Many of the most interesting lyric books of the past few years have attempted a sort of reckoning between contemporary life and the reality of ceaseless war. Nick Flynn’s The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands, Fanny Howe’s Come and See: these are books that consider what it means to live familiar patterns, yet know that elsewhere persists an unthinkable and unconscionable violence in which you are complicit.
Jessica Fisher’s second collection, Inmost, is a deeply felt and deeply thought addition to this train of thought. Fisher’s first book won the 2006 Yale Younger Poets Award; Inmost is the winner of the 2010 Poetry Prize from Nightboat Books, one of the most exciting presses active today. In this collection, Fisher focuses on the tensions of bringing a child into a world of war— of living your regular, daily experience while knowing that others die by violence, both down the street and across oceans. Never moralizing and never failing to implicate herself, Fisher instead locates these tensions in language, exposing with care the dual meanings, connotations, and shared histories of the words that form her place in the world.
“Things that can’t be held, can’t be helped, in the mind. The latest horror of the latest war, never on these shores,” the collection opens, at once announcing its primary concern and accepting its own eventual failure. We are told that there is the war in the same line that we are told it will not reach us. It is a dreadful reality and the speaker is, in a privileged lie, safe from it. This is daily life for many people (although, importantly, many more are not so lucky), but Fisher from the start expects more from herself than a simple realization of her own position. The violent reality “can’t be helped, in the mind.” However, with the introduction of a child, the mind must still attempt to help in some way, to hold what she can’t hold. “Talk is in the head when shushing a child,” the poem reads. “She is practicing erasure, she is practiced at it. Turn the dial: they’re turning to the war. Stitched, like a slip, on a bias. It gives a sense of the body underneath.”
Fisher is a writer of rare agility and grace. Her poems often move through ideas, form, and language with a singular restrained gesture. It is through these gestures that she manages to find something like a balance to the conflicts deeply rooted in Inmost. “We say mortar both for the shell and what it struck, brick & or stone &.” Language is the site of her exploration, the gauzey space where the daughter becomes a mother, or where the body gives birth. It is a place of multiple meanings, and so of course a place of puns, “Immanent or emanant.” It is the way we move through thought and the way our movement is restricted. “A month or a region, something you pass through. The roads on either side impassable, otherwise of course one would have chosen a different route.” And it is in that movement that Fisher stays, not arriving or departing but seeing what happens if the language is taken for all its meanings. It is a dangerous place to be, and it is where we are.
Inmost concerns itself with motherhood and war, two well explored topics in literature. And it lacks any grand structural or conceptual conceit, instead settling comfortably into restrained, precise language, with essayistic strains of etymology and lyricized images. Yet somehow the book feels incredibly unique and needed, like it is using its beauty in order to draw our eye somewhere we knew we should have been looking but for some reason hadn’t. So much of what is unfathomable must be considered, “the little heart an impossible thing / nevertheless marked by a sign.” In “Ravage,” one of the longest and most explicitly narrative poems of the collection, Fisher declares “Thought I could live in it / & not let it in, impervious as / a body floating in saltwater // eyes open to the shifting sky.” Inmost, thank god, places us there, exposed to the beauty and harm of our own inexcusable failings.