by Farrah Field
Four Way Books 2009
Reviewed by Ken L. Walker
One or Another
Census mumbo-jumbo tells Americans that the average (more privileged) human being changes career types an average of seven times. To transliterate that statement: the average American with the normal amount of spoonfed opportunity gets all sorts of various jobs to pay the light bill – and thinks they are solely one thing – but they are at least seven things in the helix of a lifespan. Poets are different, however. Because in the U.S., to be a poet is a fringe identity; it’s not a forklift driver, not an ad-exec either. And within that, there are types of poets: NeoFormalists, narrative poets, language poets, swiss cheese poets, flarfers, etc.
Farrah Field claimed, when I recently interviewed her, “Like Anna Akhmatova, I thought I was one kind of poet, but realized I was another. Two things were at stake for me–writing about Heather and making my poems do something they hadn’t yet done.”
Heather is her sister and a recurring sort of device or protagonist in the book, also the victim of a brutal murder (in reality and the book). This is a key thing to stay aware of as Heather pops in and out like the kernel of a phantom haunting both poet and reader. A grandmother dies; phones explode; orgasms elude, deteriorate, and detonate.
Rising was unmistakably chosen by Tony Hoagland as the 2007 Levis Prize winner. The book feels like a fist plummeting backwards through at least six (if not eight) feet of mud. The poems come up from behind, whispering and seducing; but as soon as you turn around and arrive at the departing end of a piece, you get punched in the lip. Here is one of those Tyson-fisted endings, from one of the best poems of the year so far, “Weird Luck:”
Once you will be lost in prayer
and will be found craving muffins.
Hope exists. It’s the taste of boy in your mouth.
[. . . ]
A child will die in your arms
and whiskey will disappear from your glass.
Your sister is a ghost with a broken skull.
You are allowed one good memory
in a pumpkin patch.
It’s an apotheosis of the surreal and the narrative, juggling skeletons inside the various closets of memories. Rising also requires the reader to laugh at the grotesque, the perverted, the grave and morbid. Field told me that she has an “unpuritanical attitude when it comes to writing about violence and sex; and I have a pretty sick sense of humor to boot.” At least she is self-aware.
Pieces like “The Telling” and “Your Lordship Spirals,” as well as “Malvern, Arkansas” all prove this grit buried deep in a gray heart. Even more sordidly unfeigned are these gems from “He’ll Have Surgery on His Brain in the Future”: “He looks like a nice boy and acts like a smart person.” She also stakes, “my eyes are big for wrong reasons . . . At home, I mix bleach to clean up maggots.”
A majority of the book is place-based. If an event or a memory is not explicated in Louisiana, Arkansas, Wyoming or Belgium (all places the Air-Force brats grew up) then it is in a backyard, on a porch or in a trailer. This tends to zip a reader into a centrifugal chaos but can also wrap a comfortable quilt around the reader’s sensibility. Overt sentimentality takes on its usual, angular, undervaluing shape in many poems as well. One of the best/worst poems in the book (worst, due to its sentimental hooks and best, for its politics) is “Hard Times in Animas Forks.” The awfully upright goes: “across my feet. At a mine shaft entrance,/I hear the voices of men who have worked/in the earth: we can’t withstand the soot,/the shitty wages, the constant collapse.”
Her endings are so fierce that it makes the poems’ beginnings and middles feel disjointed and contused. Basically, some feel like the endings were written first. There is also a second person drone in many of the poems that creates a mechanical ambience. And the role of the South is strong; without its grandiosity, Field begins to approach something like a Nietzsche without a Germany.
In our interview, Field compared herself to Ahkmatova getting at the point that an artist posits the idea of one crescendo but hears others. I’d rather hear a Field crescendo any day of the week than one from Ahkmatova.