Review by J. Scott Brownlee
SILT WILL SWIRL
by John Fry
2012, 27 pp., $4.99 (Kindle Edition)
John Fry’s first chapbook-length collection silt will swirl is concerned with the body and its relationship to landscape—particularly the queer male body positioned squarely amidst the drought-plagued, dust-thick zero-scapes of southwest Texas. A native of this region himself, Fry superimposes blue-collar imagery, his own bilingual heritage, and a stripped down, ever-questing essentialist poetics against a backdrop of specific people and places that help situate and guide his reader.
One of Fry’s favorite techniques—inter-rupture—allows him to shift poems’ focus and pace in radical, still-graspable ways that make what would otherwise be cryptic, post-structuralist language experiments feel like intimate, concrete thought-fragments that burst into characteristically Texan love songs. As the wildflowers bloom in his work, so too does Fry’s voice, shifting from high registers of metaphysical questing (e.g., “is body the shape of soul—is soul the shape of body”) to small seed-packets of intimate physical detail (e.g., “—Judas kissed Jesus—did Christ kiss him back”).
Beginning in the form of a letter to the beloved with standard adherence to grammar and syntax, “pieces of an imaginary ode” provides excellent evidence of this:
In the clean, clean heartbreak of Spring, the angle of reflection does not equal the angle of incidence when the surface in question is none other than that nettlesome otherwhere formerly called el corazón. lately, I’ve been reading Spicer, which has made me want to ask the radio if its waves are like the breath of
how does God signify
can syntax make manifest
the bare word
Language-made-naked is one of Fry’s most obvious and abiding obsessions throughout this collection—especially language stripped to such an essential quality that it loses the typical “either/or” parsing a reader expects from prose (and, in many cases, poetry). For Fry, what can be said is less interesting than what is actually happening in the background of what is said. Getting at that “happening” requires his poetics to at times dart wildly and playfully, seemingly out of control:
I only know
I loved you once but
there will be too many
I do not know the future.
military airplanes in this poem.
What is to be admired about Fry’s work, though, is that it never is: even when cutting a poem like “pieces of an imaginary ode” into two distinct personas in order to achieve a desired emotional effect of dissonance, danger, and physical separation from the beloved. “[W]e have one tongue” the poem goes on to claim—and ultimately earn—by including in its experimental toolkit a willingness to accrue logic by degrees. The end result is a poetics that can be as oblique, fragmented, and emotionally jarring as poets like D.A. Powell (especially early Powell) and C.D. Wright while simultaneously maintaining a discernible and pleasurably excavated narrative much experimental poetry of the same vein lacks.
Many of silt will swirl‘s poems also employ a strategy of language collage that places English alongside Spanish—generating music and meaning from a juxtaposition of the two tongues. This section of “genius loci” provides an excellent example:
it’s una herida abierta
1,950 miles long
Tijuana to Tejas
all the way aquí to allá
knee-deep en la frontera
late August fireflylight
cicadas & junebugs choiring
their ruckus in our ears
trudging through nepantla
as catfish breathe muddy
you heard it here first
& three days after
como que lie
why would I
an abuela swears she did
Nuestra Señora’s face
as the tortilla darkened in the comal
silt will swirl down the Nueces
when the priest came to call that afternoon
candlewax already obscured her rose-strewn steps
Fry’s use of Spanish complements and complicates his already metaphysically-charged, sonically-rewarding poetics, which quests the landscape’s body as much as it does that of the queer beloved (e.g. in “pieces for an imaginary ode” the body of another man):
& in the distance between the remembered
& the forgotten, where hell should exist,
a dozen red roses sang to a nest
of wasps fallen in a war with gulf winds.
where hell should exist, there
in the distance between petal & spent
stinger—rival, honey, friend
—I hold you there.
Think of Fry as a Texan Whitman born in an era in which Whitman’s near-mystical desire for his Camerado is replaced by a love of place and person that casts a wide metaphysical net in its search for the source of the poet’s yearning.
“If radio waves undulate more slowly than light’s inscrutable speed, but faster than red’s lowest rung—I nearly wrote lung!—those not quite blue godsteps at the margins of thought, does that say anything about Creation?” Fry playfully (but also seriously) asks. His is a voice that remains unsatisfied even as it discovers and discusses the beauty of the material world. For Fry, there is another world circling this one that remains just out of reach—except in rare moments of poetic ecstasy when it can be partially apprehended. Take, for example, this section of “genius loci”:
kiss Gringolandia goodbye ¡y bienvenidos!
that warm wind’s lick like a mama cat’s
tongued sweat slicking the inner thigh
at least listen to the radio gods if you don’t believe me
quinceñeras cost as much as weddings
elsewhere, & we are, altogether
novenas for luck lottery numbers & unbelieving mothers
as many tejano stations on the radio as there are ways to die
death has a body here
evil, an eye
As the chapbook progresses, it becomes more and more apparent that Fry perceives and responds to America’s current immigration debate by framing his own relationship to a Mexican beloved other-ed and outcast by current immigration laws. While his readers may not be able to share directly this experience with Fry, the poet does an excellent job of fleshing out his own experience so that we, too, can come to at least partially understand what it means to love across a border wider at times, even, than longing itself:
if the limits of our worlds are the limits of our words
y amorcito no hay puentes
hermoso is it when we touched very cleft of skin intoned
my morninglight body against your gloaming own
cuando Méxicano you threaded with Anglo me
over all this barbed wire
solamente los puentes que hacemos
no wonder one tongue has never been enough
Rarely is there so much to praise, explore, reckon with, and respond to in a poetry chapbook of only twenty-seven pages. An indication of much exciting work to come, silt will swirl promises much critical success for one of contemporary’s poetry most accomplished and historically relevant young voices. Fry’s is a page I anticipate returning to for many future reads—and not simply for its Texas-ness, though that is certainly a draw from my biased place-poet perspective. His is a poetry that reaches out to form a lasting emotional connection with its reader (rather than attempting to frustrate, obviate, and/or repel), and I predict that Fry will find many willing readers in the years to come—both in his native state and elsewhere.
J. Scott Brownlee is a Writers in the Public Schools Fellow at New York University, where he teaches poetry to undergraduates and fifth graders through the Teachers & Writers Collaborative. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Rattle, Beloit Poetry Journal, Ninth Letter, Nashville Review, The Greensboro Review, BOXCAR Poetry Review, The South Dakota Review, and elsewhere. A Pushcart Prize nominated poet-of-place, Brownlee writes primarily about the people and landscape of rural Texas and is a founding member of The Localists, a new literary movement that emphasizes place-based writing of personal witness, cultural memory, and the aesthetically marginalized working-class, both in the United States and abroad.