Erika Jo Brown
H_NGM_N Press, 2011. 100 pages. $14.95.
Much might be made of the paralepsis in the title of Adam Fell’s debut poetry collection, I Am Not a Pioneer. The rhetorical device, invoked subversively by Roman orators who wouldn’t mention the shortcomings of their opponents, is a slippery kin of irony, expressly presenting what a speaker is ostensibly rejecting. Here, however, the declaration is balanced by a tug of sincerity. The title is bold yet vulnerable—a possible response to insecurity or an accusation. A sentence-long, first-person lyrical title can set up a guarded intimacy between reader and writer, eliminating the fallacy of a voiceless poetry, while leaving a sense of discernment for the reader. See also, for instance, Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Spahr’s Fuck You–Aloha–I Love You, or Ondaatje’s There’s a Trick With a Knife I’m Learning to Do.
Perhaps just a little might be made of the uncanny sentence of the author’s name: Adam fell. It’s a familiar Biblical phrase that neatly summons twin themes of desire and consequence. But this syntactical coincidence also suggests another motif that twines through I Am Not a Pioneer. The book is an obsessive inventory of naming—of “our foragings, our longings and dusks”—in describing the landscape of the rustbelt Midwest (53). The poems document the quiet majesty in an environment spiritually and ecologically in decline.
It’s a topic that might be dealt with roughly, with a mechanized aesthetic or industrial, cacophonic sounds. But although the landscape that Fell covers is littered with unholy objects, frostbitten fields, and cast-offs from late-stage capitalism, the naming is accomplished delicately, with as much consideration, perhaps, as the Other Adam, entrusted with naming all the animals in the Other Garden. Through this delicacy, I Am Not a Pioneer illustrates the power of language to beautify objects and the ability for nuanced description to create a new reality.
The poem “A Man Who Does Not Want to be Identified Nor Explain His Situation Sits Down” observes the mind’s relentless ability to catalog, with “life still in even the retina’s last feeding.” Fell builds a colorless scene that becomes luminous with sonic resonance, as the poem continues:
An empty Doritos bag uncrumples
itself against the sandstone.
Empty plastic bottles bright
inside with beads of condensation.
I hear the mass of fir and aspen
incessant behind me. (26)
Elegant diction, steady rhythms, and gentle alliteration may be surprising in a scene littered with litter. “Sandstone,” “fir,” “aspen,” and “beads” mingle with “plastic” and a “Doritos bag.” This mix of registers parallels the actual experience of seeing—a unique verisimilitude in imagery. While these poems stop short of casting a redemptive light on nature, the juxtaposition of grungy wreckage with startling poetic beauty conveys a subtle optimism. Discarded garbage bags are not blemishes on the landscape when conceived of as “unfurled and chirring” (22). Details are rendered with mellifluence and keenness, heedless to the hierarchy of so-called poetic subjects.
While physical detritus functions like kudzu in the poems, so too do unruly human emotions. Fell is, of course, not a pioneer of the well-tread trails through nostalgia and longing in poetry, but his unique imagery makes them feel fresh for the reader. In “Balance,” Fell introduces unexpected insight by telescoping through an interior:
I’ve spent my winter filling the rooms of this house
with mobiles, ferns, the restorations of prairies.
You wouldn’t believe what my heart smells like right now (46)
The heart’s scent is a characteristically idiosyncratic descriptive detail. Fell often wrangles unlike objects, including diverse poetic forms—a quiz-as-poem, a survey, and an epistle laced with redactions—with a commitment to imaginative collisions that acutely expresses a coherent gestalt, “a restoration of prairies” made available through sharp observations of the mundane, the beaten, and the forgotten.
The title of the book both presents and answers a question. We are not pioneers in a new territory. We are, on the contrary, inheritors of an environmental and linguistic legacy; it’s our ability to freshly observe and document that adds a frontier to our experience. As Fell writes in “Makeshift Memorial”:
But barely is sufficient in a moving world.
It is all I can do to keep from burring softly
to the hems of their coats, reminding them
that the lake is never still below the ice (83)
The humming below the seemingly-frozen surface can only “barely” be heard above the din. I Am Not a Pioneer documents such moments, fixated on the disordered beauty moving beneath the ice, reminding us to be open to these moving details.