Paperback: 88 pages
Publisher: Graywolf Press (May 26, 2009)
Reviewed by John Madera
"First Song," the last poem in Fred Marchant's The Looking House, may be used as a beacon to navigate through the many courses this collection takes, the disparate subjects it grapples with. After everything is said, it seems to say, "Trust all the wood you stand on, / Become an ally of the grain, / Bend in the Wind." The poem asks us to give ourselves up to our symbiotic relationship with nature. It goes on to tell us to "Trust even the high, precarious places, / The steeples and windy overhangs / That teach you everything." And from the start, in the prefatory poem, "House on Water, House in Air," Marchant transports the reader to a home in the sky. This is not the "house of many mansions" of Saint John's gospel, but a house "lifted from its mooring," a "house made of air, / house nailed by less than a dream..." It's an idea Marchant returns to throughout the collection. For instance, in "Ard na Mara," there is a house "above a pasture swooping down / to the tide, a thirty-foot drop."
If "First Song" is a keyhole through which the many objects contained in the looking house may be seen, then the second half of "The Salt Stronger" may be considered its keystone. In the tradition of Aristotle, Horace, and countless other poets, in "The Salt Stronger" Marchant offers his own Ars Poetica. Poetry is a powerful element that "arrives like a miracle," it "clings to the acknowledged lawmakers," and stays "with them in their dreams." Like salt it "eat[s] at the cloth and reach[es] down / to the skin / and beyond / the calf / into the shin..." Poetry "tastes like the iodine in blood,/ or the copper in spit, and makes a salt stronger than tears."
Marchant's subjects and inspirations include Aeschylus's Agamemnon, "quitting" the Vietnam War (Marchant was honorably discharged as a conscientious objector), Lyn Doiron's sculpture, the martyrdom of Saint Agnes, Saul Bellow, Archilochus, Faraj Sarkohi (who, according the endnotes, is "an Iranian editor and fiction writer who lives now in exile after repeated imprisonments,") and "[t]he feeler, and the feet [of a stinging wasp], tickling your cheek," moonlight, rain, and "glimmering retinas of night." He celebrates books, finds "small aperture[s] opening within...words," relishes the "[s]mell of book-glue, old cardboard / and red ink at the edges." He believes "in such strange incomplete rhymes, / in words alone / and what lives in between them." Visiting a loved one in a nursing home he contemplates the possibility of storms "toppling" a towering spruce and swears "off the small talk of hope and recovery." In "Nobody Too," Marchant wants to be "the wind / that lifts the grass lightly, / and bends the lupines..."
"The Looking House" is filled with numerous apertures, doors, windows, portholes through which insight is gleaned from tiny things like spiders, salt, and flies, and big ideas like illness, death and dying, loss, and war. While Marchant's poems are certainly places where I watched "a wild scattering of loss unfold," at the same time they offered insightful reflections, exquisite lyricism, and such beautiful imagery that instead of collapsing under a burden of sadness, I felt inspired at the capacity of words to heal, build, strengthen, and to illuminate.
About the author:
John Madera is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.You may find him at elimae, ArtVoice, Underground Voices, Little White Poetry Journal #7, hitherandthithering waters and My Pet Earworm, reviewing for The Collagist, The Diagram, The Quarterly Conversation, 3:AM Magazine, New Pages, Open Letters Monthly, The Rumpus, and Word Riot, forthcoming at Opium Magazine, Corduroy Mountain, The Prairie Journal: A Magazine of Canadian Literature, and Publishing Genius Press, and editing the online journal The Chapbook Review. He sings and plays guitar for Mother Flux.
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