Review | Five Terraces, by Ann Fisher-Wirth

Eastern poetic traditions, western contemporary poetic forms, characters and actors from the theatre, multiple geographies including Mississippi, Sweden, and France—all can be found rubbing elbows in this collection of poems by Ann Fisher-Wirth. Even though the structure and approach of the poems change from a more imagistic Eastern approach to the free verse of contemporary American poetry, the poems coalesce to provide a thematic whole that is eye-opening in the honest and unflinching appraisal of what it is like to be a woman passing through the middle of her life into new understanding and maturity.

The long sequences, both called “Walking Wu Wei’s Scroll,” which open and close Five Terraces provide an intriguing framework for a diverse collection that includes mostly well-crafted free verse. Structurally, “Walking Wu Wei’s Scroll” works much like the curtain and proscenium arch of theatre, transitioning the reader from the outside world to the inner world of the artist. The sequences describe the experience of observing a scroll painting and set the pace for reading the rest of the poems. Taking each section of the scroll into close consideration, the poem models for the reader how to approach and interact with another’s work of art. Snapshot-like, each segment presents a single moment, with all of its possibilities intact. The sequence also begins to delineate the themes through imagistic portrayals of desire, grief, loss, and denial of self. Furthermore, it introduces the philosophical goal of inhabiting the moment which the speaker seeks to embody throughout the book:

Ah, the courage to leave something empty
To wait, and wait

                                  And wait,
 As the hair-thin fishing boats float and wait

                      till at last, the world (as we call it)
reconstitutes itself in the solemnity of boulders.

By contrast, “The Trinket Poems,” raw and powerful in their examination of desire felt and denied, express the disquiet of a middle-aged woman’s struggle with her own physical changes and her continued, if thinly concealed, sexual desire. This section chronicles the author’s performance of Tennessee Williams’s character Trinket in a 2002 staging of The Mutilated. Trinket’s rough and bawdy sexuality acts as a foil to the speaker’s hesitancy in expressing her own potent sexuality. Fisher-Wirth presents a wrenching contrast between the young players “like a pack of puppies with each other’s bodies” and the mature distance of the speaker who is all too aware of her body’s aging: “the raddled flesh you can’t help / wrapping like mangy furs around the queen.” Yet, even in her distressed contemplation, the speaker asks, “but what is missing after all?” and, for a moment, she “steps into the fire” of her youthful passions once again. It is this awareness of what is real and what is only stage glitter and greasepaint which prevents the Trinket poems from slipping into a maudlin catalogue of the discomforts of aging and elevates this series to a meditation of acceptance despite loss, as in “Butoh: Bird”:   

How silly you are, Trinket. The world
Is infinite. Leave your room by the spiral
staircase, leave the ghostly bedstead and
the half-smoked cigarette, Mardi Gras bead
iridescent, gold, blue as the veins of
your hands on the mirror. Take your scar—
what poets call the proud flesh. Wear it.
Pain is infinite.          

Acceptance of loss is one of the primary themes in the collection; the poems in subsequent sections cover more typical occurrences in a woman’s life such as the deaths of both parents and her children’s passage from childhood into adulthood. Less expected is the rediscovery of a lost love from her youth and the painful realization that, despite whatever desire she may have to rekindle the earlier passion, there is no possibility of reclaiming that lost love without destroying the life she’s been living for the past forty years. The speaker learns that her place is “not to cause, but to accept this pain.” The question becomes, not why should I suffer loss, but why should I not suffer? The best example of this motif is in “Still the Bodhisattva Comes,” in which ”the Bodhisattva comes / to teach us the path through suffering” and the speaker realizes that, although the outcome, which in this poem is the death of the cat, may be postponed, it will eventually—“If not now it will be later”— occur, in spite of all she does.

Since death and suffering are inescapable and unimaginable the speaker realizes that the only way through suffering is to love. “Bring every bowl and ewer, / every cup and chalice, jar / for love will fill them all,” she admonishes the reader, and “shake them out when you need them most // For love is strong as death.” Cecilia Woloch aptly comments that the poems demonstrate “a love big enough to take in the world and conjure the erasure of everything so beloved.” In bringing together life and death, being and not being, the poems heighten the sense of urgency; love becomes less abstract, more burning as the speaker contemplates encroaching death in poems such as “Marriage”:    

Night opens her dress
The great winds of the world
Arrange themselves for storm outside our window

I pull the quilts around us closer.

That such a one as he should ever die—

Fisher-Wirth’s poems show the broad range of approaches that free verse makes possible. Her use of line breaks and spacing in the poems is impeccable and helps to reinforce, at times breathlessly, at times with tight control, the emotional content of her work, as in “Here”:

We don’t need, yet, to step      
                                                       back inside houses, here grief is
            not yet, the rain sluices
                        down on me, on his chill flesh,
                                                 his drenched flannel shirt, his collarbone
                                     still with its warm pulse, what’s dry?
Nothing, nothing, laughing so
                                     in the woods where people won’t come
                         where people won’t come except us in the thunder.

Less effective, I feel, are the prose poems scattered through the text. While at times these poems fill in important narrative details (for example one introduces the lover who will be at the center of the narrator’s emotional crisis), they don’t stand alone outside the context of the book. A notable exception is “The River” with its combination of prose lines and free verse which together illustrate the author’s imagined vision of life passing into death.   

Fisher-Wirth’s joy in language, and in the play between words’ meanings in different languages—for instance, “Blesser: (Fr.) To Wound, to Hurt; to Offend, to Injure; to Wring, to Shock, to Gall”—is also a source of pleasure. But what makes Five Terraces so compelling is its central message: The speaker is able to inhabit moments of grief and loss, and come finally to peace. Fisher-Wirth invites the reader too to look behind the mask, to face and accept the real, in all of its anguish and joy.  

Ann Fisher-Wirth is the author of two books of poems: Blue Window (Archer Books, 2003) and Five Terraces (Wind Publications, 2005). She has also published two chapbooks: The Trinket Poems (Wind, 2003) and Walking Wu Wei’s Scroll (Drunken Boat, 2005). Her poems have appeared in The Georgia Review, The Kenyon Review, The Connecticut Review, ISLE, Runes, and other journals, and in numerous anthologies. A Professor of English, she teaches environmental literature, poetry seminars, and workshops at the University of Mississippi. Her academic publications include, William Carlos Williams and Autobiography: The Woods of His Own Nature, and numerous articles on American writers.