We Lack in Equipment & Control by Jennifer Fortin

Reviewed By

Praise from Darcie Dennigan as a quasi-introduction to Jennifer H. Fortin’s We Lack in Equipment & Control prepares us: Fortin “lets us make something—big and vital—from her materials.”

Some books entertain, others enlighten, and others push us forward in time and as people, with their movement and language. These poems challenge us in all three arenas, lassoing us into the life of the collection. After all, no book lives without its readers. Fortin knows this as well as anyone and dares us to make the book our own when she draws her bold lyric line in the sand.

Lyric poetry thrives on language, its syntax and punctuation and spacing; it lunges to the edges of its space (if poetry can be governed by the space of a page, book size (or book), or margins). Lyric poetry feeds on the imagination, trying always to suck it dry. Fortin’s lyrics work hard, drinking every last drop, at all times. Without explicit titles for her poems, she picks us out of our perspective and twists us into new contortions, giving us new views of the world and new language to match. She tells us, boldfaced, in a prose poem:

Snow is infinitely more hormonal than we suspected. It throws me off, bloodstream cravings & moods. Upheaval, empathetic with the feminized fish[…] There isn’t snow. Our obstruction, our entertainment, our momentary logo. I’m busy taking a hard look. (36)

Rigorous in thought, playful with her words, Fortin always takes a hard look, teasing us with sentence fragments, adjective-nouns, and vagueties. She reminds us by example, we lack in equipment and control. For what? When? Built on a subtle foundation of “February,” these lyrical meditations and wanderings simply remind us that we lack. We always have been and we shall always be imperfect, incomplete, partial—lacking. Early in the book Fortin offers hard looks at human nature and relationship. She figures,

iteration the learning of
a foreign forever. Some mimicry is
necessary. That’s a thing people
do, learn foreign forever.
They do necessary. Another
thing they do is evolve
independently into species. (3)

Seemingly basic observations crack us open: “They do necessary.” The concept of “forever,” its chronological value is of course something we are always trying to learn—infinity. If we are to wake tomorrow morning, we have to venture into foreign forever. Fortin’s new-angled perspectives help us notice the enormity of this and help us be OK with it. After all, the reality that forever is foreign can be a bit intimidating. Fortin toys with time, with imagination and emotion not long after:

One night’s miniature redux fast-forwards so it’s as though we greeted goodnight & good morning, the grotto of our sleep had us waking, sleeping, waking, & so on, so it was as though we had counted many nights together instead of one. (9)

With innovations like “one night’s miniature redux fast-forwards” and “the grotto of our sleep,” Fortin frequently disorients us, forcing us to pay close attention. If we get lazy, our tongue or mind might stumble. She even questions the properness of proper nouns and the finality of a punctuational period in order to shed light on our smallness in the enormity of time:

i rarely indicate, however we are definitely february, when was the first of february

i will meet the youngest person yet after work, wash hands, quiet & try not to let on for the sake of his unattached skull (11)

If we called ourselves “february” instead of humanity, when was the first of february? When did we begin, start, commence, originate? How? These questions should disorient us, or it seems Fortin is suggesting they should. And just as she pays homage to the disorienting, dizzying, and baffling nature of being human beings, she pays equal and sustained tribute to the magnificence of language,

Bless you, first speech of the day[…] I devise the means to transmit large abstractions without compromise
I turn formats into formats, my boss thinks it genius, we’re all geniuses
I work on intrusion detection systems while jotting unlit messages
Like this we avoid audits & cannons (18)

Speech is blesséd! Fortin jots a mini ars poetica here. “I devise the means to transmit,” “turn formats into formats,” “jotting unlit messages.” Because of these actions, she and her workmates, or the larger “we” “avoid audits & cannons,” perhaps translated as being-judged-for-our-lack and suffering-the-consequences. Speech, poetry, words, language helps us move forward in time, in our minds, in our lives. Words give us a means to make sense, to question and wonder:

My class in the faraway place was confused by this business
of whether or not the animal sees its shadow,
& kind of enchanted

o human relevance, you vessel (39)

If only we allow ourselves to become disoriented now and again, we might be able to marvel at simple, odd observations we make. If we take a hard look more often, maybe we can find out more about ourselves. Fortin makes her own hard looks, curates experiences for us to practice hard-looking. This collection of poems poses a challenge to anyone. As you sift through the disorientation of February, of language, of time, and of mind, you might be able to continue making your own hard looks at the world, at yourself. Get comfortable with weirdness. Cozy up to the unfamiliar. Fortin’s lyrics push you into difficult stretches, but always with a tint of playfulness, always with something worthwhile. Fortin confesses,

I would never say

what actually is (45)

Why would she? Where’s the fun in saying it plainly, where’s the challenge? If you see or hear a problem as it is through plain language, you won’t have the opportunity to figure it out for yourself—your own, very particular perspective, your weirdness will be absent. By dealing with the world in generic language, we sterilize what we encounter to an extent. And almost as a mantra for her lyrics and logic, Fortin tells us, “The sound was pure accident, which is assurance that you’d be lucky to guess wrong” (12). So much is accident. Human beings are an accident. Maybe the universe as we observe it is an accident. Who’s to say the way you see or feel or speak or live is wrong, if so much is accident?

Wesley Rothman serves as senior poetry reader for Ploughshares, a member of Salamander’s Board of Directors, an editorial consultant for Copper Canyon Press, and was an assistant poetry editor for Narrative. A recent Pushcart Prize nominee and finalist for the 49th Parallel, McCabe, and Consequence Poetry Prizes, his poems and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in journals including Bellingham Review, Salamander, Rattle, On the Seawall, Ruminate, and Newcity. He teaches writing at Emerson College and the University of Massachusetts Boston. More from this author →