Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Snowpacked Mystic

Patricia Fargnoli, Winter: Poems

Winter usually hits Patricia Fargnoli’s adoptive New Hampshire home like a doubled fist, pounding neighborhoods and shrouding the countryside in heavy weather and long nights. People flee indoors, venturing out only with great deliberation and purpose. That is the winter in Fargnoli’s latest collection, not necessarily ice and wind, though she has that; but the enforced isolation, the period when people must keep alone with their own thoughts.

Unlike other prominent poets, Patricia Fargnoli came to poetry relatively late. She published her first collection in 1999, after a long, successful career in psychotherapy and social work. This gives her work a remarkable tone, simultaneously youthful and brimming with experiment, yet seasoned by life and hard experience. She’s both the kid testing her poetic limits, and the grande dame bestowing accumulated wisdom, as in “Winter Grace”:
If you have seen the snow
under the lamppost
piled up like a white beaver hat on the picnic table
or somewhere slowly falling
into the brook
to be swallowed by water,
then you have seen beauty
and known it for its transience.
This imagery, at once somehow obviously true yet uniquely her own, bespeaks Fargnoli’s greater themes. Winter happens in intimate moments, times when people know one another in greatest depth, or face themselves wholly. Winter’s isolation, its enforced confidences, make people doff their masks. Repeatedly throughout this collection, Fargnoli describes what happens when people stop pretending and be who they are, including (perhaps especially) herself.

In keeping with this theme, Fargnoli judiciously decides which poetic conventions merit her loyalty. She mostly eschews rhyme, as contemporary poets generally do, but occasionally dances very close to it, when sound help emphasize her theme. (She shows remarkable awareness of words as units of sound, not just meaning, one of my pet issues.) And she wrestles stanzaic forms to serve her ends, as in “Plea to the Missing God”:
I am confined here living alone
indigent and like a snail.

They say you are loving. I salute you.
Here among the action of the wind

will your voice come to me?
Is it only echo, echo?

Will you say nothing
across the bones of what is hidden?

I am pregnant with words, please answer me.
That ragged single line dangling after those two-line stanzas jabs like a coffin nail, emphasizing the incompleteness that drives Fargnoli to write. Fargnoli’s heartfelt agnostic prayer thus physically recreates the feeling of desperation we all feel when isolation drives us to cry out into the dark. We don’t know, maybe actively disbelieve, whether anybody’s listening, but we recognize ourselves as incomplete, and in that moment, recognition is enough.

>Not that Fargnoli is utterly detached and bereft. Besides encounters with other humans, Fargnoli remains in constant conversation with other minds that aren’t always corporeally present. Her verses banter across distance and time with other poets; she cites Tomas Tranströmer, Ruth Stone, Charles Wright, and Thomas Merton, among others. Sometimes she builds upon themes other poets buried in her soul; other times, she disputes with them, struggling for closure.

In these poems, “winter” isn’t always literally present. “Glosa,” Fargnoli’s answer poem to Thomas Merton, depicts a sunlit outdoor encounter, verdant with Spanish splendor. Yet she concludes by emphasizing: this happened in the past. It’s done now. We were together in summer; it’s winter now, and I recall our encounter privately, knowing we’ll never recapture that single moment again. This winter isn’t a season, it’s a phase of life.
Fargnoli’s best poems have a hazy, dreamlike quality, moments that matter because they exist entirely within us. Several poems explicitly depict dreams, like “Dreamwork,” wherein a dream of intimate connection haunts Fargnoli long after she awakens. Others have dreamy hints, questioning whether we’re awake in a particular moment, like this from “Bellows Falls”:
Outside again. No one’s on the sidewalk.
Perhaps the cold keeps them in?
Or something else?
Then one old man comes from the north,
black overcoat, black stocking hat, tortoise shell cane
he taps on the walk like the Knock Code.
As he nears, he speaks, a low voice
as if you weren’t entirely meant to hear.
Fargnoli’s Winter is bleak, ghostly, and alone. Yet it brims with life, because humans inject themselves into the vacuum. This gives her work a mystical quality, yet it’s a mysticism that doesn’t reach for invisible worlds; Fargnoli seeks communion with another human soul, or with her own shadow spirit. She invites us into moments of stunning, unadorned intimacy. And she asks us to confront ourselves, too.

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