If poetry could be mastered, then Alice Fulton would be among the lucky few who might claim such prowess. Fulton’s expert handling of the lyric is clear in her prolific body of work, and yet her most recent collection (her first in a decade), establishes new territory for the lyric rather than merely resting on her laurels. Unlike some career poets who find the poem that “works” and continue writing that same poem (a tendency Fulton seems keenly aware of as she writes of “those poems from Poems R Us”), Fulton’s Barely Composed seems to seek out what doesn’t work, dissecting it formally and conceptually. She intermixes colloquialisms (“Here’s the thing” and “Tough tits, isn’t it?”) with scientific language, philosophical concepts, neologisms, and blacked-out words to produce a collection that probes the traditional lyric subjects of love and loss, testing the limits of form and content. The title of this collection encapsulates the way these poems combine honest vulnerability with an almost unraveled, or unraveling, sense of urgency for the self and the world—as if in poetry we are only able to barely eek out the poem before the stakes shift and the poem with it, the poet trailing off behind.
And it is clear from the outset that the stakes of this collection are high. The framing poem of the book, “Because We Never Practiced With the Escape Chamber,” functions as both a lament for the limits of language while affirming the small offering that it can make at a time like this:
Not nuclear warheads
on the sea’s floor nor the violet glow over the reactor
will outlive this sorrowful rhyme. Vain halo! My project
becalmed, I’ll find I’ve built a monument
more passing than a breeze.
I made this little sound for you to wait in.
The scale covered here, from “nuclear warheads” and the promise of destruction to the “little sounds” we might rest in, exemplifies the way Fulton moves between incomprehensible subjects—death, time, worldwide destruction—and the small manifestations by which we experience these realities, such as the night nurse who cares for an ailing mother or coral reefs that “grow pale / with essential fatigue.” And in these swift movements from large to small, the sound that leads the poem to its next line is just as important as the concept behind it, the filled space just as necessary as the blank or blacked out. In “After the Anglectomy,” we see this oscillation between infinite and finite happen within a matter of lines:
Math. Time. Everything happy goes
to many decimal places
while flesh passes through
gradations of glory. I visualized it,
the nurse said of the bedsore. Everything exists
at the courtesy of everything else.
Please see that my grave is kept clean.
Beloveds, finite things
in which the infinite endangered itself…
Some of the most moving instances of this variance in scale occur in the series of poems that concern the speaker’s dying mother. Always at night we hear in these poems the sounds of anguish uttered by the daughter, mother, and nurse, the universe conspicuously silent in response:
Sisters, only night is watching the night nurse,
and no mater what we’ve heard, she’s heard much worse—
the vacuum’s roar, our mother crying Mother!
only night will watch as I, the night nurse,
wake up to a world unhere, unyours.
As the collection progresses, it becomes hard not to see every poem as an elegy for something or someone—for a lover or the world, for a mother or tranquility. This plaintive urgency accumulates so that by the end of this book the scale of large and small collapses and we feel the personal grief of the speaker as keenly as the collective ones we cannot escape: “God // why do you need us to die?” comes a few stanzas after: “Mother, / you are dead! You turned into eternity // before my eyes. And I am still extant, living.” At the end of this same poem, “Doha Melt-Down Elegy,” this mourning makes us aware of the poem’s role in such grief: “I am oriented == I will think of her // always and never defer my mourning. / I will sieve the ether for her she is so nearly there.” This claim to always do anything while mourning someone’s finitude, the almost-ness of their presence, is perhaps the lyric’s greatest conceit: that it can also sieve the ether, making presence out of absence, that it can outlast a body, that to barely compose means also to barely, fleetingly, contain. Even Fulton’s formal choices, such as the use of the use of the double equals sign in this and other poems (==), seems an attempt at eternity as she equates the infinite to the finite to examine how the parallel facts of world and word, “I” and “you,” might somehow intersect in the finite/infinite world of the lyric.
This oscillation between presence and absence is apparent in the very fabric of these poems, most notably Fulton’s use of blacked out lines:
_reeder reactor______, if ___ voice __inks to a __isper say
say it. _now __is is __mal ___ eve_. Even the _____ will die.
The final poem in the collection, “End Fetish: An Index of Last Lines,” which stitches together the final lines of many of these poems, ends by revisiting this absence/presence of hidden language:
Valentines intensify the surface, heart the depths.
wake up to a world unhere, unyours.
what you wanted I nerve myself for the encounter.
with this papermate. I thee.
Ending the poem and the collection in such a way seems to resist its own ending, its finitude. Perhaps to reveal what lurks behind these dark spaces is to reveal the limit of our lives and of the poem. But maintaining this hiddenness allows us to continue on imagining that the poem might sieve the ether, might extend the voice in unending mourning for love and life lost and yet to be lost. Or perhaps this veiled language, to quote Derrida, conjures the “trace” of the “always-already absent present” with which the lyric must always contend. Either way, this collection travels the breadth of the universe and the human, leaving us searching our own experiences for such richness.
About the Reviewer
Kristin George Bagdanov is a candidate in the M.F.A. poetry program at Colorado State University. Her poems have recently appeared in or are forthcoming from The Laurel Review, Mid-American Review, Los Angeles Review, Juked and others. She is also the poetry editor of Ruminate Magazine. More of her work can be found at: www.kristingeorgebagdanov.com.