Pink Reef by Robert Fernandez

Reviewed By

Can there please be a petition that Robert Fernandez change the title to his second book, Pink Reef? I was thinking Sensitive Soul. I don’t care the ridiculous presumption this implies. For instance, what poet of the 21st Century would dare have the word “soul” in his title. What reviewer would dare suggest to a poet who is so obviously sophisticated in the craft of poetry and the delicate balance between irony and sincerity that marks the 21st Century attitude toward sincerity, what reviewer would insist on such an ill-conceived and unsolicited suggestion? And why would said reviewer not at least show some artfulness in his suggestion?

Because there is something in Pink Reef that is speaking so delicately, so sincerely, so tenderly, I want Fernandez’s book announced to the world with an explicit sign that marks its true content. There is a soul at work in this book. And when I say “soul” I bring with it all that 1990s poetry baggage that workshops and misdirected earnestnesses have been piling on top of it. But why? Why do I need to put the word “soul” in place of a title that is already being so subtle about its comment on self / soul? Pink, I like to read, referring to a human biology color and reef a live structure that lives just below the surface.

Perhaps it’s for my own nostalgia. That feeling when I was first learning poetry, and I could feel the tender hooks of a poem attach to that complicated sensitivity I am so happy lives below my surface. How vulnerable poems made and still make me feel. How emotionally exposed. This is what I’m hearing when I connect “poetry” to “soul.” This is why, Robert Fernandez, if you are listening, I make this possibly unwelcome request. You have brought soul to my soul in your Pink Reef. And I am only asking all readers of the world be notified, beckoned, induced or whatever action a title is doing when it’s attached to a book.

Does all of this sound self-involved? You must not have read Fernandez’s book. Pink Reef is a living of poetry, a living with poetry, a living about living, a living being, a living living itself out. Something inside this voice exploits my self-involvement, makes me feel that the voice I am hearing has been speaking inside me for longer than just this poem was going on. Here is the section [eat glass,]:

eat glass,
swallow blood
heart swallows glass,
blurts blood
bubbling is endless
heart surrounded
by red bubbles
heart surrounded
in delicate lights
heart flexing
on a trident

I don’t even know where to start the list of what this poem risks. It risks repeating itself. There is so little language that it’s working with. And yet the repetition not only appears natural. It appears essential to the poem’s sentiment. And what is that sentiment? Wound. A physically felt emotional wound. And here is the largest risk of all. The poem risks preciousness.

Oh, the dilemma of preciousness. Sometimes it feels like all the wrong poets get to write precious poems, and the rest of us are left with little ironic nuggets to distinguish ourselves. Of course, this is an exaggeration. I am mainly reacting against books that use personal catastrophe as the book’s “theme” without appreciating that a catastrophic event is not going to feel tragic unless the book is equipped with the right language, a circumspect credibility and a speaker who is humble before his or her own trauma. I want the sense of tragedy built by the poet, not assumed. Elegy, by Mary Jo Bang is catastrophic and tragic. My Alexandria, by Mark Doty is catastrophic and tragic. Sancta, by Andrew Grace, yes, catastrophic and tragic. The other books, the books I object to, are “catastrophic” in that precious, cloying, exploitative, presumptive way that makes me sad for poems. The mere fact that the catastrophe occurred and affected this poet, who has now written these heavy-handed poems, should not prove sufficient for these poems to affect a wide audience. Please, catastrophic poets, be courageous enough to not only write about your personal tragedy, but also to create a vivid and dynamically felt sense of that tragedy for your reader. I am that reader. And I am tired of feeling guilted into assigning poetic worth to a book of poems whose only compelling quality is that the poet experienced trauma.

Is Pink Reef about catastrophe, then? Only in the most abstracted way. And the risk toward preciousness is just that we are asked to see a speaker suffering, but without any real understanding of why. Do we need to understand why? Is Fernandez interested in giving us a clue? Is Fernandez playing an ironic game with sentimentality? These are the questions I ask. And there are few places to look for an answer. His first book We Are Pharaoh feels more invested in gamesmanship. “We” are speakers. “We” rule. “We” are erratically pointing fingers at every corner of the landscape. I might offer up Pharoah‘s “Action Persisting Past Restraint” as a poem with a similar voice to Pink Reef. It even makes a brief reference to “reefs.” The speaker here is sensitive and soulful. I could argue the poem is prototypical for what I find throughout Pink Reef. But that doesn’t resolve the source of the speaker’s suffering. Is it an ironic pose? If it is ironic pose, should that make it any less true? Consider this quote from “[knowing to see],” found towards the end of Pink Reef:

knowing is to see
& to remain tragic
at the heart
of where we are to go
knowing is to plate
the stomach in teak
& to remain tragic in the
heart of where we are to go

I could make every argument that Fernandez is posturing in this poem. The repetition. The speaker’s unambiguous reference to “heart” and “tragedy.” But these are the same reasons I used for praising the poem I quote above. They are the same reasons I would praise this poem.

Which is to say Pink Reef can unqualifiedly be called a melancholy delight. The book is a feeling that uses words I would have assumed had lost the poetic feelingness to them, that elaborates on wound and woundedness while holding back that most important part of the wound–its source. Do not try to figure out Robert Fernandez, just listen and listen to Pink Reef. What is the voice in a human biology? What is it saying? To some degree, you’re never going to answer these questions no matter the circumstance.

Kent Shaw's first book Calenture was published in 2008. His work has appeared in The Believer, Ploughshares, Boston Review and elsewhere. He begins teaching at Wheaton College in Massachusetts in Fall 2016. More from this author →