Trust in that Spectral Image
A Review of Patricia Fargnoli’s Then, Something
by Tim Mayo
Then, Something, Patricia Fargnoli’s sixth collection of poems, is aptly titled. The title comes from Robert Frost’s poem “For Once, Then, Something,” part of which Fargnoli uses as the epigraph to her book. In the Frost poem as the speaker is looking down a well, he thinks he sees “a something white, uncertain,/ something more of the depths” beyond his own reflection and below the surface of the water, but then loses sight it of as the water is disturbed. Fargnoli is now in her seventies and the exploration of what else might exist, waiting to be perceived, beyond the physical world has become a more urgent consideration, and this, in turn, becomes the unifying concern of her book. This urgency in Fargnoli’s hands is not, however, without a great deal of humor, and the elegant and expansive lines which constitute many of the poems in this collection seem appropriate to the subject without verging on the lugubrious, as long elegiac lines may tend to do. Nor do we find angst here. Instead the collection seems a reckoning of a life––perhaps a little more regretful than a reader would hope to see, but well balanced with both wit and humor.
In the collection’s introductory poem, “Wherever you are going,” the speaker dispenses advice to an unidentified (who could easily be us) interlocutor about to leave for an unknown destination that we later surmise is the afterlife:
You will want to take with you the mud-rich scent breaking through March frost/
and lemons sliced on a blue plate, their pinwheels of light./
This is the first couplet in the poem, and, to my mind, it is as close to an elegiac distich as one will ever get in twenty-first century American free verse: a long, loose, six foot line followed by a shorter one of five feet. Although not all of Fargnoli’s poems have such lengthy lines, there are enough which require a wider than normal page to retain the integrity of their lines that the publisher has made the book large enough to accommodate the resplendent splashes these lines make like waves breaking across the page. On a smaller page the reader would lose the fullness and motion of their cadence.
This particular poem also enumerates a varied number of both worldly/physical and spiritual items which the “you” of the poem will want to take or have to give up. It is important to note, here, that this first couplet introduces a motif which is carried on throughout the collection, i.e., a motif of pairing something larger and/or abstract “the mud-rich scent breaking through March frost” with something smaller and/or concrete and specific: the “pinwheels of light” that the lemon slices seem to make on a blue plate. In this case you have them all together, but more often than not the pairings are large/small and abstract/specific.
Fargnoli is a free verse poet, and the couplets only suggest this elegiac meter, but do not adhere to it. The resemblance here to this meter sets a certain expectation of gravitas without having to invoke the somber through any special imagery or diction, and since most of the collection is composed of poems with shorter lines, the long lines, themselves, when they occur, become a sort of leitmotif throughout the collection.
You will try to take a prayer you might have otherwise left behind in case you need it––/
[ . . . ]
When you go, you will leave the Giants cap you wore to dinner behind for the others,/
[ . . . ]
. . . Leave your tickets and your Master Charge with its sad balance––/
you won’t be coming back regardless of what you’ve always been told. Therefore take nothing/
take less than nothing and even less than that. Remove your shoes, place your pulse on the table,/
release breath, leave behind the scars on your finger, your thigh, the long one over your heart./
The playfulness and humor finally alight at the end of the poem on a sadness. Fargnoli wants to entice us into her exploration and discussion of death, and she does it very skillfully in this first poem, by making the subject matter not seem as serious as it really is until the end.
However, the poems in Then, Something are not just meditations on death. The collection also circles around Fargnoli’s agnosticism and sometimes ironic meditations about afterlife. Such poems as “On the Question of the Soul,” “The Phenomenology of Garbage,” and “Prepositions Toward a Definition of God,” all proceed with an intellectual playfulness while still quite seriously meditating on the questions posed by their titles, while the poem “Alternate Worlds” returns to the central question of what else might exist, waiting to be perceived just beyond our physical limitations. Lastly, there are also poems which deal with regret (“Imaginary Sister” and “Approaching Seventy”), loss (“The Parents” and “The Losing”) and there are even angry memories (“Dante’s Inferno”). Underlying all of these poems is Fargnoli’s wish to “trust in that spectral image,” part of a line from her poem “Then” which both recounts an encounter with a sort of angel of death figure and seems to harken us back to Frost’s epigraph.
Although facing death may be one of the main ingredients in the glue which holds this collection together, nature also plays a major part, as it always has in Fargnoli. Obviously, one cannot allude to Frost without conjuring up nature. However in Frost nature is often a force which he or his poetic surrogate is braving––or as in “Mending Walls”––working against. It does not appear as much as a consoling force or as a lens through which to view the world as it does in Fargnoli’s work. (I may be on tenuous ground, here, for even as I say this, Frost’s “pane of glass,” the sheet of ice he skims off the water trough in “After Apple-Picking” immediately comes to mind––but then again, “After Apple-Picking” is a poem about death, and what better way to imagine the point of view of being dead than by looking at the world through a sheet of ice.) Nonetheless, the manner in which Fargnoli handles nature is far more reminiscent of Mary Oliver than that of a crusty old New England farmer.
Having said that, Fargnoli is her own poet with her own distinct voice and view of nature and the world, and a poem such as “Pemaquid Variations” does not in any way sound like Mary Oliver. Trying to pigeonhole her by attempting to track the poetic DNA of her imagination does her great disservice, but it is, in part, what is necessary for a critic to do to place her in context. Consciously or unconsciously, Fargnoli draws from many different wells not just Frost. Certainly, the lengthy majesty of her lines in this collection seems to take a metrical cue more from Whitman or perhaps Robert Haas than from either Frost or Oliver if we are to try to line her up in the canon where she definitely deserves a place. In fact, one would be hard pressed to find either a Frost or an Oliver poem which exceeds iambic pentameter in length. Fargnoli’s poems are, however, written in a relaxed free verse––something Frost thought of as “playing tennis without a net.” I, personally, would characterize it as doing flying trapeze without a net, where it is possible to reach great heights as long as your timing allows you to connect with your catcher (in this case, the reader), but if you don’t, it’s a long way down without a soft landing. Fargnoli’s timing is impeccable.
It is interesting to note how this collection ends, how it narrows down to a final, very small poem. This is her last and most important pairing of large and small. It is the other bookend to the body of the collection and meant to contrast and compliment the expansive lines of the very first poem, “Wherever you go.” The poem tries to answer, as much as we can know, that idea of where you go after death:
A woman walked away from the winter village,
Of course, the very size of the poem becomes the speck of dust we must all turn into at death. The woman has turned back into parts of nature, “became sand” (“If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles”), and that illusive “something more of the depths” in the Frost epigraph seems to be echoed in the ocean and sky the woman has also turned into. “Coda” seems to physically emphasize on the page how small we are in the Universe. This fact, whether you believe in a God or not, is a humbling thought––and that is, then, something we can know, just as we know the satisfying strength and beauty of this collection. There are so many superlative poems in this collection, one cannot enumerate them all without just about reproducing the entire table of contents.
Tim Mayo is a poet and critic who lives in Brattleboro, VT where he is also a student of the flying trapeze and other circus arts. His first full length collection The Kingdom of Possibilities was published in 2009 by Mayapple Press.