Fragile Acts by Allan Peterson

Reviewed By

The cover of Allan Peterson’s Fragile Acts, in print and as eBook, is as visually compelling as the cover of Rebecca Lindenberg’s Love, An Index, the first poetry selection in McSweeney’s new series. The cloth binding of Fragile Acts is an inviting green, and the artwork is a sexually ambiguous back view of a person from the waist to almost the top of the head. It’s a thrumming composition of well-placed colors and shades suggesting a meeting of fauna and flora. The book has been printed in Michigan by a company that has supported 826 Valencia in the Midwest.

Most publishers would not inspire a “digression” in a lead to a review, but these attributes are scaffolding for anything one should say about the whole McSweeney’s venture as an example of the citizenship of “the realm of the senses.’’ This is especially the case with Fragile Acts, because the poetry is so soul-poppingly magnetic.

Peterson studied painting at the Rhode Island School of design, and taught in Florida for many years. His poems have appeared in the Nation, Boston Review, and many other publications. Ireland’s brave, well-respected Salmon Press, published his third book, As Much As. Anonymous Or and All the Lavish In Common, his earlier volumes of poetry, won prizes. So it’s curious to have a blurb from Laura Kasischke refer to Peterson as “an exciting new voice.” Lewis Lapham is on the mark when calling this book “a joy to read,” John Ashbery describes it as “a major find, ” and it’s a pleasure to reinforce their enthusiasm and to remind readers that this book is a Rumpus Poetry Book Club selection.

“Out of the Whole Azalea,” quoted in full, is a shimmer of associations, alchemically coherent :

Out of the whole azalea one branch quivers
and there is the lizard.
Blue jays scream rat snake for everyone
because tree bark has moved.
I am watching for sand wasps hunting for females
when a leaf on its elbow
lies down, and a snake in the form
of a little river pours itself out from the litter.
It does not see me. Just as well. We are to be avoided.
We are listed in their books with the vicious.
They are merely poisonous to live.
Before the shot, anticipation, after it the wasteful inequity.
Hunters are those for whom this is guiltless.
One slat irregular in the laddered blind, and there
the blazing eye of the neighbor.

Amateurs, please don’t try this. It succeeds because of balance of anticipation, apprehension, and mix of literal and not-so-literal color. Peterson ‘s unflagging attention makes demands to absorb freshness, a new way of apprehending. “Down in the Distance” does it again, with similarly sparkle, that, by the last two words, brings the reader to what the first words suggest, the Biblical intensity of “the still small voice” :

I am trying to go small and listen to the cells
synthesizing my glittering belongings
and acknowledge the red words in the text :
hemoglobin, oxygen, radium from pitchblende.
We do not need dynamos and heavy equipment.
Look at what is accomplished by just the moderate
heat of a body. We can see farther than we can hear,
love longer than we last. Our engines are monuments
to how we are missing the boat, even though the boat
is a sidetrack like mixing our metaphors that sink.
Down in the distance the enzymes catalyze glucose
to pyruvate, little snaps like cracking your knuckles.
My right hand reaches for yours. Blood parses water.
I am relying on minute uncertainties. I am answering
the atmosphere as if it spoke like voices from oxidation,
infection, a burning bush.

Sometimes it’s imperative to be unsubtle, as in those last words, but it takes a subtle ear to know it. “Pitchblende,” higher up, is an especially resonant noun because with that last e, the syllable is extended, much the way pitchblende itself, used to make uranium (and we all know what THAT’S for) is fraught with unstable motion. “God said fire, not a flood next time,” goes the well-known saying. There’s a kind of poetic laboratory/studio here, with Peterson back and forth between bench and easel, a mental Bunsen burner not far from reach.

It’s a tough but gladdening call to decide what to quote next. If I could, I’d just crank out the whole volume, and print at the top : ENJOY, AND PREPARE TO BE BLOWN OPEN. Peterson always manages to pull off the tricky business of going from calm to energetic and back again without losing elegance in transition. “Evolution” does this especially well, with slivers of slyness piercing the lines from time to time :

So our toes and fingers were all roots, once touching,
and a body sometimes grown up
to a standing beast that later came loose from the earth,
nails painted red.
The tips of our backbones grew from their processes,
sunbursts, and then receded.
The hair on our bodies had been spines like a cactus,
had been grass growing
like water in the wind, and peach fur before that flowered
in the light
like the painted paper-thin azaleas bolted to the walls
of the St. Charles Inn
that opened with dawn and closed like breathing.
Still, I thought to escape from my birth family like
rockets the earth.
The lesson of change is there are no isolated cases,
and it’s not an error because things don’t go as we’d planned,
nor an accident when they do.
Such things are often decided in the last minute,
like lightning’s stepped leader,
down from clouds, finding the least existence every few hundred yards
until the discharge rises to meet it.
Only real life has slower zig- zags, leaving its burn marks on us,
foolprints one can follow,
made not with our feet, but presumptions
that everyone is satisfied
and will cheer wildly
if their hometown is mentioned.

Anthologists take note : Allan Peterson belongs with the best of them.

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