by Elyse Fenton
Cleveland State University Poetry Center 2010
Reviewed by April Manteris
“Love in Wartime”
Elyse Fenton’s debut book, Clamor, occupies the space between “sound and soundlessness” while displaying the conflicts and uncertainty of love in wartime. In her opening poem, “Gratitude,” she recalls the devastating story of her husband treating a soldier injured “beyond recognition,” but protects our sense of hope when she states, “And I love you more for holding the last good flesh/ of that soldier’s cock in your hands, for startling his warm blood/ back to life.” Fenton brings the uncensored truth of war to the forefront. These poems don’t let up, but neither does Fenton let up a kind hand on the small of her reader’s back—she doesn’t expect us to go it alone.
In “The War Bride Waits,” Fenton explores the disconnected civilian experience of war and the cinematic experience of war:
…There’s always a fade-out, the rising
bird-on-a-bent-wing scrawl of names meaning we should expect nothing
no last plot twist, no surprise rock-fall, no lover waiting off-screen to
for the hero’s dream of death. This is the moment the dead are mercifully
to stay dead…
For the desensitized population that doesn’t have to face off directly against the barbarity of war, Fenton uses the comparison of dramatic visions we’ve come to know so well in film. Throughout Clamor, it is hard to not be moved by the undercurrent of the narrator’s anger at general social apathy toward the media-buffered story of war. Yet Fenton’s narrator also struggles with the fragile state of reality, the absence of an “itinerary” or easy-to-follow-life-guide that might safely bring home her husband. Even “Dante needed a whole committee—/…to guide him/ down and back,” she argues in her poem “Refusing Beatrice,” “even though hell/ was a known descent.”
It’s easy to want to count what clamors in these pages: trains, Japanese maple branches, the space “Caught between gunner and gunner,” “a whole tree’s worth of [mute] crows,” the sound of snow underfoot, a “beautiful amputee.” But for all the noise, and despite her desire to harness it, Fenton knows that labeling and cataloguing “The thing that, trying and trying,/ you can never spit out” will only get her so far. Her final poem, “Roll Call,” stamps the back inside cover of her book with the “clamor of the swan-beaked rifle,” reminding us there is always more space to claim.
Fenton speaks with the authority of a wartime lover who is left home to watch and wait, but who is simultaneously aware that we make meaning of our experiences only after the experiences are over. In “The Beginning,” she acknowledges that this is what happens to her, and those around her: “…Later she would remember/ otherwise.” Fenton culls words with a fresh blade; reality is disassembled and examined. However, she knows that language cannot replace “…your mouth & its live wetness, your tongue/ & its intimate knowledge of flesh.” The atrocities of war may reduce a life “to matter,” but Fenton’s speaker refuses to do the same.
Wounds are immortalized by the scars they leave behind, and this narrator’s familiarity with the keloid curves and pocks of her own, and of those she loves, is clear. By the end of this phenomenal first collection, I am both reminded of—and compelled to share with Fenton—a quote from Seamus Heaney’s poem, “The Aerodrome”:
If self is a location, so is love:
Bearings taken, markings, cardinal points,
Options, obstinacies, dug heels, and distance,
Here and there and now and then, a stance.
This collection is a fine example of just how powerful a stance poetry can make. Fenton beautifully demonstrates how quietly one can make a big noise.