"Surely there are infinite patterns, meanings, and people rendered invisible by our unintentional disregard," wrote Alice Fulton in "To Organize a Waterfall," one of ten essays collected in Feeling as a Foreign Language: The Good Strangeness of Poetry, published in 1999. Elucidating her poetics and diagnosing poetry's blind spots, Fulton created a fitting preamble to Cascade Experiment, her selected poems, which represents, among other themes, an extraordinary remaking of a world by challenging perception's inertias.
Opposing a poetry of narcissism that she has branded the chief American affliction, Fulton is concerned with giving otherness due regard. To engage with an external world in crisis is, for her, not so much a question of artistic responsibility as a matter of where one cares to focus attention. "Seeing's / such a commemorative gesture," she writes in "Peripheral Vision." She knows that attending to those on the margins the oppressed, the exploited, the poor, the neglected makes her" culturally incorrect," but facing a culture whose tradition has allowed cruelty and injustice such momentum, she longs to interrupt. In her essay "A Poetry of Inconvenient Knowledge," she explains: "I'd like poetry to unhinge the prevailing culture with the same degree of subtlety insidiousness, if you will that it has used to uphold that culture."
It would be simplistic to call Fulton a feminist writer, for she did not invent a world where 70 percent of the poor are women, where wars and torture are usually instigated by men. And yet her tone consistently avoids indignation and invites dialogue. She conveys an evenhandedness that seems just as likely to implicate herself as others. In "Art Thou the Thing I Wanted," one of many poems addressing hardships faced particularly by women, she writes "Like others, / I mistake whatever is / for what is natural." And "You know the commonplaces. How people think / women are good / at detail work when that's the only work / they're given." Some poems confront ways in which younger generations inherit cultural attitudes. With the following dialogue, occurring in "Cherry Bomb," she gets a point across without proselytizing: "Mother, are there monuments for women / dead of children? // Child, women are the designated weepers / at monuments for men."
In her essay "What Abu Ghraib Taught Me," Barbara Ehrenreich writes, "It is not enough to be equal to men, when the men are acting like beasts. It is not enough to assimilate. We need to create a world worth assimilating into." Fulton creates such a world in her poems, where taking the established orders to task is often a given point of departure, and where most of the energy serves to demonstrate the kinds of generous behaviors and beautiful formal fields that can define a microcosm. At times, Fulton has an undeterred romantic impulse, as in this passage from "Behavioral Geography":
I cling to wishful visions
like someone clinging to a tree, complaining
that the tree won't leave.
Hope springs up in me.
Lost, found, bewildered,
when will I learn
to like unsettling transits,
to use the universal
corrective of the sky,
a continental drift
with nothing fixed about it?
A concern for justice is everywhere in her work. It is difficult to imagine people in power similarly bothered by external suffering, but not so hard to believe that Fulton was exactly the kind of poet Shelley had in mind when he said "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world."
The title Cascade Experiment is a scientific term that Fulton has explained as "a kind of domino effect in which each event incites the next." As a rare poet who can simultaneously explain her work and expand its range of possible readings, she is drawn to adopting other scientific principles, such as the supercluster. She explains, "A supercluster word charged, vibrating, mutable creates itself anew with the poem... I consider the word cascade a supercluster. The cluster words or components of CASCADE include: the spill, waterfall, blitz, flood, accident, slip, pivot, fountain, anima." She clearly wants her work, as did Emily Dickinson, to "dwell in Possibility." Another formal device, deriving from fractal geometry, involves constructing individual lines to be smaller-scale versions of the larger poem. In Fulton's poetics, "fractal form... is composed of constant digressions and interruptions in rhythm." For many years, she has been calling for a Fractal School of poetics, yet she still remains its most vocal advocate and practitioner, while reminding us that poets such as Dickinson also employed the technique.
As in her book Sensual Math, Fulton's mathematical concerns include relationships, patterns, divisions, equality. One of the things she is most known for is her invention of the symbol "= =" it is another kind of supercluster, seemingly welcome to whatever interpretations may apply. In a poem titled "= =" Fulton offers several possibilities: "It might mean immersion"; "the sign I call a bride / after the recessive threads in lace = = / the stitches forming deferential / space around the firm design." And "It's the unconsidered / mortar between the silo's bricks = = never admired / when we admire / the holdfast of the tiles" and "dash / to the second power = = dash to the max." Like any writing that demands a new way of reading, it takes getting used to, but it eventually starts to feel like something of a slow undertow, pulling the words before the sign and after the sign towards the center before releasing them. Or perhaps another interpretation: equality must happen in the plural, and each side of the equation should have its own identical sign. One could argue that the original equal sign has two identical lines, but readers tend to gloss over that sign habitually Fulton could be suggesting that the meaning of equality needs reconsideration.
Fulton's comprehensive writings about her own work challenge reviewers to comment on something she has not already covered. One such aspect could be her concern with closure. This seems to stem in part from a realization that so many lives are defined by pain, and the hope that another life could follow. The first poem in Cascade Experiment, "What I Like," begins with the lines "Friend I can't forget / how even the word contains an end" and ends with no punctuation. As a bookend, the last poem in the collection, "Close," ends with a period cancelled out with a proofreader's mark. This is appropriate, since a cascade experiment calls for more events. In effect, Fulton has conceived a project for a lifetime. Subsequent books are likely to reverberate back through this supercharged collection.VERSE
Editors: Brian Henry, Andrew Zawacki
Managing Editor: Kevin Hart
Associate Editor: Chris McDermott