by Matthew Pennock
Every Sunday, around eight million people tune in to ABC’s dramatic confection, Once Upon a Time. For those of you superior folks who don’t own televisions, or are too busy binge-watching Breaking Bad on Netflix, it’s basically a show where all of your favorite characters from fairy tales, thus the Disney universe, are thrown together in the modern world and, how shall we say, reinterpreted. The show owes its success to its ability to tap into Americans’ overwhelming penchant for nostalgia, while twisting things just enough to provide an element of risk or surprise, which keeps the viewer from drifting off to another channel to watch house renovations or table-flipping mob wives.
In the current season, the show’s third, most of the action takes place in Neverland, but this isn’t Barrie’s Neverland, or even the Disney version most of us are probably more familiar with. This incarnation is darker and a bit more menacing. Peter Pan is not a hero, but a devious villain. The whole thing has started to resemble Lost, which is not surprising considering Once Upon a Time’s creators, Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis, were writers for the seminal J.J. Abrams series. This version even has an easy parallel to the Lost island’s famous smoke monster in the form of Peter Pan’s demonic shadow. This collision of worlds has proven fruitful for the show. It’s fun to watch Snow White and Prince Charming stumble around the vaguely threatening Lost Island, trying to combat an evil Peter Pan. The experience is at once familiar and strange, or at the risk of sounding redundant, nostalgic and new. I received a similar sensation while reading Great Guns, the debut collection by Farnoosh Fathi.
Fathi’s poems present the reader with a common menagerie of poetic obsessions: flowers, birds, insects such as cicadas and moths, weather, and stars. In Fathi’s universe, however, these things feel different. They do not simply stand for themselves in a purely described world, but they seem to recede, or become translucent with something clearly standing behind, which the viewer can only make out in motion or as blurred shapes. This sensation suffuses the lyric with a sensation of constant suspicion. I, as a reader, am not suspicious of the poems, but, rather, they seem to be suspicious of me. When I read these poems, I feel like I am being eyed warily by a strange cat which has yet to decide if I mean it harm or if I carry ham in my pocket. (I don’t even know if cats like ham, I assume they do. They are little carnivores). Whether such suspicion stems from paranoia or simple shyness remains difficult to discern.
This sophistication of lyric arises right from the start. Consider the untitled opening poem. Its central refrain, borrowed from the well-known children’s song “Jimmy Crack Corn”, repeats throughout the piece. It seems simple enough, a little innocent ditty, some familiar music to which the reader can cling. Interspersed, however, are much more telling statements, beginning with “A light peck cracks the constellation. / They want our secret without becoming like. / They want our secret to undo.” In those three simple end-stopped lines, the tone is set for the rest of the collection. We are introduced to the “they”. Who are “they”? All we know is that they are other, and they have begun by invading the constellation and are after the speaker’s secret. These lines clearly establish a tenor of paranoia, of looming threat. The mood grows more sophisticated, however, as the poem reveals the following:
Bone by bone, we have backed too far
in divulgence to frost with reticence,
Nor do we look as happy as the indigenous.
Stars, we trusted you!
Here the speaker admits that the aforementioned paranoia/violation causes a withdrawal, and this turning away does not necessarily yield positive results. As a result, I sense ambivalence in the speaker, and frustration regarding the lack of assurance over how to proceed. This frustration boils over into the final line of the first stanza as seen above. “Stars, we trusted you!” is an accusatory exclamation. It abruptly halts the self-reflection of the preceding lines and returns to the wary tone illustrated earlier.
These passages illustrate a speaker wrestling with the self and how it exists in the world. The poem ends, however, with a much more confident, yet surreal image: “the waves explode but cannot kill a snail / whose castle is the quiet / of a nun’s navel.” The final image consists of a powerful force (the waves) unable to overcome a tiny, slow creature (the snail), which this reader cannot help but equate with the speaker. The snail uses as its bulwark against the explosion a sense of inner peace represented by the quiet of a nun’s navel, whether or not it’s religious (as the nun may imply) matters not. It definitely feels, however, zen-like or spiritual. As a result, the reader takes away the feeling that although betrayal has occurred and future threat looms, its siege will break against the strong walls the speaker has built, thereby leaving the reader with an uplifting desire to resist and overcome.
Further insight can be achieved if one considers the history of the song that returns throughout the poem. “Jimmy Crack Corn” is a tune associated with blackface minstrel shows of the nineteenth century. Whether or not it originated as an actual slave song or as a white parody, it carries with it the complex history of cultural appropriation, and therefore the central refrain of the piece becomes not an innocent tune, but a menacing chant of violation. Much like the Neverland of Once Upon a Time, what should be harmless nostalgia only serves as a smokescreen, obscuring something much more ominous. While Blackface minstrelsy is obvious transgression, modern cultural appropriations (i.e. Gwen Stefani and the Harajuku girls, or Miley Cyrus’s twerking in We Can’t Stop) live in a much grayer area between homage and theft, inspiring debates as to what qualifies as a violation of a group’s cultural heritage. While cultural appropriation may not be the central theme of Great Guns, I continue to meditate on it because a similar ambivalence pervades my consciousness as I read these poems. I’m often unsure if the speaker is inviting me in to celebrate the beautiful transcendent images she creates, or if she is pulling down the shades as I attempt to peep through the window.
Fathi employs several techniques that create this effect. One that figures prominently is her tendency to shift the speaker in the poem, often near the end. New speakers often interrupt the primary; sometimes verse springs forth from other characters in the poem, sometimes inanimate objects, and sometimes from places impossible to clearly identify. From wherever they originate, these shifts are the equivalent of the poet saying “Hey! Look over here!” and we do. The effect can be disorienting, which contributes to the reader’s experience of feeling pushed away. For example, let’s consider the first two stanzas of “Approaching a Dry-Eyed Whale”:
Into the eve of the beached the sun’s cane pokes
The eye of the whale— “Set sail, set sail!
Once I was excused
From the table too. My talons sunk
The wood, to love. See that happy stray,
His tail is never far from his ribs! That is how hunger
Comes so close to education.
The speaker begins with an image of sunlight glancing off the eye of a beached whale, then we are immediately interrupted by another voice. Who speaks remains entirely unclear. Is it the whale? I think not, unless whales have talons unbeknownst to me. This second speaker is much more forceful than the primary speaker, making use of the imperative and exclaiming exuberantly. A few lines on the primary speaker returns with the lines “the infrangible is flocking to our head—those words / To which we ran and then from hid” is yet another statement of ambivalence, expressing the desire to discover and then shrink away from. The speaker then introduces “the wives with sheep in their ears.” It is “they” who speak the final lines of the poem,
And all they say: “We follow the crashes
From shore to shore—
Everything that breaks of terror
Breaks and is whole again
Never to become
Like once-loves become acquaintances,
Truly erect hardware in a dune.”
In this poem, three distinct voices dominate about a third of the poem. The primary speaker is reticent, but confident; the second unknown speaker is exuberant and forceful, while the voice of the wives takes on an elegiac tone. These three personalities comprise a cacophony to which the reader is subjected, but all of them unite on a common theme—unsatisfied hunger. Whether it’s the words to which we are both running to or hiding from; or the terror that breaks, is whole again, but never to become. Hunger is the point. Hunger is the education. The reader’s hunger to identify the source of different voices, pin down the image, or even navigate the grammar (see last three lines) proves impossible and ultimately fruitless, yet in the poem a true discernible meaning feels so close like a roasted roadrunner dancing in Wile E. Coyote’s dreams. The ambiguity of the lyrics and the ambivalence of the speaker frustrate the reader, but in this case the frustration is akin to want, it draws us in while it pushes us away.
Frustrating the reader is nothing new in contemporary poetry, but these poems strike a different chord. The lyrics are not completely fractured or devoid of punctuation, they are not seemingly interminable lists of every disparate object the poet saw on their way home from work, they are not peppered with overly-clever-but-really-not-so-clever references to early 90s sitcoms. These poems, while difficult, still reach. They reach for the beautiful transcendent image. They pull back the curtain and show us just a glimpse of the wizard behind, but then retreat quickly as if they are suspicious of their own creation, as if so much beauty must be turned away from before someone realizes it’s a lie.
The piece “A Tiger Is Getting Married” displays another technique Fathi uses to achieve her education of hunger. Here she employs smartly juxtaposed images to evoke contrasting emotions from the reader. The poem has a repeated central image of rain falling in front of sun, interspersed with wedding images, a lacey train, diamonds, and ominous absences like that of a groom, or a kiss. Already we see a tension between beauty and artifice. The ceremony, while pretty, is just for show, behind it exists only emptiness. The poem culminates as such:
Lates grate, only water
flashes against the sun’s eyes
like a veil.
Watch, these bald patches
by morning will be lemons.
Anyone who has seen rain fall in the sunshine knows it is a sight both strange and striking, each droplet glints suddenly then disappears, a shower of fleeting diamonds. This beautiful image, however, is subsequently juxtaposed with something less than transcendent. It is unclear where the bald patches reside in the poem, but they imply emptiness. Not just ordinary emptiness, but emptiness that should contain something. In our culture, bald almost always carries a negative connotation; we associate it with a lack of virility, aging, impotence. Ending with bald patches would be bad enough, but insult is added to injury because they are to be filled with lemons in the morning. Lemons, of course, are the universal symbol of sourness. The cumulative effect of the poem is a lingering disappointment. We are promised a wedding, we are tantalized with shiny gems and beautiful rain and sun, but when the veil is lifted, the only thing revealed remains the stoic face of the void.
As I mentioned before, frustrating the reader is nothing new in contemporary poetry. A lot of poets who engage in the practice do so cavalierly. They think it makes them seem clever, or puckish, but really it just stinks of laziness. Fathi does not belong to their ranks. Her speakers frustrate the reader because they too are frustrated. As a result, it becomes a shared experience. We go along because we know we are not making the pilgrimage alone. She offers us beautiful images that feel familiar, comfortable, but then she defaces them, obscures them, or turns them on their head, thereby imbuing them with a sense of risk, begging the question Is there anything to the beauty poetry creates? Or is it all just artifice? The question is asked, but never definitively answered. The point is that we hunger; we hunger like plane crash survivors; we hunger like fairy tale princesses; we hunger for answers and resolutions that never come, and thus we receive our education.
Discussed in this essay:
Great Guns by Farnoosh Fathi. Canarium Press. 2013. 80 pages. $14.
Matthew Pennock is the author of Sudden Dog (Alice James Books, 2012).
Illustration: Stranded Whale, 1854