Nancy Campbell reviews
by Leah Fritz
by J.P. Dancing Bear
In Going, Going… we find Leah Fritz ‘under Westminster Bridge’ contemplating ‘the world out on parole’. Wordsworth is the first of many poets whose shadowy footsteps she traces through London and beyond. Yeats and Plath are remembered – and their deaths contrasted – by means of their tenure in Primrose Hill. Fritz locates herself by literary tradition as much as by geography, slipping between poetic forms just as an experienced traveller integrates with customs and cultures. This selection includes a ballad, ‘As We Speak’, that comes with ‘apologies to William Blake’, and a sonnet about, and after, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (‘Death in Florence’). Yet this is no mere fan-worship; Fritz’s distinctive voice reads like a conversation with her forebears. While her gaze is predominantly retrospective, she also acknowledges her contemporaries: a sonnet dedicated to Mimi Khalvati betrays ‘What teachers get up to when they’re not in school.’ Fritz quotes Robert Browning ‘The best is yet to be’, but her poems don’t bear out this optimistic sentiment. Despite evident strength of character, she expresses a feeling of powerlessness in the face of change. The title poem ‘Going, Going…’ is a winsome meditation on the aging body’s perversity: ‘… I feel I am a faint/ Shadow in the backdrop, something that the artist/Tried unsuccessfully to hide, something too quaint //For the production that the playwright had in mind.’
While this theme can potentially become a one-trick pony on which a poet rides to the grave, for Fritz the body’s fate is just the starting point for ruminations on social and moral decay:‘Brecht where are you when we need you now?…Where/Are your daughters, where your sons, to blast/Away the dust-motes of despair?’ She writes from a deeply personal context of protest. In an unusual anti-war poem, ‘Women in the Park (Sketches from the Vietnam years in New York)’, the conflict is viewed through the eyes of‘mothers pushing English carriages and talking (yes) of Michelangelo, their infants piggybacked through galleries,aware that they are privileged…’It is an honest account of bourgeois outrage, all the more powerful for being located beyond the conventional heroic guise of the outsider. The most plaintive poems conclude with droll couplets, cast off with a debonair shrug of the shoulders, as a cynical belle might pull a rueful moue on losing the love of her life. The reader gets the feeling that passions run deeper than the poems admit. Some capture the sardonic tone of holiday postcards home, written by an under-whelmed visitor. New York City ‘shines too much as if denying life’ while the poet is ‘seated facing sprawling thighs/trying ostentatiously to read.’ ‘Fruit’, Fritz’s narrative of the Fall, sums up the flight from the garden in an aside ‘How sensible of Eve/to pack a lunch.’ Such light heartedness borders on the bathetic at times, but it saves the poems from becoming sententious.
The mocking tone is most effective when sending up intellectual pretensions, such as the discovery of evolution, which is described as a belief that ‘… heaven [is] not upabove at all, but all around, and man emerged,/not from the hand of God, but more absurd,/anonymously from some thumbless ape.’ ‘Book Review’, an ambitious long sequence, concludes the book appositely. It is reminiscent of Breughel’s vast canvases that depict everything at once – both secular and religious scenes, distant landscapes and intimate exchanges. Like ‘Fruit’, the poem’s narrative attempts to explain a religious instinct it is overwhelmingly tempted to mock:‘Men worship what they do not understand./It’s in their fickle nature to adore/what seems impenetrable. They have a gland/for this.’ Fritz begins with Genesis, then charges through the Old Testament, the New Testament and Greco-Roman myths, by way of any of the ‘Books some people long ago…/inscribed on parchment scrolls’. She cultivates a reviewer’s dead-pan tone:‘Notably, some disagreements deal with supernatural events around the Hero’s birth and death. I won’t reveal the plot…’ The idea of a biblical spoiler is a nice irony, and of course we know already that the plot will get steadily worse as we enter the modern period. Eventually Fritz abandons her reviewing persona for a more exasperated invective, on witnessing ‘love /and peace dismissed as jam tomorrow.’ The poem implies that a lot of the blame for faction and violence lies with religious texts:‘These books are never out of print,Though now as relevant as chariots Or the ox-drawn plough.’Whether humankind is better off without the religious sensibility (or ‘gland’) which generates such impassioned beliefs, and hence conflict, is an impossibly complex debate. ‘To sum it/up requires more than a final couplet…’ Indeed.
The danger of Fritz’s stance is that her indignation has the potential to sound as bigoted as those she derides. Are books really to blame for extremism? As a poet, she is right to acknowledge the power of the written word. However her exegesis fails to acknowledge the literary and philosophical qualities of a work which, ironically, was part of the canon for many of the writers referenced elsewhere in this selection. Could antagonism be part of the human condition, rather than something we can petulantly blame on studious ‘Zealots’? We come back to the mothers pushing their prams in Central Park.It’s a complicated matter, as Fritz acknowledges, declaring (one might almost say back-tracking) in ‘a final couplet’ – after Sontag – ‘I recommend this with one reservation:For heavens sake, avoid interpretation.’A hearty warning to reviewers, which I take as a welcome injunction to stop interrogating the poem.
Conflicted Light by J.P. Dancing Bear also investigates mortality and the body’s fragility. Despite the subject matter, these poems display a supple movement and an exuberant dedication to life – rather like the salmon swimming upstream which is the publisher’s logo. A central section, ‘Exit Strategies’ examines the death of the poet’s grandmother, the brittleness of his own health, and other, unnamed departures. These losses are cues for an exploration of life and the role of language within it. For readers who aren’t familiar with Dancing Bear’s work, which is less well known in the UK than it deserves to be, a good comparison is Galway Kinnell. Both poets are adept at framing an idle moment as the locus for a transcendental realisation. In ‘Canaries’, a variant sestina, the poet is moved to tears by the impossibility of his grandmother ‘trying to communicate/after the stroke stole her voice/locked inside her head’. This poem delicately articulates the frustration and pathos of aphasia without mawkishness. Dancing Bear feels the old woman’s hands ‘slipping’ but also sees them as enchanting ‘canaries’. Another poem, ‘Oral History’ laments the consequences of not listening when collective memories are passed on. Too late, the poet ‘strain[s] to hear my her voice’ retelling family history. The reader is left with a poignant sense of the importance of shared stories in understanding identity. ‘After the Diagnosis’ is a masterly comparison of the body to the society of medieval Europe.
Good writers avoid clichés, but the best attack and transform them. Here Dancing Bear reworks textbook tales of the Dark Ages, capturing both their romance and malevolence:‘In these times, it is easy to fall into the belief of dragons,the sleeping princesses and winking old vagabond soothsayers;so easy to see fairy circles, phookas, and ghost kings at midnight.’I love the word ‘phookas’ and my imagination is still racing as it wasn’t in my dictionary. Dancing Bear’s language is always astute.
As if taking a cue from the cold investigative light of the hospital room, definitions are taut and verbs acute, but this clinical accuracy is softened by a sensual rhythm. The long line seduces like a plainsong chant:‘Only the Church keeps the written word alive with its monksscribbling into the dank nights of candle smoke and silence.’ From this historical standpoint, the present is yet to come. As well as descending from multiple whispered histories, Dancing Bear is head of a line of distinguished children:‘My Shakespeare, my Da Vinci are waitingin their fetal positions…’References to Orpheus, the mythic poet who ‘leaves this world one more pure anonymous note’ (‘Eurydice Lost’) are scattered through the book. This Orpheus is not only the falliable lover who looks back, but also a prophet anticipating the future. However, inheritance is now dependent on humanity’s ecological legacy as well as on genes.
Dancing Bear’s pantheistic writing is redolent with respect for the natural world, and sharpened by a keen sense of humanity’s small place in the cosmos. Arrogance is explored in several poems, as when ‘Orpheus was gifted a godly lyre/and assumed he was The Best’ (‘Idol’). This flaw inevitably impacts on the world around the idol, and ultimately destroys him. While these are warning poems, they depict an imagined paradise rather than the apocalypse. We could all be animals (‘When we are Stewards’).
We all have the potential to enjoy a symbiotic relationship with nature, as the poet does, feeling a hummingbird with a tongue in his ear (‘Auricle’):‘I was the drum in the redwoods,the tongue of green prophesies…awakened to the canopy songsthat had lain in the linens of leaves.’Dancing Bear imagines himself in the body of a wasp, extolling its qualities, and concluding:‘I do not want to leave that eloquent bodyfor this lumbering giant’s.’But in the end he proves himself equally eloquent, a worthy spokesperson for the insect’s cause – and for the rest of us.
Nancy Campbell is a poet, printmaker and the editor of Ellipsis, a new writing series published by Sylph Editions. Her most recent publication, After Light, is a collaboration with the photographer Paula Naughton. She will be writer in residence at the Upernavik Museum in Greenland during 2010.