The Rats Are Not Doing Well
Fleming’s writing is deeply rooted in the narrative, myth-forming traditions of prose as well as the atmospheric aspirations of poetry.
“It’s possible to feel awful anywhere,” writes public school teacher Gerald Fleming in the first line of his poem “Casa de Ambivalence,” and he should know. The poems in his second poetry collection, Night of Pure Breathing, take place in Bali, Poland, Mexico, Bulgaria, and Wapello, Iowa. But, despite the global hopscotch, Fleming is not interested in place as much as he is in relationships and the various feelings that accompany them. The poems in Night of Pure Breathing depict longing, hope, and, quite often, disappointment. A corn farmer stares skyward rather than at the troubled face of his son. A man dies in the arms of a young station clerk whose eyes resemble his daughter’s. A performer in her dressing room holds a young boy until their arms turn to liquid. A tenant is comforted knowing that his landlady listens behind her door for his sighs. A beautiful woman propositions a man in a bar saying “lets be miserable together… I promise to cry out in pain.”
This compendium of human emotion chooses as its form the prose poem. Rather than “snub[bing] its nose at tradition,” as poet David Keplinger believes many prose poems do, Fleming’s writing is deeply rooted in the narrative, myth-forming traditions of prose as well as the atmospheric aspirations of poetry. Strong opening sentences like: “All at once, at his table by the window in the noisy bar, he had a desire to scream;” “Again the newly beheaded men have risen…;” and “Let donuts do it, thought the brother;” and “The rats are not doing well, and I want them to do worse,” create the immediate tension of good story telling, while the bodies of the poems are more interested in the exploration of mood and moment than narrative resolution. In fact, this whole collection seems decidedly against resolving itself. Problems, such as the stoning to death of an adulteress woman, are presented without explanation or backstory leaving the reader to grapple with the haunting, difficult questions of why and how come.
Divided into three sections, the poems in Night of Pure Breathing get increasingly dark. While the first section is devoted largely to parent/child relationships, particularly the loss of children, the second depicts an uneasy tension between writing and sexual desire, and the third, the inexplicable prominence of violence. In the poem “A Sailing,” from Part II, a man gives up writing and gleans intellectual prestige for his ownership, rather than appreciation, of books: “his library grew as his jowls grew and it was admired—yes! admired!” In the end, these books provide shade for the book collector’s face while he sits at the beach daydreaming of women’s breasts. In “Northern Courtship,” from Part III of the collection, a boy and girl create emotional intimacy by sharing horror stories: “Tell me the one about the boy with melting hands, and I’ll tell you the one about the girl whose body melted them.”
Despite the darkness, Fleming’s poems, too, contain whimsy. The poem “The Others” begins, “We’re having a good time—bottle of red wine, spaghetti, we’re here in our garden, warm breeze scented with lilac, light on its way out,” only to continue in the next paragraph with the statement: “Others, though, are having a better time.”
In such an emotionally intense volume, humor is necessary. My favorite poem, “The Smile,” contains both violence and levity. In this poem, unnamed authorities try their hardest to break down a smile. “They got the smile a job. Take this, they said, dig, and they hung from the smile a mattock. Take this, they said, and they hung from the smile a spatula, stuck the smile in a kitchen—hot grease.” The authorities employ increasingly cruel techniques to rob the smile of its indefatigable charm but find themselves instead to be the ones who are tortured, despising its “new wryness.”
The poems in Night of Pure Breathing feel, at times, too dense. Carol Guess writes of prose poetry, “what’s unsaid matter as much as what’s said.” The sentences in Fleming’s work are long and lyrical and the emotional punch occasionally gets lost amongst the clauses. On the other hand, the attention to detail is why these poems merit third and fourth readings. There’s always something to be gained in rereading.
In its most elemental form, breathing is the repetition of inhalation, exhalation, and the pause in between. It’s this tension, between motion and stillness, taking in and letting go, feeling and thought, that drives Fleming’s collection. In the second to last poem, “Varied Thrush,” this pattern appears in its most distilled form when the speaker pauses in his work to listen to a birdsong: “that first long tone… [I] hear it play itself out, plaintive, and then that pause, ever so brief, as if reflective, then a low note, a coda: There is no answer. And I can move again.”