What Lies Beneath: Christopher Crawford on Jessica Garratt’s Fire Pond


fire pond

Fire Pond, Jessica Garratt, University of Utah Press

How hard it is to find poetry that I actually like. How infrequently I pick up a book, open it and agree with what the poet is doing, what the poet is saying, how the poet is saying it.
How hard it is to write good poetry.

Fire Pond, Jessica Garratt‘s first full length book, was selected by Medbh McGuckian as the winner of the 2008 Agha Shahid Ali Prize in Poetry and it is filled, for the most part, with very well-handled poems. The image of a fire pond as a quiet reflective place used as a water source in the case of fire ( in case of fire, please break surface) is extremely pertinent for the poems themselves seem to have been written as a sort of salve for an itch within Garratt: herself. These poems are beautifully constructed handbooks full of clues toward the meaning of ourselves and our fate in the world and they are written in such a way as to show, unhidden, the steps the poet took in order to seek that knowledge.

The body and mind, specifically the poet’s, play a huge role in this book alongside the forces of nature which seems to provide a key to understanding both. The body and mind in Fire Pond seem at odds with each other, each unable to understand the other. Indeed, she intimates that the body is a betrayer, almost tricking us into a meeting with death.

In the poem “ Without” she writes of a boy she knew who has drowned and wonders if the moment of his death had travelled within his body all his life:

a weightless freckle in his vision he barely noticed
but saw everything through.

What informs these poems is a feeling that we lack understanding regarding our position and allied to this is a sense of consequence, of no escape from the destiny of self which we are blind to in our daily lives and which lives inside us.
Later, in the same poem she writes:

He was still just trying to breathe:
as an animal might, to the last, without thought or witness,

without groping inward towards that cold, intimate stone.

Here is the crux. The stone we all carry and make no attempt to “grope towards.”
Garratt, on the other hand, is constantly asking questions, answering them herself, more often leaving them unanswered, feeling her way along in loose, rangy, intimate tones as though having a cup of coffee on the front porch with the reader, telling stories, trying to get to the bottom of things. This is not to say that she isnt precise. Take this example of a conversational tone together with careful word choices in the poem “Neighborhood”:

The sky is sufficiently blank.

You could never tell by looking
whether it meant to resemble a high marble ceiling, a pall,
or just someones painting of clouds before rain.

You could never tell if it was a lid, closed
on peace or on war.
Or if an eye lay behind it, alive
in the dark, knowing
the difference.

Meanwhile, the young men practice.

I am sure, without knowing it as a fact, that many of these poems found themselves in the writing process, with the moment of epiphany arriving almost as unexpectedly for the poet as for the reader. Here is a passage in which Garratt reminds me of a fossil hunter gently removing layers of shale, slate, dusting loose dirt from each surface until what is being looked for, hoped for, is found:

Surely the plane can’t pass up such temptation
to let go of the air…
Surely it’s too efficient
to be blessed or doomed
to want more than anything
the very thing you’re good for. To always believe
in the circle, it’s exhausting,
the thrice-checked fuel, the round-trip, ironclad halves
of expectation and delivery. Failure is the natural response
to such innocence and completion.
How strange all the planes havent fallen.

Jessica Garrett has an instinct for linebreaks which do good work. She also uses poetic forms which remind me of those manliest of poets Jack Gilbert and William Carlos Williams, and a tone which sometimes approaches the humane thought processes of Kenneth Rexroth.

One thing, however, that I feel is missing from Fire Pond at times is raw energy. Perhaps it’s just not that kind of book but I would like to see what Garratt can do when she is really angry. Too often the poems seek and accept but they do not impose. These poems of self doubt and self discovery could benefit from a spark of anger, some fire to counteract the water. Having said that, I like this book, am impressed with Garratt’s control of her medium and liking Fire Pond is enough of a reason to make it stand out. We can surely look forward to new and exciting work from this poet as she develops.

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