Usher, B. H. Fairchild, W. W. Norton & Company
A few years ago in an Introduction to Poetry course I taught at Miami University in Ohio I assigned a dozen-or-so ballads and narrative poems, including the anonymous “Bonny Barbara Allen,” Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening” and X. J. Kennedy’s “In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus One Day.” The last question in my pop quiz asked my 45 undergraduates which poem they liked best. More than half of them wrote that they preferred B. H. Fairchild’s “Body and Soul.” I was taken aback by their responses. At 110 lines “Body and Soul” was the longest poem assigned. It was probably the most difficult and complex poem in the group. As anyone who has read Fairchild’s free-verse narrative about a 1946 baseball game in Commerce, Oklahoma, with its ragtag team of post–Depression/WWII players—to whom a fifteen-year-old offers himself as a rookie—“Body and Soul” is as ponderable as it is riveting. The fifteen-year old, who happens to be the Hall-of-Fame slugger Mickey Mantle, bats five home runs and embarrasses the gang of down-and-out townies. In his final line Fairchild describes “the blonde and blue-eyed” Mantle as one “who will not easily be forgiven.” Lesser poets commemorating an event of local lore might have ended this line with the word “forgotten,” thereby sentimentalizing the occasion and placing Mantle on a predictable pedestal—or mantelpiece! In describing his poem’s hero as “not easily. . .forgiven,” Fairchild tossed my undergraduates a curved ball, as if to say, “The winner does not take all but, rather, takes on lots of Bronx cheers, a ballpark of hard feelings.” Despite its dilemmas—or perhaps because of them—my students voted for “Body and Soul” and spoke up about it one day in a class that I recall was unusually animated.
“The Art of the Lathe” came out about 10 years ago and walked off with a hefty armful of awards due to the power of poems like “Body and Soul.” In 2002, having signed on with a large commercial press, Fairchild won what is arguably our third most prestigious book prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, for his dauntingly titled “Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest.” If the phrase, “memory systems,” sounds like scientific jargon, bear in mind that “the art of the lathe” could just as well be seen as a science. At any rate, Fairchild has never harbored a Romantic poet’s distaste for science. As the son of a lathe operator, he would never, like Poe, have referred to science as a “Vulture, whose wings are dull realities.” Neither would Fairchild have ever embraced Wordsworth’s distrust of “our meddling intellect.”
On the contrary, in his new fifth full-length book Fairchild’s love for the intellect is as ardent as his passion for the oil fields of Texas and the sand hills of Kansas. His latest poems are peopled with philosophers—Gödel, Hume, Wittgenstein—as well as theologians—Niebuhr, Tillich—who, though they most certainly are not depicted as spitting wads of the Red Man chewing tobacco Fairchild festishizes, seem to sprout out of urban sidewalks as if out of winter wheat fields. Fairchild’s eggheaded obsession with the “ontic” appears insatiable. No poet I know in his generation is as preoccupied as Fairchild with the nature of being. Even the author of “Ideas of Order,” Wallace Stevens, slouches alongside of Fairchild when it comes to dealing with the history of philosophy.
To be sure, Fairchild’s epigraph-laden book teems with wrecked tractors and rusted pickups. With small family farms having gone bankrupt thanks to gigantic agribusinesses that have commandeered the land; with hog and chicken “factories” whose animals never see the light of day—something is rotten in mid-America. Fairchild may not be one of those “Socialists” John McCain and Sarah Palin recently whined about. But in thinking about abandoned towns in our nation’s heartland, the poet remembers that “Eugene Debs set up The People’s College in Fort Scott,” Kansas. At one point Fairchild is so riled, his grassroots agenda so clear, that he refers to the legendary Socialist candidate for the U.S. presidency as “Comrade Debs.”
More important, as far as I’m concerned, is the way this book goes beyond social realism and regionalism, breaking ground that may not be wholly “new,” but that marks the most significant departure from Fairchild’s Midwest Sojourn I’ve seen thus far. This book’s title poem is at least as masterly as any of Frank Bidart’s best persona poems. Paul Mariani may be right, on the basis of its title poem, to call this collection “an American classic.”
Sporting approximately 160 lines, halfway between the length of “Prufrock” and “The Death of the Hired Man,” “Usher” is an epistolary dramatic monologue spoken in hexameters—a relaxed version of Homer’s dactylic hexameter—by a young Jewish theology student, Nathan Gold. The setting is the Upper West Side of New York City, where Gold works part-time in a movie theater during the 1950s. Like Fairchild lamenting the desecration of our hinterland, Gold condemns the “goddamned Cross Bronx Expressway” masterminded by the Big Wormy Apple’s kingpin city planner, Robert Moses, who razed whole neighborhoods to build it. Much as I appreciate the vigor of Gold—and Fairchild’s—critique, what I consider to be a matter of greater concern in this poem is the way it uses Loew’s 83rd Street Theater as a metaphor. In ushering “drunks, bums, lovers, priests, housewives,/ cops, street punks shooting up, whores giving blowjobs / in the balcony,” Gold resembles Dante’s guide, Virgil. For that matter, Gold assumes the role of someone leading masses of Athenians to sit in Plato’s cave and view shadows. For all their lack of substance, these images represent mid–twentieth century pop culture: Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, as well as Hubert’s Dime Museum and Al Flosso’s magic shop—New York City mired in what Robert Lowell called “the tranquilized Fifties.” Fairchild is starstruck by freak shows featuring “lovely Olga / and her beard, Sealo the Seal Boy, The Armless Wonder, / Albert-Alberta”; another monologue, the 80-plus-line “Frieda Pushnik,” is spoken by an armless, legless girl. But the most poignant, bizarre character to emerge in the title poem, “Usher”—and, for me, in the entire book—is Gold’s sister, Sivan. In the Dear-Sollie letter written to his brother, Gold says their sister is dying from “glioblastoma multiforme,” brain cancer. Because her doctors won’t prescribe enough Dilaudid to relieve her pain, Gold must cruise the streets for narcotics.
Still, lowlife characters and a dying sister are a sideshow. Gold’s ontological ruminations give way to the poem’s climactic lollapalooza. When you recall that Sivan’s cancer involves a “fat tumor / feeding on the brain, burning from the center / out,” you pay closer attention to the excruciating final lines that replicate Sivan’s medical condition in their description of what happens inside the movie theater after the projectionist falls asleep during a Grace Kelly movie, with
sticking, flap, flap, then stuck, no one to turn the lamp off ,
small ghosts of smoke, a black hole starting at the center
of the frame (the Big Bang must have looked like that),
flame eating outward at the curling edges, spreading,
Grace swallowed slowly by the widening fire, then gone,
the film snaps, bringing down an avalanche of light,
the sun’s flood a billion years from now, earth sucked
into the flames, lurid, omnivorous, the whole room
stunned and silvered with it, shadows peeled away,
each gray scarf, each shawl of darkness lifted, the audience
revealed in all their nakedness, their uncoveredness
and soiled humanity, among the candy wrappers,
condoms, butts, crushed Dixie cups, as we wait for Grace
to reappear. . .and for Sivan.
Tense shifts abound in this slow-motion moment that lasts from Genesis to the Apocalypse. Grace Kelly’s given name acquires mythic significance, as does that of Sivan—which means “spring season,” the Hebrew equivalent of our “May” or “June,” girls’ given names.
As the saying goes, “Even Homer nodded.” Certain poems here, most notably “Hart Crane in Havana,” strike me as not entirely successful experiments. And in places Fairchild can be lachrymose, melodramatic, sanctimonious. But “Hume,” “The Deer,” “Madonna and Child, Perryton, Texas, 1967,” “Moth” and the hilarious “Final Exam” would be faves in any Introduction to Poetry course—along with “Frieda Pushkin” and the über-magnificent title poem. I like to think of this book as striving to rebuild Hart Crane’s “The Bridge.” Insofar as the way it handles the Gold family during the 1950s and after 9/11, I think of it as somehow Salingeresque. “The Cottonwood Lounge” and “What He Said” are amazing syntactic tours de force. As Fairchild himself might exclaim, “I mean, for God’s sake”!
Regarding the book’s cover art, a detail from Edward Hopper’s moody masterpiece, “New York Movie”: Many poets in Fairchild’s generation had fallen in love with Hopper’s paintings even before Lloyd Goodrich came out with his mega-book in connection with a Hopper exhibition at the Whitney Museum in the early 1970s. Up until now I’ve associated Fairchild’s work with paintings by Thomas Hart Benton, Charles Burchfield and Thomas Eakins—though never Grant Wood. Well, Hopper’s “New York Movie” is a thing of beauty and a joy to see, as ever. It’s a perfect fit for “Usher.”
James Reiss, whose surname rhymes with “peace,” has had poems in such places as The Atlantic, The Kenyon Review, The Nation, The New Republic, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Poetry, Slate and Virginia Quarterly Review. His most recent book is “Riff on Six: New and Selected Poems.” His personal Web site is http://www.jamesreiss.com/