“she becomes a kind of currency”

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These notes are part of my “read 100 poetry books in 12-ish months” effort. Far from an official review, they represent first impressions and provide some context for what I brought to the reading of the text.

16 of 100: Inmost by Jessica Fisher (2012, Nightboat Books)

Quick, personal thoughts:

  • As you can see from the reviews linked below, some of Inmost grapples with ideas of what it means to bring a child into a world at war. (And our world is always at war.) In Elegy, she writes, “I bore her in winter / The green returning Tongues of the dead / Licking the hillside I bore her in wartime / The radio pretuned News of destruction / Coming over the airwaves.” I was interested in this subject from the first moment I heard about this collection. On September 11, 2001, I had a toddler (not quite two years old) and I was something like five-months pregnant with a second. Believing “the homeland” was attacked while I was responsible for these babies was among the most terrifying times in my life. I still don’t know how to write about it (or if I even should), but Fisher offers one approach: to reduce the narrative of the war/violence itself to subtext. This intrigues me. The luxury of considering war as only subtext is, of course, a privileged vantage point. (I am not speaking of Fisher but of myself.) I’m fascinated by how Fisher handles that subtext in such a way that it isn’t minimized but universalized — which means war/violence are so pervasive their impact is felt even in the air between mothers and their infants.
  • I read this book shortly after seeing Sharon Olds at an event hosted by the New York State Writers Institute. During her reading, she confessed to delighting in lines of poems (her own and other poets’) that she doesn’t really understand. In doing so, she gave us all permission to enjoy lines that make no real sense to us but contain, in some chamber, a kind of resonance or pleasure for us. I’ll write about that reading in a future post, but I was happy to have heard Olds put that feeling into words. I thought of them when I read some lines from Fisher: “until thought is a crewless boat unthinking,” for example, and “Language estranged in the usual ways.” I love so much about both of those lines but would be hard-pressed to tell you more about why or what they mean to me.
  • I don’t think this is a collection that reveals all its secrets upon reading it the first time. There are several things I want to come back to and study, including:
    • titles (I pay attention to titles because I’m so bad at them. These poems all have one-word titles with the exception of the first poem in section I, which has a word plus a number. I’d like to come back to Inmost to examine more closely how the poems play out their titles.)
    • the solid black pages (Each section starts with a black, numbered page.)
    • word play (Fisher contemplates meaning and sound in so many of the words she chooses, processing/practicing them, trying them on.)
    • section poems (I’d like to come back to this book and see how movement and momentum work in Fisher’s section poems.)
    • punctuation (Some poems have it; others don’t. Even when it’s there, it’s not always what you’d expect. I want to revisit the effect this has on the meaning of the poems and the reader’s experience of the poems. Here’s a sample without punctuation: “Beneath me the baby / Busied with car keys / My daughter the age / When I when she / O what use why”)
    • screens (among Fisher’s go-to images in the collection seem to be screens onto which things are projected — and blank pages/spaces and snow. For me, that fixation builds up to the final section poem, which offers so much white space that it’s almost like an erasure. What’s being projected onto all that space?)
  • I’m afraid that some of these are notes will only make sense to me, but I guess that’s the risk of doing reading notes instead of reviews. It was bound to happen.

Lines I want to remember:

  • “Vulnerable to damage, as when the name of a color and the name of a thing are the same.”
  • “V for Violin, W for Walrus / or Violence & War — / we are after all to teach them // how to survive in this world”
  • “Thought I could live in it / & not let it in, impervious as / a body floating in saltwater”
  • “the little heart an impossible thing”
  • “yet still we knew, in that moonless night, that it had just been day”
  • “Eventually, if the mother’s maiden name has fallen out of use, it becomes the answer to the secret question. The daughter’s name, a password that husband and wife share. If their intimacy fails, she becomes a kind of currency, is traded. Not for goods, but seasonally. The photographs of before are a kind of contraband.”
  • “But when the inmost moves out, the body hollows — // an echo chamber. Ours is a scripted love. We stick to it. But wordless, the shshsh kept up long after the child’s asleep.”
  • “This is the definition of love: to become indistinguishable. She was me, then mine; now wherever I go she follows. But which ‘e’ is lost when where and ever meet?”
  • “The frozen stream another surface / for snow’s accumulation / the mind like that also / slowly moving underneath.”
  • “The sun an eye in the mind’s eye”
  • “Where did the sun go / I think how I might show her My little Galileo / A paper mache cosmos Orbit and rotation / All along we knew We were also moving / In the drunken night / We lay on the cold earth / Waiting for disaster”
  • “But I’m not ready for night / What does it stand for / Fear of the dark / The skeletal shape Of the World we knew / A carcass of sorts”

What others have said:

  • from The Rumpus: “In this collection, Fisher focuses on the tensions of bringing a child into a world of war— of living your regular, daily experience while knowing that others die by violence, both down the street and across oceans. Never moralizing and never failing to implicate herself, Fisher instead locates these tensions in language, exposing with care the dual meanings, connotations, and shared histories of the words that form her place in the world.”
  • from Cerise Press: ” These are poems both meditative and ferocious in their intent to see and say clearly. Many of Fisher’s poems are written against the backdrop of wartime, though perhaps not only a specific war (Iraq, Afghanistan), but the ongoing violence of humanity. Specifically, Fisher explores how violence imprints itself in painful and unexpected ways on the bodies of mothers and children.”
  • Jessica’s own words in an interview at the blog for the Los Angeles Review of Books: “My interest in the relation between representation and abstraction didn’t dissipate as I began to write the poems for Inmost, although my reality had changed utterly: as a new mother, I found myself embodied in a very different way than I had previously known. I was inspired to think towards forms of prose that would express the prosaic nature of my days. I wanted to find a way to indicate an interest in that flatness, and to transform it not by elevating it, but instead by tracing its movements along a horizontal plane. These poems are committed to measuring the space of lived time in the prose line, and to finding a way of having the poem move via the constant interruption and distraction that characterized that time. But I also wanted that interest in the daily to exceed the personal sphere. In the first poem and the book more generally, the question was something like: how close are we at the moment of our most intimate lives to the horrors of war and other global concerns? For me, collapsing the distance between the personal and the public was a small act of civic responsibility.”
  • from the book’s Foreword by Kimiko Hahn: “Reading these radiant poems, the sense of an interior is so acute that one can almost sense a natal heartbeat beneath the lines.”

Have you read this collection? If so, let me know your thoughts in the comments!

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