Book Review

Perhaps you are already a reader of Robert Fernandez, or you have been in the past. Perhaps you have identified two poles in Fernandez’s work: the opaque, filigreed voice of We Are Pharaoh (Canarium Books, 2011) and the drenched sentimentality of Pink Reef (Canarium Books, 2013). At one end, Fernandez’s first book We Are Pharaoh is a charged density, a voice echoing up a brain’s deep crevices. Fernandez poses an intellectual, referential voice that is continually confounding a consistent line of thought. At the other pole, there is the supersaturated and emotive voice of Pink Reef. This voice is absorbed and insular. How, then, to reconcile the two poles? They seem like opposites, but as deep, earnest reckonings, they are both reasonable responses to a confounding and bewildering world.

Fernandez’s third book, Scarecrow, continues that reckoning. It uses a densely considered, sometimes bare, often elliptical, but always emotional frame. For my reading, the poems in Scarecrow should be viewed via a conceptual scarecrow figure that resides within the poems. Who or what is this scarecrow? It’s not really the speaker, though there are moments when the speaker shows a familiarity with the scarecrow (“Scarecrow, we are two of a kind”). One of the pleasures of the book is personally reckoning with Fernandez’s handling of the “scarecrow.” It could represent the trope of a scarecrow. The poem could refer to the scarecrow in either third person or second person. In some poems, “scarecrow” is an expressive persona, told sometimes in the singular, sometimes in the plural. There are poems in which the scarecrow feels like a population of scarecrows. There are times when a single poem could shift easily from one pronoun to another. I’m not sure how I would describe the final effect. There is this odd collective centering of perspective. Consider the opening to “it would be better if you tasted rain”:

It would be better if you tasted rain
than this spiced asphalt,
leavened brown horizon and flapjack

Pollution gets in the skin, spices it
red brown red yellow red brown,
so we

Take a swim beyond the dusty chambers of summer

When I read this, I see the “you” from the opening to be the poem’s speaker addressing a scarecrow, giving it advice. “It would be better if you tasted rain,” a kind of poetic advice you might offer to a scarecrow figure. Of course, the reality of this world is more “spiced asphalt,” and the subsequent imagistic descriptions of the asphalt provide even more insight into what the scarecrow is actually tasting. But then, there is a turn at the end of the second section: “so we.” Suddenly, the speaker is experiencing this same world as the scarecrow (or the “you”), and they are together opting to take a swim.

While this reading might seem like a fairly conventional move for poetic address in any poem, there is a rhythm in this poem that throws off those expectations. The observation about pollution in the second section seems to send the poem in a very different direction, further developing the speaker’s concern about what the scarecrow is currently experiencing. “So we // Take a swim” is jarring; it pulls the reader away from this imagistic description of pollution. Additionally, it is underplayed as this diminutive line at the tail end of the second section. As Jonathan Culler discusses the lyric address in his recent book Theory of the Lyric, this kind of poetic turn to a “we” would often be part of a potent rhetorical gesture, but that shift is buried through the section break and rhythm of the poem.

The result is a flattened landscape of scarecrows with sudden personal or emotive contours thrown in so that the trope of “person as scarecrow” is never allowed to settle, nor does it become a cheap mythology that the book needs to develop over the course of many poems. Fernandez’s book doesn’t use the scarecrow in the same way other books centered around a mythological project might use or exploit a similar central figure. The figure of the scarecrow never tires, and the poem gains gravity. For instance, in “rogue estates”:

Rest of peace. And rogue estates.
Rest of peace where wells blacken.
Rogue estates
dominoes fall to table chatter.
At some streetlight, a fountain,
no names for us homes for us
here, no meals
no medicines for what we missed.

Without scarecrows, this is, of course, a bleak landscape. The “rogue estates” are more ominous because they are populated. They are more remote, and the scarecrows that are there are more precarious. The whole concept of the phrase “rest of peace” feels euphemistic for “peace,” but hardly peaceful.

Perhaps this framework puts Scarecrow closer to Fernandez’s first book, We Are Pharaoh, but this dense poetic work is not the entirety of the book. There are plenty of moments of exclamatory poetry, for instance, in “who makes a chorus of you here”:

Who makes a chorus of you here,
let’s bring him colorful fruits and flowers,
every stanching of colorful flowers to fill the wells
and wounds, garlands of fruit-colored silvery flowers
for necks and heads and thighs and arms and wrists, help
us purveyors of mystery bring beauty to the brown dust form
of day, let us

The situation here might be a bit more complicated than simply adulating the “him” responsible for making “you” into a chorus. After all, what does it mean to make “you” into a chorus? How do the typically joyful objects like “garlands of fruit-colored flowers” stanch wounds at the neck and head, etc.? And what, exactly, would the “dust form of day” consist of? However, the more recognizable celebration here offers a broad emotional access for a reader—a point that pulls the book more to that emotive pole of Pink Reef.

All of this, really, should be a concrete argument in favor of becoming a reader of Robert Fernandez’s work. For his welcome complexity, his inescapable earnestness, and his felt sentiment. I find myself thinking of this book as an opportunity to further develop how or what would allow me to understand Robert Fernandez’s voice, as well as the voices of other poets who continue to hold a conversation with the world. And what a distinct pleasure it is to view into that world.

About the Reviewer

Kent Shaw's first book, Calenture, was published in 2008. His poems have appeared in The Believer, Ploughshares, Boston Review, and elsewhere. He is an Assistant Professor at Wheaton College in Massachusetts.