their turn / to ripen.” This image seems apt for so much of what Fisher-Wirth offers in Dream Cabinet. These berries are redemptive nature which pushes forward even as the earth is environmentally wrecked; these berries are also our lives and the lives of those who came before us and the lives of those who will inevitably follow. Fisher-Wirth has retold the oldest story of where we fit in time’s endless push, and she has done it beautifully well.
Corinna McClanahan Schroeder’s poetry appears or is forthcoming in such journals as Tampa Review, The Gettysburg Review, Copper Nickel, and 32 Poems. She is the recipient of a 2010 AWP Intro Journals Award in poetry and was named a Ruth Lilly finalist in 2011. She holds an M.F.A. from the University of Mississippi and is currently pursuing her Ph.D. at the University of Southern California.