Poetry Porch: Poetics


Fallout: Poems by Fred Feirstein. Cincinnati: Word Press, 2008. ISBN 9781934999097 $18.00 (paper).

Reviewed by F. D. Reeve

          Ever since his first book Survivors was a Choice Magazine Outstanding Book for 1976, Fred Feirstein has been captivating readers with his dexterous, forceful poetry. A Guggenheim Fellow and twice a Pulitzer nominee, he has led the way to a new American poetry distinguished by its formal specifics and the range and energy of its metaphors. Feirstein is one of the top New Formalists and a dynamic, highly original dramatist. Both his poems and his plays have been shaped by his work as a psychoanalyst, for, as he says in an afterward in “Fallout,” “Working with metaphor, plot, characters, meter and rhyme both in the lyric sequence and the dramatic monologue, helped me stay not only emotionally alive but self-analytical.” You can see the power of the metaphors and the ways they build meaning by looking at the affective differences between the seventeen poems grouped in a section called “The Unholy Ground,” marking the violation of what “was your silver, immortal city,” and the eighteen subdivisions of the dramatic monologue, “Dark Carnival,” a fictional tale about 9/11 itself, the loss of son-in-law Jack, and New Yorkers’ responses. The whole book is thrillingly ambitious and its craft, handsomely accomplished.

          From the opening poems, the language identifies a poet of warm sympathies, who possesses the power to simplify poignantly:

    The past is like a library after dark
    Where we sit on the steps trading stories
    With characters we imagined ourselves to be.

City life is a series of street skits where subways rattle underground and events are stacked in newsstands. What seemed the permanent world in youth melds into the acrid smoke of the Bronx burning. Parallel to our being what we have done—our past defines and reveals us even as it haunts us—we are also who we were—chiefly, our parents—whom we are constantly trying to reestablish in memory, like perfectly solving a card-table-sized jigsaw puzzle. As the gentle poem “For My Father” concludes, the poet wants to feel what his father felt during World War II:

    And the radio crackling Yiddish about more loss,
    Stupendous loss which now we feel in scale,
    Like those model aircraft carriers we made
    For my toy planes and while Mom cooked us supper
    We knelt down on her linoleum floor
    And, making zooming crashing sounds, we played.

In the world of war, or what’s called “the real world,” we keep getting older, but in the world of metaphor, time lies wholly within its formal arrangements. Metaphors are vehicles of timeless travel, cars drawn by imagination’s locomotive. In happy ambiguity, they often travel three or four tracks simultaneously. Feirstein is particularly good at setting our feet in the ordinary and wrapping our heads in the thunder and lightning of history, so that in this long, rhymed poem in New York diction, “Dark Carnival,” we’re in twenty-first century public disaster, fifteenth century seafaring history, twentieth century utopian satire, and the small and simple consciousness of Everyman every day:

    I’m on Columbus, Brave New World, where shops
    Open with pushed-up gates and shaking mops,
    And young clerks happy at their One More Day,
    As all New Yorkers fight off fear, decay
    Of hope, of optimism, youth and luck.
    The next attack we’ll all be horror-struck.

We end, with mordant irony, at “Our Tourist Site.” A “meteorite” turned the living into ghosts, and we, in a half-mile-wide hole with bits of rubble left by yellow bulldozers that have shoveled out bones and steel to landfills, are “rummaging for their souls.”

    “Help me,” cries the poet—
    Barriers must rise around our agonies,
    Like this fence keeps the crowd alive and free
    Of ghosts....

The people who remain comprise the city of this poem. Its metaphors carry them (and us) “to thirty years and back” or, in everyday speech, to the words and music of “Yesterday.”

          “Spring Music” opens the fourth section, “Fallout: Five Years Later.” A culmination of the themes that have been weaving through the book’s words and images, it rises on a jaunty tone, bouncing snapshots from memory off present conditions, suggesting line after line in this poem and in the ones to come, what “fallout” is:

    Did you ever think we would come to this,
    Who lived from kiss to kiss to kiss?
    Did you think our bodies would frighten us
    When we were free and wild and dangerous?

          The book comes to a close with, aptly, “Re-reading,” a loose-hanging, highly moral summing-up of what measures a life as it drives forward through misfortune and meaninglessness. To remember a life is to re-read its story; as we re-read, we look for meaning; unsure of what we find, we turn for mercy—substance and dream collated:

    When we re-read the fictions of our lives,
    The genre changes with the characters
    And what, for instance, seemed a bawdy comedy
    Becomes, with consequences, tragedy,
    And our best qualities become our worst.
    So bravery, for instance, and tenacity
    Become impulsiveness, rigidity...
    Often re-reading is like reading Braille
    When we’re not blind—we see it makes no sense
    Anymore than a sleepwalker’s dream,
    Our arms outstretched for meaning, till Time wakes us
    To what is strangely present, dangerous.
    And so in many colors, tongues we pray,
    God have mercy on us, God have mercy on us.

Here we have the present, consummate work of a man who is a lyric and narrative poet, a dramatist, a librettist, a song writer, a translator (Chaucer), a novelist, and a scenarist writing out of awe and love of his New York.