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B. H. Fairchild fuses mundane with spiritual in resolute ways, as “in the silent prayer for the grace of rain abundant,” a glorious line that would have been less so if the words “rain” and “abundant” were switched

B. H. Fairchild writes perfect, passionate poems. In The Art of the Lathe and Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest, he sustains perfection for pages. The Art of the Lathe won the Kingsley Tufts Award, and Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest won a California Book Award when I was on the jury. It also won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Full disclosure. We’ve met a few times.

I hungrily dove in to Usher, his latest collection, and soon encountered a profusion of pointless epigraphs, including three on one page. Feeling like the crabby critic who encountered crippling emendations in an edition of Frost, I found twenty-four epigraphs, usually unnecessary, in one hundred and seventeen pages. Most poems in the book are so spacious, so finely rendered , that they stand elegantly alone. Notes on the last pages are interesting and helpful, but quotes from Walter Benjamin, Gaston Bachelard and others are ham-handed, though in a perverse way they highlight the best of the unadorned. “Madonna and Child, Perrytown, Texas, 1967” belongs in anthologies comparable to our most revered, engaging museums:

A litter of pickups nose into Sancho’s Market
south of town late Friday night rinsed in waves
of pink neon and samba music from some station
in Del Rio spilling out across the highway.
Sancho’s wife dances alone behind the cash box
while her daughter, Rosa, tries to quiet her baby
whose squalls rip through the store like a weed-cutter
shredding the souls of the carnal, the appetitious,
indeed the truly depraved as we in our grievous
late-night stupor and post-marijuana hunger
curse the cookie section and all its brethren
and Al yells at Leno lost among the chips,
beef jerky, string cheese, bananas for Chrissakes,
that if he doesn’t stop now and forever telling
Okie jokes he will shoot his dog who can’t hunt
anyway so what the hell,
but the kid is unreal,
a cry ascending to a shriek, then a kind
of rasping roar, the harangue of the gods,
sirens cleaving the air, gangs of crazed locusts
or gigantic wasps that whine and ding our
ears until the air begins to throb around us
and a six-pack of longnecks rattles like snakes
in my hand. And then poor Rosa is kissing
its forehead, baby riding her knee like a little boat
lost at sea, and old Sancho can’t take it either,
hands over his ears. Dios mio, ys basta! Dios mio
so Rosa opens her blouse, though we don’t look,
and then we do, the baby sucking away, plump cheeks
pumping, billowing sails of the Santa Maria
in a high wind, the great suck of the infinite
making that little nick nick sound. Rosa
smiling down, then Sancho turns off the radio
and we all just stand there in the light and shadow
of a flickering fluorescent bulb, holding
our sad little plastic baskets full of crap,
speechless and dying a little inside as Rosa
whispers no llores, no llores mija, mijita,
no llores
and the child falls asleep, lips
on breast, drops of milk trickling down,
we can even hear it breathing, hear ourselves
breathing, the hush around and that hammer
in our chests so that forty years later
the scene still hangs in my mind, a later work,
unfinished, from the workshop of Zurbaran.

It’s an essential pleasure to have room to quote the poem in full, because to do otherwise would be like photographing a champion surfer in action without most of the wave showing—brutally unfair to eliminate part of the shape of power, so masterfully captured.

During the first few readings, the story here is so vividly rendered and so satisfying that technique rightly becomes almost invisible. More readings add richer awareness of rising, arcing, then falling language-waves. Fairchild’s method, which would seem pompous in lesser hands, is also evident in the way he uses a word like “indeed” in a piece populated by people unlikely to say it. He is in and out of the picture, and both perspectives add to the timelessness of the accomplishment.

“What He Said” is also masterful recollection, potent and poignant:

When Candi Baumeister announced to us all
that J. D. was in love with Brigitte Bardot,
drawing those two syllables out like some kid
stretching the pink strands of Dubble Bubble
from between her teeth, J. D. chose
not to duck his head in the unjust shame
of the truly innocent, but rather lifted it
in the way of his father scanning the sky
in silent prayer for the grace of rain abundant
upon his doomed soybeans or St. Francis
blessing sparrows or the air itself, eyes radiant
with Truth and Jesus and said Babydoll,
I would walk on my tongue from here to Amarillo
Just to wash her dishes.

There is a time
in the long affliction of our spoken lives when,
among all the verbal bungling, stupidity,
and general disorder that burden us
like the ragged garment of flesh itself, when,
beneath the vast and articulate shadows
of the saints of language, the white dove of genius
with its quick, wild wings has entered our souls,
our immaculate ignorance, and we are,
at last, redeemed. And so is conceived and born
the thing said, finally, well nay perfectly—
as it might be said by that unknowable Being
for whom we have in our mortal linguistic
incapacity no adequate name except the one
Candi Baumeister bore in her own virginal
moment of absolute poetry : My God, J. D,

Candi and J. D. didn’t plan to be eloquent, or to be remembered with such eloquence. This is part of what makes them and so many other characters in Usher so convincing. Fairchild fuses mundane with spiritual in resolute ways, as “in the silent prayer for the grace of rain abundant,” a glorious line that would have been less so if the words “rain” and ‘’ abundant” were switched. His reference to “the long affliction of our spoken lives,” underscores the ache to articulate, the Biblical overtone of “affliction” just right. The urgency is universal and has a lot in common with Bruce Springsteen’s brilliant mix of Christian imagery, opera, old cars, and people you’ve never heard of trying to make sense of their lives and get something from the soil or the rain or whatever is at hand, even if what’s sometimes desired is no more attainable than the image of a foreign movie star.

The title poem, with references to Gene Kelly, Milk Duds. Kierkegaard and other signifiers of popular, intellectual and religious culture is equally inventive proof of Fairchild’s risk-taking. Gritty meets exalted and gets the shadows just right. Prose poems in this volume enhance the genre, especially “The Deer, “ and “The Blind Piano Tuner,” with crystalline communion between humans and animals, and between humans whose physical capacities are, on the surface, very different from each other.

Usher should solidify B. H. Fairchild’s reputation as an essential force in contemporary letters. The praise he receives typically includes “American,” suggesting a smaller audience than he deserves. He merits acclaim beyond the academy, beyond our shores.

Barbara Berman's poetry collection, Currents, has just been published by Three Mile Harbor Press. More from this author →