“More Stone than Wood” . . . “More Flesh than Stone”: On Kathy Fagan’s Sycamore

Christie Collins

Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2017. 88 pages. $16.00.

“Sticks and stones may break your bones,” the old saying goes, “but words will never hurt you.” If this is true, however, then why do the words in Kathy Fagan’s most recent collection of poems burn to the touch, to the mind’s eye, as they reveal a wounded heart? Sycamore, Fagan’s dynamic fifth collection of poems, explores the loss of a loved one through the singular and deeply personal voice of one woman and, in so doing, evokes the gut-wrenching effects of grief through vibrant, ever-evolving images culled from the natural world; all the while, the poems swim and swarm through urban and rural landscapes, ancient and present. Not to be missed, this collection will turn your day white with snow, make fresh your deepest hurts, and point you toward the natural world, with its changing cycles and strong organic matter, for healing and resolution.

Published by Milkweed Editions in the spring of this year, Fagan’s Sycamore explores loss and grief through a series of mostly free verse poems. Organized into three sections, the collection can be characterized as shifting between moments of concealed, private emotion and moments of openness and confession, shifts that often take place within the same poem. Lyrical and magnetic, the poems spark and take flight through carefully patterned imagery that is intricately woven into the fabric of the collection and takes cues from the natural world. To come away with the true essence of the book, the reader must be patient, ready to trace images across the whole book in order to feel the full weight of their effect. This is a challenge that, for the careful reader, creates a reading experience that is as cerebral as it is sensual: twin pleasures of the literary reading experience.

The most abundant reoccurring images—snow, stone, tree—create pathways of meanings between the poems and throughout the book as a whole. Take for example the image of the sycamore, which is both the title of the collection and seen as the book’s epigraph, a quote taken from John Berryman: “Once in a sycamore I was glad / all at the top, and I sang. // Then came a departure.” The Berryman quote reveals a certain hunger for times gone by, and the shifting between what was and what is, the past versus the present, is a central theme of Fagan’s book. In this collection, the sycamore becomes a multifaceted symbol: a metaphor, an image, a persona. At times, Fagan uses actual descriptions of the tree to create telling metaphors as in the poem “Black Walnuts”: “It is the season of separation & falling / Away. Sycamore bark tears off in sheets, / But I won’t be writing on them—.” Similarly, in the poem “Letter to What’s Mostly Missing,” the speaker muses “That’s all for now, except to say that, unlike other trees, / the sycamore’s bark can’t expand so it just breaks off.” Both of these instances show a connection between features of the sycamore tree and the evolution of learning to understand and live with one’s grief. But Fagan does much more than merely devise metaphors based on descriptions of the sycamore tree. In other poems, the sycamore is personified and addressed directly:

How frosty you are in middle age,
Sycamore, just as you were in youth,
only more grateful, if weary of the gratitude
it takes to feel alive.

In moments such as these, a connection is clear between the speaker and the sycamore, denoting that perhaps the tree serves as a kind of mask or an alter ego for the speaker and her emotions. This connection can be traced again in the poem “Sycamore in Jericho” when the poet persona speaks in first person and another character replies to her with “Jesus, Sycamore,” directly addressing the poet persona herself as “Sycamore.” In the following poem, “Ruin,” the speaker says, “And then, because our bodies were the tree,” deepening the link between the body of the speaker and the deeply rooted and sustainable body of the tree, which can weather seasons of immense damage and change.

Another set of poignant images depict snow, winter, and the changing of the seasons. The reader will be familiar with the often-used trope of the height of love taking place in the summer and the loss of love in the winter, and Fagan’s poems play to this framework but with new and fresh approaches. In the first section of the book, the images of whiteness and snow overlap with the dust of demolition and destruction. Consider the poem “Snow Globe.” Early in the poem, the speaker says, “Color: snow day with autumn / leaves inside it.” Then, by the end of the poem, “First, song, / a detonation— / then white everywhere.” At other times, winter is the memory that bubbles up from the past even when one doesn’t mean for it to:

. . . It was beautiful there
but I’d seen beauty and its opposite so often
that when warmth broke over my skin I remembered winter,
the way fresh grief undoes you the moment you’re fully awake

As the book draws to a close, more open and specific lines seem to fill in the gaps of the narrative. In the poem “Waiting Area Atrium,” the poet reveals that she “was to wait in the Waiting Area / Atrium while they took off her [lover’s] breasts.” Later, in the poem “Perpendicular,” the speaker confesses that “when I dreamed I lost / my love I willed myself awake because I would not / survive the pain again, even dreaming.” The exact scope of the loss described in the book is never quite spelled out, only hinted. In some instances, it seems as if the speaker has been left by her lover. In others, it seems as if the beloved has passed away. The poems refuse to neatly spell out the exact circumstances. Whether by death or by choice, loss and the subsequent grief paralyzes, stymies, amasses. As the speaker says in “To You for Whom I Broke,” “A snowflake’s singularity / becomes the burdensome / accumulation.”

Make no mistake—these poems reveal loss and the heartbreak of the bereaved. But you’ve never read heartbreak like this. In Fagan’s poetic world, the seasons aren’t linear but are a matrix of human perception and memory. In her world, the human is as strong as a tree but also as susceptible to the changing seasons.  However, even if winter might always stand first in the memory of the heart, the cottonwood will still reemerge and, along with it, hope for healing: “Either way, my leaves fell,” the speaker finds, “And it took a good while, but I grew new / ones. Then the birds came back.”

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