Classic Rough News by Kenneth Fields
The University of Chicago Press, 2005
Reviewed by Boris Dralyuk


In Classic Rough News, Kenneth Fields delivers every bit of what he promises. Reviewers have commended him on his direct, penetrating look at alcoholism and other self-destructive forces that refuse to be reined in, while also recognizing the joy that runs through these pages, the joy that can only exist at close quarters with great pain. It is no wonder, then, that some have compared Fields’s sonnet-like poems to Berryman’s Dream Songs, but to me they suggest the slightly more modulated, moderate Berryman of Homage to Mistress Bradstreet. Some of these lyrics even echo Berryman’s own idiosyncratic sonnets. It’s a testament to the vitality of Field’s “Scholarly, Scattered, and Mad” approach that his “Fair Nice Pieces, or Burton Makes His Move,” which derives its title from the seventeenth-century Anatomy of Melancholy, calls to mind Berryman’s “spot of poontang on a five-foot piece.”

In truth, Fields’s mode here hovers somewhere between the bourbon-soaked eloquence of Berryman and the weather-beaten tonality of James Wright and Richard Hugo. That straighter edge no doubt owes to the venerable tradition of the “plain style” championed by the poet’s mentors, Yvor Winters and J. V. Cunningham. (As these poems attest, “plain” should never be taken to mean facile or prosaic.) The list of Fields’s predecessors in terms of style and content is vast, ranging from E. A. Robinson to Henri Coulette, a personal obsession of mine for whom Fields provides a beautiful and fittingly cryptic elegy called “The Passive Voice.”

But even in this elegy, Fields’s own voice demands attention. At the core of this collection is the voice of an aging scholar agonizing over his station in life, seeking salvation, and spooked by his narrowing prospects. To complicate matters, this primary speaker is coming unhinged, and has to contend with two alter-egos, “These fearful suspects of his dormancy,/ The black stars doubling everything I saw,” as he refers to them in “The Hinge,” are Burton, an exaggeratedly bookish and contemplative version of the scholar, and Billy/Billie, an equally meditative, lovelorn, transgendered Vietnam vet.

That the speaker’s voice is utterly convincing, even as it caroms from one extreme to another, is a triumph of craft. There’s no doubt that the poet’s deft handling of loose pentameter lines throughout the collection is the work of a master technician. Coupled with the content, more or less unadorned neurotic hand-wringing, the effect is striking. It’s as if iambic pentameter had worked its way into the speaker’s muscles and sinews, so much so that even his intimate, colloquial confessions veer toward it.

Though most reviewers have commented on how well Fields pairs his material with his modified sonnet form, few have noticed a subtle but critical effect the poet manages to produce in doing so. Time and again, Fields achieves a kind of dramatic irony, as his personae divulge profound truths even as they confess more shallow ones. His opening poem, “Separate Camp,” illustrates this:

The scattered books on my side of the bed,
torn covers, broken backs, and the hacked limbs—
a fortress in defeat, or under siege,
at best a losing battle. Will my life,
clutters, dustrats, middens of papers, gradually
topple in visions that would kill a wino?—
dishearten the purest nun? Is this my France,
hyperdefended, my old Maginot Line?
A cluttered, like a cloistered virtue squints,
missing the closest foe: castle and host,
book and bookworm, clap and claphound. I know
myself what I fear the most. Priesthoods of self,
cutting my nose or something worse to spite
the unexorcised adversary of my life.

We notice that the speaker’s despair is cut with hysterical laughter. Humor is both a cloak and a symptom of madness. After all, as Burton notes in “On the Bus,” “the scholarly mind/ Was most lamentably inclined to melancholy,/ Though also to hilare delirium.” In confronting the existential vacuum of his life, he recognizes the precariousness of his defenses. But does he recognize that not only his professional life, but his very identity amounts to nothing more than “middens of paper”? Consider how the mutilation of the “scattered books” in line 2 mirrors the speaker’s fear of dismemberment in line 13? Who is “the closest foe,” “the unexorcised adversary”? At the turn, between lines 11 and 12, we find the speaker professing self-awareness in a bold statement characteristic of Fields’s personae. But notice how the assertion is betrayed by the line break, with its revelatory rift between “know” and “myself.” That “[m]yself” is “what I fear the most” must come as news to both reader and speaker. And look at how line 13 is bracketed by "self," how it is "[h]yperdefended," "cloistered," absorbed by it? The speaker, who fears the encroaching "[p]riesthoods of self," finds himself already surrounded.

Despite their seeming discernment, neither Burton, nor Billy/Billie, nor the middle-of-the-road scholar arrive at self-awareness. They “tend to lose [themselves],” as “In the Place of Stories,” and their “Realizations” are half-hearted and dubious, as Billie’s claim that “she wasn’t someone else,/ She didn’t think so.” But there is a deeper awareness in the poems, beyond these characters’ blind groping. A hard-won wisdom emerges when their rough-hewn confessions are inhabited by the ghost of a classic form. These brilliant discoveries will keep Fields’s News fresh and relevant for a good, long while.