Is there anything that all of the poems in Great Guns do? As I read Farnoosh Fathi’s first collection, I found recurrences (worms, birds, other animal presences; mirrors and eyes; approaches) and preoccupations (intimacy, transformation); I also found the poems differing, one to the next, along nearly every axis, so that the measured and scenelike “Honey / Manila Portfolio”, whose terms are set by its beginning, is preceded by feverish self-scrutiny in “Gold Dolt”’s jumpy mix of line lengths and lush connotations, and followed by “Approaching a Dry-Eyed Whale,” each of whose lines rests and settles before breaking, and parts of which are oddly aphoristic: “That is how hunger / comes so close to education.” They seemed to be using different means to get to different places, and I couldn’t figure out why they were all together.
That I wanted to--that I’m even asking this question--may reveal more about me, and the kind of poetry books I tend to read, than it does about Fathi’s work. On my shelves, I see book-length poems like Eleni Sikelianos’s California Poem, and Nathaniel Mackey’s many-booked Song of the Andoumboulou; use of a fixed form and a fairly consistent bombastic-prophetic voice in I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say by Fathi’s pressmate Anthony Madrid; Lara Glenum’s onslaughts of mutated and neologistic sound in Maximum Gaga; verse narratives like Culture of One, Autobiography of Red and The Book of Frank; book-long and book-deep procedures and constraints of all kinds. Whatever else they do, these make the unit of reading the book rather than the poem, whereas the unit of reading in Great Guns is absolutely the poem.
When I realized this, I thought it might be time to revisit Dorothea Lasky’s essay chapbook Poetry Is Not a Project. Lasky writes:
Nowadays, critics and scholars often refer to an entire body of work by one poet as a “project”, but I don’t think poems work that way. I think poems come from the earth and work through the mind from the ground up. I think poems are living things that grow from the earth into the brain, rather than things that are planted within the earth by the brain … [T]o create something like a poem, means that the outside world of an artist and the drives within her blend and blur.
What drives the poems in Great Guns ? Some of them feel and sound as though a few birds, sitting in a bush or on a chain-link fence, had opened their mouths and poured out complex choral arrangements--a rushing, springing freedom wedded to attentive orchestration:
So this breezy mystery bruise is also earth’s! She reads on; the yellow gulls arc and link at her breast; winter cracks the whites of her eyes, strange shapes egress! Too easy to forget, and in no less than human fashion, grief leaks its combination. … She wipes and weeps to her taste, but how fast, too fast, things rise! The meadows they made once, tops, over which chance angles light a clover. “That thicket horsetail rain which I polished as a child stands up to me now.” (5)
Great Guns opens with a slice of Rimbaud, and the above excerpt from “Letter” reads like him to me--exclamatory and awed prose, with elements of the nonhuman world freshened by an aura of human significance. Then I come to poems that read like the records of visions, or like myths, absolute and insistent: “And to the lightning foot, my foot quick to sympathize, they chained a pine 20-foot long and gave me a shove toward the 1,000 clouds. (30)” Something is happening, something extreme, something that cannot happen or can’t be described as if it could happen.
But then poems like “Worm Rally” recall Bishop, Dickinson and Plath in their lucid and methodical investigations of ontology, mortality and feeling, turning in this case to make investigation itself their focus:
The two signals the worm knows most frequent the earth
are death and beauty, this gives its flesh
the life-long purpose of embedding spring, taut, the spine of
pulled out by gardeners--What pleasure in looking,
even at the worm, especially at the living worm, one said
--as long as we know the worm’s why
because we are most bound to take pleasure in learning
of any form, in understanding even
how to grip the squirm, vigilant and clean-beaked--(13)
There’s a mockery there of examination and result: “Worm and word, something so light and indefinite / will never leave this circle.” But then in “Iris”, Fathi keeps us looking--adoringly, unquestioningly, sumptuously--at an iris, and “Banana”, equally engrossed though a little sparer, is about a banana. Still other lines, like these from the title poem, gain their power from sound as well as image: “to suck the ivy of visitors from even the safest face, behind which / a lover peels and peels; as certain and as full as all beauty, its obese gold navels ..”(8) and some sink into sound and sensation almost entirely: “Reek rat ampled cheeks this is both running a fat bruise-coloring tome.” (31)
One thing that the “project” book offers is a sustained learning curve: each poem or section explicitly teaching a reader how to read the next and guiding us into the arc of the text. Even if it’s not a narrative arc, the experience of reading it goes forward. Each poem in Great Guns requires, or at least asks, that we start over and reopen ourselves to its terms. I read “Sonnet”:
Worms you know
my history of loose beginnings
tacked because there is no esteem at the root
for sadness, since flowers focused us
One is pushing long-honed claws of pineapples
to come out through shouldertops,
hills and sea-breast
swells: this one smells of mermaid hair,
fair warning … (38)
I learn to expect explanations that fall short, lines that end sharply and sentences that leave me hanging, frankness about strange and painful eruptions of the impossible into the possible, a scent of fruit and seawater; I read as an observer, an onlooker to the events of the poem, outside the “I” at its center. I learn not to ask for a story, but the poem that follows, “A Tiger Is Getting Married,” gives me one, paced out in couplets:
Some were invited; you are
a tiger’s wedding--which it was,
you were involved--
the rain alone and sun,
alone to be imagined.
Alone as pure. Rain, the veil
to a round glowing face
and all the attending faces below. (39)
Serene instead of stressed, though not without subversions and disappointments, this poem draws me in and makes its ceremony my ceremony. The train slips from the fingers, there is no groom and no kiss, but
No one cried, no one forgotten,
a tiger’s wedding involving the
stripped and pure,
and yours, a singular absence.
Lates grate, only water
flashes against the sun’s eyes
like a veil.
Watch, these bald patches
by morning will be lemons. (40)
The impossible, the unlikely, or just the heretofore unimagined here makes its way into the possible at a stately pace. The wedding becomes untrue to the nature we thought it had and more true to the nature it could have; water replaces jewels, fruit trees sprout from bare ground. Diamonds, “Angel Balls”, ants, Aristophanes, “Sweet Guts”, weather, nipples, betrayal; Fathi hands them to us and snatches them away with imaginative insistence and visionary impatience, startling us into different positions. That’s why the book doesn’t “hold together” in a standard “project” way: these poems offer us not something to keep but a spray of ways to be changed.