Instant Winner by Carrie Fountain

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Prayer is the language of the poet.

This is not to say a poet’s voice is antiquated. Or inherently more reverent. Or even more laden with longing. Rather, poetry requires an act of faith: the poet sends her language into the world in all its limitations, frustrations, and failures. Despite these impossibilities, the poet believes in transcendence, that language can (does) transcend its own limitations; and it is then hopefully, mysteriously, and strangely received by its reader.

The poems of Instant Winner, Carrie Fountain’s second book of poetry (following her National Poetry Series winning debut, Burn Lake) are fraught prayers, full of doubt and ambivalence and hopeful agnosticism. They are poems seated in insularity. But they spark and flare out and off the page. Exploring change, relationships, parenthood, Instant Winner revels in the contained space (the body, the page, the prayer) while hungering for transcendence. “Why do these / ducks make my soul go nuts // inside the responsibility of my body.” These lines appear in a poem called “Prayer (Wild),” which is part of a series of prayer poems binding Instant Winner. The body doesn’t have responsibilities; the body is responsibility. It is the living, physical, mortal vehicle containing our longings, especially our longings for that which is more than physical and mortal. Our bodies contain the mysterious momentums of mind and heart, our patterns of craving and giving. “Prayer (Wild)” ends:

inside the responsibility of my body
throwing itself at the beauty of the world

like a wild dog someone found
in the woods and took home

and fell in love with and chained
to the porch.

Each poem in this series is titled simply “Prayer” followed by a parenthetical word or phrase, becoming more fraught throughout the book: “Prayer (Easy),” “Prayer (Snap),” “Prayer (Impossible),” “Prayer (Wild),” “Prayer (Far Away).” Each in the series brings us to the intersection of language and spirituality, but Fountain does not appease (is not appeased). Her lines come up frustrated and usually weighted with more yearning than where they began. In the first in the series (Easy):

Who is running this
lonely operation? A wall

of switches, a hall
leading out into

another hall.

And in another in the series (Rinsed):

That sickening sound of force

and action that is simply
the sound of this prayer

being made and this prayer
being torn apart again.

The spaces we occupy then abandon are innumerable, interminable—a hallway that leads to another hallway. Or a prayer that tears itself apart in the making. Absence is a felt thing, never a vacuum.

All of it—even
the absence, the great and constant

absence, the accumulating absences
and the fleeting ones, too—I don’t care

anymore how easy it looks, or how
impossible. I’m counting all of it.

Carrie FountainAnd all of it should be counted—all the loss that’s imprinted us, all that we’ve been given and is then riven. Birth, then, is the consummate experience of giving and loss: “and I could see that my body / was giving you up // and giving you to me.” Fountain interrogates the momentary flare of the present, which is always birthing itself and then immediately collapsing. “With or without / God, this moment continues to end and end.” That the poems of Instant Winner are about birth and parenting, then, is no surprise. These poems are often explicitly about being a mother, but Fountain does not stray into sentimentality, or even introspection, but she deconstructs contemporary expressions of motherhood. Fountain strips away common constructions to reveal the pain inherent to mothering, the pain of giving out of your body.

In the opening poem of Instant Winner: “Let this body // be the body you’ll carry forward at least into this day.” These lines are indicative of the book’s consummate arc: what we have, our only constant is our body—that mortal vehicle that paradoxically holds infinite webs of memory, impulse, desire, fear. “Finally, my body was all // that had ever been given / to me, it was all I had.” We are kept in skin, kept in the present, which is an extrapolation of the past and influenced by desire for the future. In that tension we have to give and let go.

And in another poem, “how the living // body can feel irrevocable.” “Irrevocable” meaning destined? Meaning instinctive? I suspect both—“irrevocable” anchored to both poles of spiritual and physical, driven by both unknowns and knowns. Is this not the space where faith is most lively? When ordinary and uncommon intersect? And are these moments not, also, the most charged, as they are nearly impossible to command into being, yet they affect our being . . . irrevocably?

Fountain’s poems are not haunted by the past. However they do, in moments, lust for it, but always, wisely, turning away, clinging to the present. Fountain seems tempted to that place of sanctifying memory, but ultimately rejects memorialization for the spark of the lived moment. In one of her best poems, simply titled “Yes,” the speaker repeats a refusal of the past (not necessarily with regret or lamentation): “I am done smoking cigarettes, done waiting tables . . . I am done with the night a guy spread my legs / on a pool table . . . I am done teaching the poetry class where no one talked and no one / listened to me . . . I am done / being a childless woman, a childless wife, a woman with no scars / on her body.” Fountain could have easily constructed this poem as litany of past mistakes and their resounding lessons, but her lines are imbued with ambiguity and embrace. That is, the past is what it is, neither haunt nor nothing. Fountain refuses to dwell. “And I am done too, for the most part, / with the daydream of after. I am after for now.” And then later in “Yes”: “I am done thinking of the past as if it had / survived.” Is this desire to transcend our bounds to time? I wonder if it is more: to live presently, to maintain a moment in its purity. But “though sometimes I think of the past and sometimes I see it / coming, catching up, hands caked with dried mud, heads shaved cleaned.”

The last poem in Instant Winner is, quite naturally, one from the Prayer series. Faith, language, and desire coalesce. And we get Fountain at her most intuitive, most insightful: “I want my heart to belong to God, but / I can’t help feeling that my heart belongs // to me.” Then later “Oh, how tiny I am in this heart” and “So I must look for it. Because that’s / the only way to find it. Right?” That question doesn’t strike me as rhetorical. After all, Fountain is a poet straining for—straining in—faith. All language becomes a series of questions.

Caitlin Mackenzie is a poet and essayist living in Eugene, Oregon and working in book publishing. Her work can be found in Fugue, CutBank, HTMLgiant, Structo, and Lambda Literary among others, and her poetry was recently nominated for the Forward Prize. More from this author →