BILL SCALIA Reviews
Maybe a Painter by Christina Fisher
(Auguste Press, San Francisco, CA, 2009)
As an introduction to Christina Fisher’s Maybe a Painter, consider the short poem “Against the Sky”:
standing near shadow, a steeple
or a teepee, your silhouetted
figure: ears & arms & legs
all tired of me.
That final line is heartbreaking. The poem starts by taking the reader into the sacramental / aboriginal (steeple or teepee), and then to romance (the silhouetted figure) and seems to beg reading as a love poem. But we are misdirected, unprepared, for the last line: what must the speaker feel to hold that romance, and have it so far removed?
After reading Christina Fisher’s work, my overall impression is that when she is brief, compact, and the images specific and clear, she’s terrific. Consider, for example, her poem “Take Me to the River”:
Black earth, it was 1988 when I moved out of there
my little transistor radio, hits on Z104
YWC Summer Camp 1983, I remember walking around the woods with my stereo
1985, I remember 1986 with my Schwinn
Freestyle Predator bike -- oval section of the top tube
baby blue -- I remember this song: and the woods
lichen on limestone
The images are sharp, so much so that I needn’t have had the same experience to know its authenticity; the details (the blue bike, the radio, the call letters) connect so closely to a shared experience (of a certain age, perhaps; the poet nicely skips through the range of specific years 1983 to 1986, and though I don’t relate to that specific era, I know the span of those years in the poem conform to adolescence) and a larger sense of longing -- to escape, to move out of the house and into the woods, into the world -- that the poem becomes universal. The specific, writ large, elicits the universal.
But notice again -- this song. The demonstrative doesn’t point to anything beyond the title. I can do some research and find out that “Take Me to the River” is a Talking Heads cover of an Al Green song. I might even listen to the song and be able to determine, from both the lyrics and from David Byrne’s odd, disaffected vocal style why this particular version of this song remains in the poet’s mind. But it would require work outside the page. As nice as this small poem is, it lets me down at this.
I’m afraid this is characteristic of Fisher’s diction; many of the poems in Maybe a Painter have the vertiginous effect created by the unconnected relative pronoun, unidentified you, unmotivated use of the indefinite pronoun. At times, the diction seems so forced that I am at a loss to make sense of the resulting language, as in the poem “Moment Sun”:
what was so bright, a texture
against fingers, this night
burning comets out, this
plight of lost stars never
yet somehow always to be
renamed again & over my high
Sabbath strung wrong time
right place, please accept
my apology as it comes from
form, as an extension of my hand
wrought true, tenured romance
Or this, from the poem “Dear Senator”:
She did it, gone today
forever in some way this morning
very early although she sd
last week: I died 5,000 years ago.
keep at it, keep at it, keep at it,
start over fog on Sutra tower, to teach me things
like a blue-silver line running down the back of the leg
tell me where the pain is, hand-sewn stockings.
Certain images adhere -- the comet, the blue-silver line (though I’m not sure whether it’s the “line” itself being addressed by the question “tell me where the pain is”) -- but I am lost in the swirl of verbiage and tenuous line breaks. But perhaps this is Fisher’s point: if one of the jobs of the poet is to render into language unqualifiable human experience, then her form and wordplay beg the question: is the subject of Maybe a Painter the impossibility of describing human experience? What does poetry owe to the reader? Perhaps this is the basis of Fisher’s project. Consider an interesting moment in the poem “Big Time”:
To you who are not here
when I am
needing none other
so these diaphanous
screen you to me, rough
new prizes, hooded & cloaked
stoked it is
to be so like a tree
invisibly growing, redwood
somewhere there are other
beside mills, flowers opening:
a year, a season
both now coming.
I like the word “diaphanous,” but I can’t make sense of it as a noun (?) before the verb “screen” (unless the poets in tends “screen” as a plural noun, as in “these diaphanous screens,” but this is not what’s on the page). I might imagine the poet is using “screen” as both noun and verb to connect the idea of invisibility (or non-availability) of the opening lines to the “rough, new prizes” that follow. After lines six and seven, the images cohere; but the irruption of the syntax in this case frustrates my ability to read the poem as a whole. Doubling a part of speech is a clever device to question the volatibility of meaning, and as well to utilize a double-edged word: the subject of a sentence is expressed through the action or expressed condition of the verb, and the verb defines the action or condition of the subject; the relationship is necessarily dialectical. So, what happens when one word contains both? Semantically, this is an impossibility. To combine a stated thing and the expressed action or condition of the thing into one word defies logic (and thus is uniquely open to poetic practice).
I’m focusing attention on this one feature in this poem because this is the most compelling moment of Maybe a Painter, and unfortunately it falls just short of fulfillment. In the final analysis, I find myself longing for the clarity and simplicity of the first six lines of “Take Me to the River” and the raw emotion of “Against the Sky.”
Bill Scalia has published essays on literature and film in the journals Religion and Literature, Literature/Film Quarterly, and in the anthology Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema. He also edited the anthology Classic Critical Views: Ralph Waldo Emerson, and is currently at work on a book concerning Emersonian aesthetics, poetry, and film. Dr. Scalia teaches literature and writing at St. Mary’s Seminary & University in Baltimore, Maryland.