Boston, MA: Natural History Press, 2016. 91 pages. $14.00.
In “The Short Answer,” John Ashbery’s speaker says, “Why make things more difficult / than they already are? Because if it it’s boring / in a different way, that’ll be interesting too.” I kept thinking of this stance as I read Monica Fambrough’s first book, Softcover. It is so refreshing to encounter what Fambrough makes of her boredom. Fambrough defamiliarizes the quotidian with such peculiarity, the poems give the reader the sensation that they are being assembled only moments before the eye can catch up to them—to borrow from television, she creates a live reading sensation.
Often in the collection, the speaker of a poem will make a statement or an observation about something, but then something else in the poem will eclipse that statement—for example, in “Practicing,” the speaker postulates about a distant sound:
. . . we were sure
it was the sound
of two rams fighting.
But it turns out:
It was just someone
letting two-by-fours fall
from the balance
sawed wood hitting
other sawed wood.
Not rams at all.
The feeling of live assembly here comes from the admission that the sound is entirely quotidian. A transformation takes place—no, not a transformation from quotidian to extraordinary, but vice versa: toward boredom, toward the place that Fambrough’s speakers are most in awe. The two rams become “sawed wood hitting sawed wood.” But even when the sound reveals itself as mundane, the level of poetic agility does not diminish at all: with the repetition of “saw(ed)” three times in a single tercet—two of which appear in an appositive phrase that exist not only to create an echo chamber, but also to make the words feel thin and disappointing in their flimsiness—you can feel the speaker’s disappointment and excitement simultaneously. This transformation from magical to ordinary gives the reader the anti-epiphanic revelation: that skillful poetic language can relieve the failures of a particular convention of the imagination: that which always tries to make more of the world. To witness a speaker confronting a failure of her imagination is thrilling, and it is no less of a transformation than if sawed wood were to become two rams fighting.
Reading Softcover, I was moved to put down the book and reread Alice Notley’s “At Night the States” in order to seek out these lines:
that shirt has been in your arms
And I have
that shirt is how I feel
These three lines disclose the pain of loss with such precision. It would be easy to explain away the grief inherent when holding a shirt of someone who has died, but look how heavy this sentence becomes when I attempt to explain away the transformation. When I explain, I jump out of Keats’s “shattr’d boat” and start swimming toward the shore. But, as O’Hara writes, “pain always produces logic, which is very bad for you.” Without unnecessary explanation, a reader experiments with potential meanings as she reads, rather than being told how to read, and in turn she becomes a necessary part of a poem’s alchemy. In her poem “Les Femmes, Les Fleurs,” Fambrough writes:
It’s morning again,
and morning requires its own motions.
Coffee cups come, follow one another, touch
to form a white spine
that shines and is empty.
Coffee cups hold. They can do so much
without even moving,
and so many objects are capable of this.
Is that enough? It is enough.
The opening line of the stanza postulates that “morning requires its own motions,” an interesting epistemological disclosure. If I were aiming to steal the poetry from this assertion, I would follow with “For example” before heading into “coffee cups.” Fambrough doesn’t give the reader that prose moment; instead, she end-stops the line and breaks, trusting that her reader will transform along with the poem. The poem takes on a still object (the cup), gives it motion, and then multiplies the object to give the objects a spine. Why? To slow the mind down so it can meditate upon this made thing: a coffee cup. After the meditation is through, Fambrough posits the question, “Is that enough?” And it stops the reader dead. Enough of what? Enough to make a stanza? Enough to make a poem? Hearkening back to the Notley lines above, this coffee cup is how I feel. “It is enough.”
Monica Fambrough’s poems are always awake to the elegiac, even in the epithalamium “Bouquet for City Hall”:
Whatsoever in the world
That is impermanent
Will give itself to you today.
But what you need is yours.
So take these things we give
And whatsoever else
You used to need
And tie up a bouquet
For you to toss
And us to watch you
Yes, this poem says, let us celebrate this moment of love and union as much as we can and in so doing, say farewell to the old attachments, “the things . . . you used to need.” The fact that we can’t keep a moment manifests itself in attachment—to moments, to photographs of them, to facts of them. (See Fambrough’s “Poem Against Facts”.) A subtle use of parataxis tied to a conjunction—the first “and”—transforms the bouquet into “these things we give / and whatsoever else you used to need.” A bouquet toss is cliché (i.e. boring), but here Fambrough reinvents and complicates it: the poem does not end, “And tie up a bouquet / For you to toss away.” That would be perhaps expected on some level, but Fambrough digresses with another conjunction in order to complicate the action by including the audience—“us”—and to repeat “toss,” much like “sawed” above. If she were to add em dashes around “And us to watch you / toss,” we would have a more grammatically prescriptive ending, but that prescriptive ending would add a breath that Fambrough does not want. The poem wants the mess of it all together. By sifting through the language and enjambment, she reinvigorates an act wrought with cliché.
Fambrough has a gift for reinvigorating tired subjects and mundane objects. In “I am not a mystery,” the poem begins:
Part of me is light on white formica
Part of light is green
stems in a glass
I get the sensation that the speaker is looking at light on white formica, or is remembering light on white formica. The syntax of the first line asks the reader to accept that what we perceive is part of the body; as Stevens would have it, we leave what we feel at what we see (tense shift mine: “We . . . left what we felt at what we saw”). The image of light on white formica is assembled as the reader senses the beginning of an anaphoric string (“part of” will course through the entire poem) and as with all anaphoric lists, each element on the list melts together with other elements on the list. No longer do we have a “me” or “white formica” or “light” or “green stems” or “glass.” Instead we have a pile of words inviting us down a rabbit hole: the reader imagines the body perceiving the image, and in turn the reader inhabits that body and becomes the perceiver who needs this light in this kitchen. This is why Barbara Guest calls poetry the true fiction: when I read this poem, I become light on the white countertop.
If Fambrough can make formica poetic, she might just be able to make anything poetic. Softcover helps the reader into disenchanting jams again and again, and in so doing re-enchants the jams:
The pier leaps out
toward the ocean
with its skinny boards stretching
dangerous little gaps
to reveal beneath the gangway
some blackening sea lions,
and I think,
I can relate to that pier.
What a difficult thing it is to write a successful poem concerning the majesty of a pier, that construct of practical and impractical longing reaching into the sea. Fambrough does not overthink it, she allows her speaker to give us back the pier by doing an unthinkable thing: she becomes part pier! Rebecca Solnit writes about Virginia Woolf’s “insistence on multiplicity, on irreducibility, and maybe on mystery, if mystery is the capacity of something to keep becoming, to go beyond, to be uncircumscribable, to contain more.” Fambrough does not reduce the pier or the boards of the pier or the sea lions in order to become part of the scene; her speaker becomes the whole scene.
It is the poems’ allegiance to transformation in the face of the most terrifying of impetuses, that of boredom, which makes them so surprising and readable. Fambrough’s poems suggest that creating and recreating the present with poetry is more than a salve for the wound of existence, it can be existence itself: an unmistakably pure moment glowing in the attention of a human mind in top form. Softcover is worth reading and rereading until we are lucky enough to have another book from this poet who masters her boredom in the most exciting way.