Review by Bruce Whiteman
PLANS DERANGED BY TIME: THE POETRY OF GEORGE FETHERLING
by George Fetherling
edited by A.F. Moritz
Wilfrid Laurier University Press
75 University Avenue West
Waterloo, ON N2L 3C5
2012, 64 pp,. $16.95.
If modern poetry after Baudelaire was fated to be the voice of the conurbation, the “fourmillante cité” as he called it and as T.S. Eliot cited it in The Waste Land, the postmodern poem, even in an era when the number of cities in the world with a population greater than ten million has ballooned to almost thirty, might be said to be the voice of the spaces in between, the interstices, where maladjusted individualists like poets eke out a life if not much of a living, and from where they file their reports like diplomats stationed in strange countries, or attachés working obscurely at consulates and embassies in out of the way places. They study and hone their language, but live in a linguistic community only vaguely familiar to them, a little like Ovid banished to the Black Sea for mysterious reasons to survive among barbarians who knew no Latin, slept on the hard ground, and drank the milk of sheep. Ovid wrote two whole books full of poems that pleaded for his pardon and recall to Rome. It did no good: two emperors remained impervious to his genuflections. Our poets don’t beg for anything, although their odd position makes their poems often sound like dispatches or memoranda, coded messages from places where they make do but are never at ease.
The Canadian poet George Fetherling has perfected the style that bespeaks this state of detachment and misplacement. His poems often reveal him slipping information into files, making studies of local conditions, carrying out assignments of a vague nature, and crossing borders as he moves from one undefined job to the next. In an early poem entitled “Border Catechism,” he tells a border-control agent that the purpose of his visit to some unspecified country is
To observe the passing seasons
on the ground and to study
geometry from above…
In a much more recent poem, “Opportunities for Redemption,” he still maintains that cool, diplomatic voice whose surface is rarely disturbed or disrupted by emotion and whose tenor, finally, seems a sort of coded unruffledness:
Deliverance in the nick of time
is the highlight of my day,
the part I look forward to
and reflect on at night
during someone else’s watch;
I imagine you are the same.
The rites of degustation
still mark the few of us who
were not ruined outright.
We are persons set apart: strangers
often remark that there’s
something about the eyes,
they’re not sure what exactly.
When he composes lines, in other poems, that include “One day we will not have to write in code” (“Chinese Anthology”) or “I am ready for my next assignment if there is one” (“Juice”) or even, proposing his last words, “I’m leaving town until this mess/blows over” (“Postdated,” the final poem in the book and this its concluding line), one comes firmly to believe his contention (stated in the “Afterword”) that he is motivated by “the desire to create new codes of hearing” in order, among other reasons, to “[sidestep] the cops.”
As a poet, then, Fetherling is that thing that journalists and novelists have to be, an observer who tries to remain unobserved. (He is also a fine novelist and a journalist of long experience.) He usually resists metaphor and other standard poetic tropes in favor of a version of poetic reportage. It is not that he is afraid of expressing his opinion, or of interpreting what he observes, or even of being contentiously funny. Trains shunting in a rail yard are having “rusty sex,” spring arrives “with all its factually transmitted diseases,” and the mark of a fresh generation is that “The Americans have a new war.” “First Signs of Wartime Spring,” the poem from which that last line is taken, was written in April of 2005 (so he tells us) when all of the early intelligence that led to the Iraq war was proved to have been false or misconstrued. It contains several passages in Fetherling’s “agent on the right side” voice:
Slideshow over, the screen goes white
we revert to ritual avoidance of rituals
as practised by lordly bureaucrats who seldom
deviate from what they receive.
. . . . . . . . . .
we will have no comfort to offer
consumed as we are in events we observe
yet refuse to follow.
. . . . . . . . . .
whatever I know I’ve learned by
Those last two lines, with which the poem concludes, are also vintage Fetherling in their gentle self-mockery or characteristic modesty.
Fetherling does have another voice, however, a more inward and melancholy voice that, while not necessarily any more given to figurative language, concentrates its attention on the sentient human being whose reports are rendered elsewhere with steely objectivity. This voice is less sure of itself, and therefore more moving. It is the voice that admits, in “Letter Two,” that “We all fear/that yesterday has no precedent worth applying,” but its most extended “permission to speak” is in a book-length poem about the poet’s father of which a long excerpt is included in Plans Deranged By Time. “Singer, An Elegy” from 2004 is written in couplets and comprises an emotional exploration by the son of the father’s nature and experience, written from no real evidence save the heart (“all those files have disappeared”). It is not just a memoir in verse, because Fetherling constantly upbraids himself both for his lack of knowledge about his father (“my ignorance is no less anguished”) and for his own failures (“it cripples me to realize how little I’ve done”). Readers familiar with Fetherling’s extraordinary memoir Travels By Night (1994) know how central the writer’s father is to the history of his temperament, but “Singer” goes beyond that book in its rawness and its fervor:
My best excuse for why I didn’t write this long ago
is that I’ve spent all these years in transit
to get past the the shock I can’t forget and
outstay this most superficial grief;
what I can’t overcome is the loss I feel even more sharply
as he recedes and I follow, the way generations are intended to do
by the process that deposits us back at the basics
against our will.
It is the poet “in transit” who became the attaché, and here Fetherling admits that he was not just a representative postmodern fulfilling a job description by wandering from post to post on various frontiers, but that he was in fact trying to escape an emotional vortex. (Such diplomatic characters as inhabit the novels of Graham Greene or Malcolm Lowry are clearly following the same path.) “Singer” did not work to banish Fetherling’s earlier voice, witness a recent poem like “Mappamundi” (“It is good that you reject me to keep me even/or so I have believed once or twice./At this time of year there is heightened/danger of desire”), but it has certainly given his work greater depth and range. He calls this newer voice “writing-to-heal,” but I think it is more than simply a therapeutic command; it represents the freedom of the heart to speak out loud, and it is always a benefit to poetry when that happens.
Plans Deranged By Time has been published in a series initiated by a small university press to try to give Canadian poets more attention and to make their work more easily accessible for educational use. The book, like the other books in the series, comes with an introduction by the critic who made the selection, and concludes with the poet’s brief “Afterword.” A.F. Moritz’s selection is certainly a good one, but his introduction is not going to help readers new to George Fetherling’s poetry in any manifest way. Moritz’s prose is sclerotic, sometimes ungrammatical (e.g. “the music and tone that accompanies the verbal image and carries it into the heart”), and occasionally solecistic (e.g. “a polyseamy of rooms and narrow passages”). Almost from the beginning of his “Introduction,” Moritz gets tangled up in sentences that are confusing, even when he is making sound points about Fetherling’s aspirations as a poet and what he calls a gendelettres, a man of letters. After a long opening sentence, his second sentence begins: “This is the figure that the verse of George Fetherling raises in our hearts, which then are made to become the cityscape he crosses and goes to ground in…” Raising a figure in one’s heart is awkward enough, but when our hearts are forced to become a cityscape where the poet takes refuge, I can only think that something is missing from the passage. Moritz understnds Fetherling’s work but is simply not very adroit at embodying his astute judgements in clear prose. While this fact does not in the least subtract from Fetherling’s achievement as a poet, unfortunately it gets the book off to a bad start. Fetherling deserved better.
Bruce Whiteman’s books include a selected poems (Visible Stars, 1995) and The Invisible World Is in Decline, Books I-VI (2006), a major long poem in prose. He is a regular book reviewer for The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Hudson Review, Parenthesis, Pleiades and other journals, and his poems have recently appeared in The Literary Imagination, Raritan, The Wapsipinicon Almanac, The Literary Review of Canada, The Fiddlehead, and elsewhere. Among his other books are translations of Catullus, the Pervigilium Veneris, and the Québécois poet François Charron.