An Alphabet of Poets – F is for Fairchild

F is for Fairchild

To celebrate National Poetry Month I am featuring a new poet for each day of April. I will be at my abecedarian best and go through the alphabet from a to z, with a few letters getting more than one post!

What He Said

When Candi Baumeister announced to us all
that J. D. was in love with Brigitte Bardot,
drawing those two syllables out like some kid
stretching the pink strands of Dubble Bubble
from between her teeth, J. D. chose
not to duck his head in the unjust shame
of the truly innocent, but rather lifted it
in the way of his father scanning the sky
in silent prayer for the grace of rain abundant
upon his doomed soybeans or St. Francis
blessing sparrows or the air itself, eyes radiant
with Truth and Jesus and said Babydoll,
I would walk on my tongue from here to Amarillo
Just to wash her dishes.
                                     There is a time
in the long affliction of our spoken lives when,
among all the verbal bungling, stupidity,
and general disorder that burden us
like the ragged garment of flesh itself, when,
beneath the vast and articulate shadows
of the saints of language, the white dove of genius
with its quick, wild wings has entered our souls,
our immaculate ignorance, and we are,
at last, redeemed. And so is conceived and born
the thing said, finally, well nay perfectly—
as it might be said by that unknowable Being
for whom we have in our mortal linguistic
incapacity no adequate name except the one
Candi Baumeister bore in her own virginal
moment of absolute poetry : My God, J. D.

from Usher, Norton, 2009

Forget the rural American Midwest – Kansas, Oklahoma-or any place that makes a prison of a poet, defines him or her by place! Oh yes, B.H. (Pete) Fairchild is as much a “poet of Place” as any master poet I can think of. But By God he is more than that. This man is as fine as poet as I can think of in any place, anywhere.

For the record, I think Fairchild at his best is as good as any of the world’s poetry heavy weights. Heaney, Oliver, Lane, Walcott. Yes! And yes, these poets define a place:Heaney,Ireland; Walcott, the West Indies; Oliver, the eastern US; Lane, the British   Columbia interior. But at their best they define something universal, placeless. Steeped in place their work transcends it.

The epigraph by Robert Creeley in Fairchild’s second full-length book of poetry, Local Knowledge, says it all:

The local is not a place but a place is a given
man – what part of it he has been compelled or
else brought by love to give witness to in his
own mind. And THAT is the form, that is,  the
whole thing, as whole as it can get.

The author of five full-length poetry volumes Fairchild’s work has garnered numerous awards. His third book The Art of the Lathe published in 1998 won seven major awards and was short-listed for the National Book Award. His Fourth book The Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest won the 2003 National Book Critics Award. Two of his poems, too long to be included here have become classics, Body and Soul and Rave On. The poet Anthony Hecht, calls Body and Soulthe best baseball poem I know.” Rave On s a tour-de-force that the indie music group Over the Rhine has made into a compelling song.

Here is a short poem, unusual for Fairchild, and also unusual for its short lines:

Desire
                               I want! I want!
– William Blake

Desire is endless.
Singing to the moon, you think it will sink
softly into your arms.
After a hot spasm of love,
you think, that was good,
but it could have been better.
On Saturday nights in Synder
all the drunks came to the big red
revival tent to be cured.
Later they would celebrate,
singing “Your Cheatin’ Heart”
and passing around a bottle of Southern Comfort.
Earl Penny in Las Vegas
won big, lost it all,
and in ecstasy and song
slammed his car into a concrete wall.
So, people keep taking out garbage
every Monday and Thursday.
It never stops. There they go
in their pajamas, cursing
the cold pavement under their feet.

from Usher, Norton 2009

Thanks to Image, the quarterly journal of so-called Art, Faith, Mystery, published out of Seattle and its legendary Glen Workshop West, put on every summer in Santa Fe, I have had the privilege of hearing Fairchild read and being taught by him. His description of what poetry is remains the most compelling I have encountered. Here are some excerpts from an interview in the Summer 2011 issue of Rattle, published out of California:

Poetry is the being there. That’s about as abbreviated as I can make that.

What poetry is engaged in…is not the language of [prose] aboutness, it’s engaged in the language of isness….The prose in a biology textbook is trying to tell you about the frog; the poem is trying to turn you into a frog. It is trying to do the very difficult thing of trying to give you a sense of frogness.

How do poets achieve this? Mainly through metaphor, lyric tropes. One of the examples he gives of a poem that achieves that isness is Sylvia Plath’s poem Medalion.

Born inHoustonin 1942, and brought up in small “oil” towns of Texas, Oklahoma and  southwest Kansas,  it is understandable that Fairchild is so at ease with the mechanics of oil rigs and machine shops. He brings with such lyric and narrative music the “isness” to life of these places, particularly, the dusty, smoke-filled interiors of small town industrial America of the 1950’s and 60’s.  It is less obvious that he would be equally at home in the intellectual intricacies of philosophy, but he is.

The poem below captures the big and little worlds he lives in. Which is the big and which the little? I am not sure!

The Ascension of Ira Campbell

So there wasCampbell rising in a scream
on the yellow travelling block that carried
five thousand feet of drill pipe in and out
of the hard summer earth that abideth ever,
paperback Tractatus sticking from his hip pocket.
Student and roughneck,Campbelldug his gloves
into the gray swag of metaphysics
and came up empty, but here on the wordless
and wind-flattened high plains he sang,
Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must
be silent. He toiled, looting every
proposition for its true spirit, said
it was the end of language, the dark rustle
of the soul’s wing’s that would haul the mind
beyond meaning. It’s all here, Fairchild,
he screamed, waving the red book above his head,
the cables moaning,Campbell ascending
into the cloud-strewn facts of the sky,
blue or not blue, a sky amazingly itself.

from The Art of the Lathe, Alice James Books, 1998

To profile just a few of Fairchild’s poems feels a crime. He has a wry comic voice, yet one with a melancholic cast;he has a philosopher’s taste for the tough questions, but can also speak of the world with a reverence that evokes the mysterious, the divine; he is not afraid to call on religious imagery and references.

Madonna and Child, Perrytown, Texas, 1967

A litter of pickups nose into Sancho’s Market
south of town late Friday night rinsed in waves
of pink neon and samba music from some station
in Del Rio spilling out across the highway.
Sancho’s wife dances alone behind the cash box
while her daughter, Rosa, tries to quiet her baby
whose squalls rip through the store like a weed-cutter
shredding the souls of the carnal, the appetitious,
indeed the truly depraved as we in our grievous
late-night stupor and post-marijuana hunger
curse the cookie section and all its brethren
and Al yells at Leno lost among the chips,
beef jerky, string cheese, bananas for Chrissakes,
that if he doesn’t stop now and forever telling
Okie jokes he will shoot his dog who can’t hunt
anyway so what the hell,
but the kid is unreal,
a cry ascending to a shriek, then a kind
of rasping roar, the harangue of the gods,
sirens cleaving the air, gangs of crazed locusts
or gigantic wasps that whine and ding our
ears until the air begins to throb around us
and a six-pack of longnecks rattles like snakes
in my hand. And then poor Rosa is kissing
its forehead, baby riding her knee like a little boat
lost at sea, and old Sancho can’t take it either,
hands over his ears. Dios mio, ys basta! Dios mio
so Rosa opens her blouse, though we don’t look,
and then we do, the baby sucking away, plump cheeks
pumping, billowing sails of the Santa   Maria
in a high wind, the great suck of the infinite
making that little nick nick sound. Rosa
smiling down, then Sancho turns off the radio
and we all just stand there in the light and shadow
of a flickering fluorescent bulb, holding
our sad little plastic baskets full of crap,
speechless and dying a little inside as Rosa
whispers no llores, no llores mija, mijita,
no llores
and the child falls asleep, lips
on breast, drops of milk trickling down,
we can even hear it breathing, hear ourselves
breathing, the hush around and that hammer
in our chests so that forty years later
the scene still hangs in my mind, a later work,
unfinished, from the workshop of Zurbaran.

from Usher

The isness of that moment. I as the reader, am there where I have never been, there with those soused, sad, drunken louts, looking, yes, at Rosa’s breasts and then defeated, completed by the mystery of love.  And then Fairchild does a trademark thing.  He reminds us this isn’t a small, local moment. It is a universal forever. He mentions an obscure (to me) Spanish painter, Zurbaran, a painter, known as the Spanish Caravaggio, born in 1598. Suddenly he creates an awareness of what he is trying to do, the mystery of art. How do we hang on to moments – make them infinite. Impossible. But we must try. The best painters and poets try. Fairchild keeps trying and I am richer for each glorious and successful defeat.

 

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