blackbirdonline journalSpring 2013 Vol. 12 No. 1
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Review | Dream Cabinet, by Ann Fisher-Wirth
                Wings Press, 2012

spacer Dream Cabinet

Ann Fisher-Wirth’s poems can unabashedly pursue the beautiful or they can reach out and scream, what the hell are we doing to the environment! They can remind us of the confessional poets or bring us close to the surreal. In her fourth collection, Fisher-Wirth pulls together the various strands of her interests in a three-part structure that moves from personal concerns (marriage, divorce, parenting) to an opening out to a wider world in the central section and, in the final section, to a blending of the two.

Fisher-Wirth initiates her book with “Slow Rain, October,” a poem that both stands outside the structure and also foreshadows her subjects and concerns. The poem carries an epigraph from William Carlos Williams, a subject of her scholarly interests and a major influence on her aesthetic: “Minds like beds always made up.” “Slow Rain” opens by declaring her opposition to such minds: “Oh to dive into an unmade bed and sleep.” The stanza evolves into a lush description of the sleeper, “covers piled in a heap with pillows / still scrunched up.” Once asleep, she says, “I die now for a little while,” becoming separated from the family mementos in the bedroom. These actually become subjects of poems in part I: “parents marrying, parents aging, children small, / children grown, husband and wife / (that’s I) embracing—sixty years of family.” These human connections are the essence of her dream cabinet.

The poems’ given dates in section I range from before she was born (“1928. Girl Riding”) to the present and underline one of Fisher-Wirth’s persistent themes: time and how the generations mark its passage. These poems are intimate in tone and give us the poet as a young girl, mature woman, and grandmother. She considers her granddaughter Sylvie, in utero in “What Boat.” Addressing Sylvie, she reflects on her lineage, specifically Fisher-Wirth’s daughter: “You rode in her when she curled / in me.” The remainder of the poem exults: “This bright and swimming world will soon be yours. Pollen, thistledown, / hills to the sea in fog below me. / Redwing blackbirds whistling, child.”

“Of a Photograph” features Sylvie at age three and “dream-filled.” The child is looking at a human skull in a museum, an appropriate stimulus for dreaming of what it means to be human: Is this what she is? The poem concludes:

We were looking at bones
at preschool, she said.
Her hand barely touches the glass.
There’s a tiny scratch on her wrist.
Blurred light, wavery imprecision,
herself leaning in
toward herself, and in
and through the image, the nearly
invisible skull

Fisher-Wirth raises an ordinary occurrence (a child at a museum) to a question about the nature of being human. The animate child and the inanimate skull—one and the same.

At the center of Fisher-Wirth’s ruminations in section I is the long, multi-part poem, “Answers I Did Not Give to the Annulment Questionnaire.” It carries an explanatory note in parentheses: “After 14 years of marriage, 22 years of divorce, my ex-husband wants an annulment.” In the mode of the confessional poets, Fisher-Wirth owns up to some unseemly aspects of her past:

A girl by the freezing altar vowing
this would be her husband for always,
this would be her Church for always,
even if she was wrong, even if it came
to doors slammed and her locked outside
in the rain, and the children crying

“So crazy / about being his wife,” Fisher-Wirth writes, “[she] insisted on ironing his boxers.”

The poem grows in power as she tears up the annulment form and utters two prayers connected by the phrase “Make to nothing.” In the first she would erase moments of intense connection between herself and her husband in a house in rural California:

where that man my first husband guided his
black cycle carefully down the winding road—
make them to nothing and my arms around him.

Also included in this nullification:

The pomegranates’ scarlet star-shaped flowers
outside the window where I lay
suckling my baby son, July so hot
I could barely move—make them of no effect.

The injunction, “make to nothing,” repeated at judicious spots, knits these passages together and emphasizes the impossibility of such erasure.

Fisher-Wirth’s second prayer is harsher, yet reflective:

Make to nothing my self-hatred,
strangler fig, stone, let me
open my hands and let the river
run through them at last, let the cold current
move through me, over me.

The prayer is her release and a rebirth as the river washes over her, cleansing her. In poems like this she delves deeply into her past and does not drown in self-pity or anguish but renders the experience in language that anyone can identify with. A prayer for her ex-husband concludes the poem: “Let him kneel / with his wife at the altar.” If the Church Fathers were poets, they just might.

Section II, composed of the multi-part title poem, moves away from the poet’s absorption in her own story toward larger issues, such as global warming. Fisher-Wirth knows how to navigate the long poem as she demonstrated in Carta Marina, her previous book. As in Carta Marina, she locates this poem in Sweden, on an island in the Stockholm archipelago. On a retreat to a peaceful place, she hopes: “To know this place in the fullness of its seasons. / And watch the light on water, day after day, / empty out my everlasting self-regard. / Let the sunlight, fog, or rain have its will with me.” The island retreat makes more evident to her the environmental degradation back home in the States:

Where I live they are paving the world.
The oaks they’re saving perish,
hemmed in by concrete. Dogwoods parch
and wither in a season of no rain. You’d think
we’d think of the collapse of systems—
at a certain point, technology cannot save us.
Earth sickens and sickens, and finally
turns mean. Only things with thorns survive.

Writing poetry about climate change presents challenges, but Fisher-Wirth handles passages like this with the trenchancy of her images: the oaks “hemmed in by concrete” and by the freshness of her language: “Earth sickens and sickens, and finally / turns mean.” With the recent episodes of devastating heat and multiple tornadoes followed by drought and hurricanes, we can nod our heads about the “meanness” of Earth.

The final section of Dream Cabinet pulls together both strands with work of lyrical, personal intensity and other poems of socio-political concerns. The opening poem “BP” deals with the tragic 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. On the page, the poem is bifurcated: on the left side, the language of reports about the disaster (“to take affirmative action to abate / the violation”); on the right side in bold type, a close focus on individual tragedies to insects and birds. Fisher-Wirth writes about the natural world with sensuous precision, her theme dramatized:

                      catching the light
               emerald, turquoise, ruby, translucent

                               Born of water
                      they sport with land
                               but lay their eggs in water

                    where oil clogs the membrane
                                    of their

                    Above the slick among the grasses
                                        one dragonfly scrubs
                     its oiled face

By narrowing her focus to the “one dragonfly,” Fisher-Wirth heightens the poignancy of the devastation. From media reports, we all learned the horrors of the oil spill; the poet brings her highly attuned sensibility to one “insignificant” creature. The quality of her attention carries her point more effectively than any treatise on environmental degradation.

Ending her volume on a more personal note, Fisher-Wirth offers a sensuous and romantic nature poem, “It Was Snowing and It Was Going to Snow”—a love poem to her husband. In Mississippi where it seldom snows, a winter storm is a magical event: “Unseasonal weird once in a green moon Mississippi beauty— / deep deep snow.” The adjective pile-up mirrors the piling up of the snow while conveying her excitement. She walks arm in arm with her husband to savor the event, and their closeness sparks a paean to his presence: “I am filled with joy for the sheer fact of him.” She anticipates the night and returns to the main trope of this book, sleep and dream:

Soon night will climb the hill outside the window
where I wait for the white bees to swarm,
surrounding the branches, the house,
surrounding my sleep, scattering their cold pollen again.

The bee metaphor heightens the strangeness of the snowfall and draws it into a local frame of reference. Not snow but “cold pollen” helps us to see the snow as generative and positive, bringing joy in the natural world and a renewal of love. The dream cabinet will fill up again; more poems will emerge.

While she maintains the primacy of the individual self, Fisher-Wirth’s poetic power resides in an awareness of the earth’s beauty married to a resistance to its defilement. Her dream cabinet may hold nightmares, but an irrepressible creative urge yields feisty, artful poems.  end

Ann Fisher-Wirth is the author of four collections of poetry, Dream Cabinet (Wings Press, 2012), Carta Marina (Wings Press 2009), Five Terraces (Wind Publications, 2005), and Blue Window (Archer Books, 2003). She is the author of three chapbooks, Slide Shows (Finishing Line Press, 2009), Walking Wu Wei’s Scroll (Drunken Boat, 2005), and The Trinket Poems (Wind Publications, 2003).

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