Coloratura On A Silence Found In Many Expressive Systems

by Alice Fulton

reviewed by Spencer Hupp

Alice Fulton’s earliest poems displayed a rare ease with ideas and images. Take, for example, the 1983 poem “Plumbline”:

The world could snore, wrangle, or tear
itself to atoms while Papa sat
unsettled, bashful, his brain
a lathe smoothing thoughts civil
above fingers laced and pink

as baby-booties [ … ]

Ideas and images are the constituents of all poetry, but few American poets work so seamlessly and brazenly from inside the (sometimes narrow) world of the individual mind. This doesn’t come without risks; “smoothing thoughts civil” and “above fingers laced” both read a little overworked, a touch of involuntary poetese, but “Papa sat / unsettled, bashful, his brain / a lathe” has real drama and unfolds with sonic precision. Fulton also worked, then, from a welcome skepticism: “My ideas are dumb: a fizz / mute and thick as the head on a beer.” These early poems, textured by off-kilter, arch-colloquialisms like “stiff denims” or “knit their own / rivet,” argued for their own fresh, present (in 1983, at least), and deeply American English, and they earned a warm welcome in the otherwise anonymous 1980s.

Almost forty years have passed since “Plumbline” was published, years during which Fulton received Guggenheim and MacArthur fellowships, joined the English faculty at Cornell, and published works of fiction and nonfiction alongside many more poetry collections. Fulton’s newest (and seventh) book of poems, Coloratura On A Silence Found In Many Expressive Systems, deals with the now-ongoing concerns of pandemic, persona, and loss that clot so much contemporary poetry with her usual skill and variety. In “Netherlandish,” she describes “dishwasher greys, / sweat yellows” and pronounces: “I was living in a high maintenance loneliness.” But there too are “water weirded into nonce ideals” and “the crystal’s airy crotch.” The first set of phrases achieves an uneasy clarity, an appreciated weirdness; the wobbling compounds of the rest prove hard to forget because they live only in the ear. One can’t imagine anyone saying such things. And why would they?

Another poem, “Motherese,” on the death of the poet’s mother and the lingo of grief, argues:

each word constitutes its own problem
space. Like a piano with a missing string
[ … ]
There’s this memory
fugue that brings me to my grief.
A bird can wield its boney tongue
and double-throated syrinx to sound
two notes at once, dueting
with itself and in a way ==
            that’s what I’ve done.

A lot works here: that strangled, cut-off compound “problem / space,” which is like hospital talk, sinister and corporate. Ditto “syrinx,” which evokes that more-ordinary word, “syntax.” But the poem closes on a weak equivalence, a cancellation, a void stamp: “in a way ==/ that’s what I’ve done.” The doubled equals sign does for Fulton what the dash did for Emily Dickinson, and usually helps to establish a recurse kind of connection; these things aren’t kin, but of a kind. Here I see it buying time, and it has the emotional effect of laughing at one’s own joke. At their worst, these moments denude to thesis statements, scenes from a glossary if not a thesaurus, as near the end of another poem: “while the concept /of a paraclete yields / brightness.” These nouns feel front-capped—Concept, Paraclete, Brightness—and bully their way into significance.

Regardless, Fulton has a real dramatic gift; the poems move well and end on their feet, even if they sometimes lurch and drag on the way. Almost all of the poems are long, usually inking down the margin of two-plus pages. “Most and Great,” at fourteen lines, is an exceptional offering of the sonnet type. Unlike many of the poems in the collection, it eschews a thesis statement and, instead, relies on a moment of real animation:

But everything decayed—fruit tree, yew
even those stupid lawns she hated.
The dance floor fed up, grieving, the garden
always arguing it should be called a park.

That grieving dance floor almost stumps me; do its tears–implicit, inferred—scan as floor-wax powder? No matter how that figure turns, it betrays an uncanny confidence: the garden has its say, and the dance floor gets its wings. And attitude matters in a difficult collection. I’m glad to see a poet so endlessly concerned with language, one who writes neither to desert the world nor to exist fully on its terms, who works toward adaptation, not compromise. Not all the time, at least.

Published on January 10, 2023