Earthly by Erica Funkhouser.
Houghton Miflin Company, New York and Boston. 2008.
Erica Funkhouser is the author of four other books of poetry—Natural Affinities (1983), Sure Shot and Other Poems (1992), The Actual World (1997), and Pursuit (2002). Her poems have been published in many magazines and journals including The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, and Ploughshares.
Poets are traditionally regarded as commemorators and interpreters of human experience, as assigners of emotional and spiritual significance to its features in both the intimate context of the self and in the public context of history. Contemporary poetry in its various languages continually expands and revises important social and ethical concerns within and across both contexts as part of the process of understanding our evolving systems of social and cultural value. New avenues of perception inevitably emerge which may alter our understanding of even the most fundamental components of tradition. Earthly, the new book by Erica Funkhouser, offers such an opportunity for a meaningful reconfiguration of our world view.
Earthly contains a proem and twenty-six new poems arranged in three sections. Section I establishes in its fifteen separate works the themes and tensions which will inform the rest of the collection. Section II bears the title “Pome” and the epigraph “Pick the apple from the tree. It will do you good.” The quotation comes from The Apple Tree by L. H. Bailey, apparently a text of orchard keeping, part of the Core Historical Literature of Agriculture as defined by the library of Cornel University http://chla.library.cornell.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=chla;idno=3150023. This second section is subdivided into fifteen separate numbered and titled subsections, each an apparently independent poem. Section II further explores the implications of Section I, but the parts of “Pome” in doing so use as both lense and filter the local history of the area near Ipswich, Essex, and Hamilton, Massachusetts, along the Chebacco River, a region of orchards since colonial times. Section III in its ten pieces seems to move toward closure if not toward an unequivocal resolution of the tensions at work in the rest of the book.
In the proem “Gardener, as Seen from Above,” Funkhauser at once establishes for one narrating voice a confident omniscience and a mysterious multiple first-person presence— “We never see // the rough geographies she plumps and snips…”— that fully records the Gardener’s resignation to an apparently mistaken notion of abandonment (“She’s sure that no one watches over her--”) and exile (“a slave to earth, abandoned from above”), and the calm acceptance by the overseeing presence of the Gardener’s independence that is enforced by her own willfulness (“It’s true. We cannot keep her from herself.”). In this brief Georgic treatise on the process of femininity from Eve onward, a pleasingly musical loose-form sonnet, Funkhouser previews her book’s thematic focus in the first half-line of the sestet “All love’s a motion.” In the second half-line she suggests several strands of implication with the question “Who knows if this is love?”
Point of view shifts in “Journey” from the multiple presence of the overseer to first-person singular participating narrator. “Journey” records the flight from Garden and the narrator/Eve’s recognition of her loss when she “…remembered // feeding apples to horses in autumn” and expresses lyrically all the idyllic details associated with that experience. The references to the Biblical “cities of the plain,” here expressed as “cities rising from the grain,” recall also other archetypical divisions and losses-- the necessary separation of Abram and Lot (Genesis 13) as well as the blindness of Og, which led, in a parallel to the original Fall, to his destruction (Deuteronomy 3). These allusions contribute also their gravity to the narrative tone as Funkhouser locates Eden and the feminine principle as features of the American landscape.
“Waiting to Cut the Hay”continues the allusion to the Fall of Man and the exile from Eden. Funkhouser mixes pastoral imagery representing a kind of worn-out husbandry expressed in the details of the rusty floor boards of the tractor, of the hay crop announcing, unaided, its own ripeness when it “tilts toward the toolshed,” of the weed-grown pasture marked off by the “sway-backed fence” with more lush and energetic, more richly reverential references to an ideal innocent wildness available to the speaker only through reverie (which here has nearly the force of an Eve-like reminiscence) in which she recalls “the shy wood duck flapping up from the reeds, // the bullfrogs frog-kicking into black water” or through the fantasy of the perch shoaling “swirling like our own galaxy // until they’re right there above the clutch // where you can lower your toes among them”” at the end of the poem.
In “Before Ruin” Funkhouser previews the countervailing male principle of the original Garden in the person of the failed colonial “master” that built and then abandoned the horsebarn, now vanished, whose foundation stones still mark out the empty space of its original perimeter. In a fully achieved dual image, she transforms these architectural artifacts, gradually exposed by long action of frost-heave and erosion, into both primitive altars and victims “ceremonial animals, their throats unslit” or mysterious menhirs, “granite giants” that are megalithic links to the past, and makes of them as well a source of images of birth and creation or inspiration “bits of their arrival still clinging-- // clotted mud, wormy roots, a school of glassy pebbles // swirling like the last clear thoughts before birth” until she eventually achieves a birth of Venus from these “four great foreheads of stone” in the lines “Nothing but this pressure to behold: // a barn once stood where I hang the washing out.” This piece carries forward her themes of abandonment and exile. The speaker is inspired to “pace the square” marked by the stones and to recognize that these stones formed part of a structure that housed workhorses owned by a man who “one feverish spring… gave up and whipped them into the distance.” This becomes the typical representation of the masculine archetype by the first-person singular speaker in Funkhouser’s book. Male acts are predictably foolish— impractically ambitious or unrealistically grandiose and always futile.
In “What the Granite Said,” Funkhouser maintains the deeper reference points she has established that trace the roots of feminine identity into our contemporary culture. The feminine voice speaks lyrically as Granite personified— smug (“I traveled with the best of them— // liquid magma and the original ice.)”, beautiful (“the fireworks between my mica // and your stars on a long winter night.) and fundamentally immutable (“Who’s to blame if I’m zealous // about remaining in place?”).
She reasserts her Edenic themes in a reenactment of the birth of Eve in “First Pantoum of Summer”:
I drank new air, a warm and welcome stream
Of summer sleep, the windows generous.
Here or away, you lead me out of dream.
and Eve’s temptation in “Last Pantoum before Autumn”:
You leave your garden to me while you’re gone.
All ripe, or close to ripe, all mine to ruin.
She continues to develop a personal context (“Visitation,” “Rubbing My Mother’s Back,” “Mood Swings”) and a human face (“When criticized, she craves butter.”) through which the first-person singular speaker experiences the connection, both intimate and historical, to that universal identity.
The first detailed male representation does not appear until the eleventh poem in the collection. In “Charles Street, Late November: For P.D.,” a proleptic elegy, the first-person singular narrator recounts an outing with her frail, dying friend:
A friend on the edge of death tap-taps
His way, cane first, to the apothecary.
In the closing stanza the doomed man buys a date book that he will never use. This stark and poignant depiction leads Funkhouser then into a pair of meditations on death.
In “Scraps,” point of view shifts again. This second-person piece considers the rediscovery of the works of Sappho and may be an occasion of internal self-address by the first-person narrator or may intimately address the reader as narratee.
You can almost hear time pacing,
Not pacing, pacing again
As the brittle bundles are separated
From their long and delicate jaws
Funkhouser uses ambiguity in address here to suggest a possible reappearance as speaker of the multiple presence of the overseer from the proem. By means of this technique she creates thematic resonance and effects transition, introducing the voice of a third speaker by blending all possible speakers into a single identity.
“What a Liar” seems to confirm the transitional character of point of view since the poem does little to place the speaker’s identity among the early possibilities. Although this piece, like the proem spoken by the overseeing presence, is in first-person plural point of view:
Even the hole
That uniform black loaf,
Shows up—over here,
Where we think we see
A river otter, or there,
Where an argument
Divides two women.
and records only things which might be observed, by the final lines everything is down-to
earth and available to other senses first-hand:
Every day some new accessory
to the fact—
or slide rule—
will turn up sweaty
in our hands.
This blended universal voice is another she will use for the treatments of her historical subjects starting with “Words for Winter” and “Price.”
“Watching the One-Eyed Hawk” restores the first-person singular speaker, now with more accumulated understanding and authority and places her in the presence of the observer from above, the hawk—primitive, beautiful, savage and appetite-driven. This positioning makes the speaker witness to the living world reflected in the hawk’s perfect eye and to the rendezvous with eternity, the grave, that “the whirlpool of obscurity” which is represented by the empty eye socket. This ingenious welding by Funkhouser of her early points of view into this new perspective beautifully orchestrates tone for the movement into the important narrative poems of Section II, “Pome.”
As portrayed by Funkhouser, Eden is a place in which the masculine principle is irresistibly attractive but is also inexcusably prodigal or mercenary (Henry Clay Frick in “Price”) and naturally violent (“Watching the One-Eyed Hawk”), aimlessly itinerant (“Journeyman” and the other John Chapman pieces), and absent (the “Chebacco” sequence, particularly #13, “Chebacco: The War of Independence”) or pitifully frail (“Charles Street, Late November: For P.D.”) or weird (“Words for Winter”).
In “Words for Winter,” Funkhouser insists on her place among the pastoral poets, at least by association, by including this reference to the important but lately little-read English peasant-poet John Clare. She adopts for the telling a period dialect that sings itself. This light-hearted selection is arguably the most smoothly musical piece in the collection and contains what might be the book’s most ecstatic lyrical flight:
Huddled above the tinder
of remembered summers,
he scrowed row upon row
of lovesick words until swallows
swopped into sinkfoil
and throstles chelped in the furze.
In the collar of a pear tree,
a young prince feasted on jargonels.
Young Clare’s mother then from the most practical motivation uses his beautiful writing to start her cooking fire.
Readers familiar with the Sure Shot poems “Birdwoman,” “Fruitlands,” and “Sure Shot” will recognize Funkhouser’s similar exercise of her fondness for historical detail and Americana in “Journeyman” and the other John Chapman pieces. Through a capable balancing of lyrical treatment and narrative structuring, Funkhouser makes of Johnny Appleseed— part myth, part legend and part historical reality as saint, hero and buffoon— the archetypal counterweight (however insufficient) to her evolving gardener introduced in the proem. She uses his instructions for starting an orchard as the balancing point:
Clear a few rods of ground,
girdle the standing trees,
put up a tight brush fence,
plant your seed
If you’re back this way in a year or two,
In five years there will be fruit.
The Eve-figure is redeemed in “Chebacco: The War of Independence” in an inversion of the Biblical temptation and fall. This very poignant expression of one young wife’s bitter grief over her husband’s death in a little skirmish of the Revolutionary War and her oddly accomplished suicide is staged plausibly in wonderfully graceful language.
From start to finish, the book is a rich patchwork of subjects, treatments, and aesthetic effects, from the oblique but unmistakable eroticism of “Campfire:”
Believe me, I know the world is cruel,
but when he stood over my circle of coals
at sunrise and the embers flickered
with the same violet-orange as the sky,
when the sizzle of my going out
made the same sound as the arrival of rain—
I was happy to be anything at all.
Anything. For as long as is allowed
to the helpless sadness of the formal Italian sonnet that closes the collection “The Pianist Upstairs:”
Upstairs a man devotes a tender hour
to teasing out sweet hidden harmonies
that populate the hallway with white birds.
How wasted here, their pure expressive power.
Earthly is a beautifully executed work by a woman working at the height of her powers.