To enter the world of Alice Fulton’s poems is to step into a space where language becomes an instrument—at times musical, yes, but at other times a weapon, or a stick to prod open the underbelly of some dark dream. The language in her latest collection is ambiguous in the best way, inviting us to contemplate all of the directions one line can lead. Consider the title: Barely Composed. Does it indicate the mental state of the speaker, harried and at the point of spilling over? Does it call up dissonance, sprawl, grief? Perhaps it’s more subtle: a scene of a tidy living room where one picture is slightly tilted on the wall. Don’t we walk into such a room and feel a discomfort we can’t quite pinpoint?
This is certainly the feeling we’re introduced to in the first poem, titled “Because We Never Practiced with the Escape Chamber,” where midway through we find the lines “We can’t buy a prayer. Did you call / my name or was that the floorboard / wheezing?” and “I think something is coming that will / vastly improve our quietude.” An ominous undercurrent begins to creep in here and eventually pervades Fulton’s collection. At times it can be attributed to grief—there are several poems where the speaker refers to her mother’s death—or to a post-apocalyptic setting—there’s one poem I’m almost certain is narrated by a cyborg—but it can never quite be contained by any of these explanations. Instead, that lurking feeling of unease seems to be one of the things the collection seeks to explore, albeit indirectly. The anxieties of our fractured modern world are represented in blackout poems, amalgamated words (“smartificial,” “ouchsafed”), and questions that seem rhetorical but can’t possibly have an answer (“And the Immortalization Committee will embalm it?”). As we move through the collection, we encounter echoes of poems and lines that have come earlier, heightening the eerie feeling that something is amiss in this new world we’ve entered.
The poems are not easy, nor are they what you might expect. Many contemporary poets have addressed America’s culture of mass consumption and addiction to twenty-four-hour news, but Fulton presents us with shrewd observation and reflection on the state of things, without the usual irony and bemoaning. Her poems demand your full attention; they are assuredly not “those poems from Poems R Us.” By removing the easy guideposts, she asks us to make the leaps ourselves, and it’s often rewarding. She titles one poem “Roar Shack” and trusts that we’ll be in on the joke by the time we finish the first line (“Many see a flutterby when they look into this”). In her blackout poems, she demonstrates that we don’t even need full words or sentences to garner meaning—which is not to say she takes the easy way out. These shorter, more experimental poems are as carefully constructed as the longer piece “Forcible Touching,” which braids narratives of grief counseling, euthanized animals, and the myth of Philomela.
Her work is reminiscent of Ralph Angel’s sparse lyricism, especially in lines like “Then emptiness grew more empty, / the scent of scentlessness. / How could it be?” I also found myself thinking often of Beckian Fritz Goldberg’s The Book of Accident, a collection which creates a sort of alternate reality populated by grotesque characters, terrifying in the way it mirrors our own. Fulton and Goldberg seem to share an interest in rendering the world through unexpected images and playing with the boundary and meaning of catastrophe.
Fulton’s poems are so rich with wordplay and impish sonic combinations that it would be a shame not to read them out loud at least once. She’s often playing around, but even moments of initial humor are undercut by something more sinister, as in “Claustrophilia,” which begins:
It’s just me throwing myself at you,
romance as usual, us times us,
not lust but moxibustion,
a substance burning close
to the body as possible
without risk of immolation
Throughout the collection she experiments both formally and structurally. In several poems she uses a double equal sign to serve as a kind of em-dash, though rather than suggesting departure or interruption, it suggests a linkage, a branching out in a new direction. Here’s an example from the poem “Black Salve”:
Vile hierarchies = = humans above humans above
animals = = are vivisected at three a.m.
when the head becomes a pressure hull.
Each link leads us in a new direction, while still building on what comes before. Sometimes her experiments can fall short or feel strained, like when she incorporates emoticons into one poem, but most often her risks pay off. This collection, Fulton’s first in over a decade, is sonorous, rich, and full of surprises. As she declares in one poem, “While you’re alive there’s no time / for minor amazements.” She’s right—and it’s a good argument in favor of picking up this book.