As someone who considers himself a poet, I feel it a duty to maintain some contact with contemporary poetry. I subscribe to a few poetry journals, am part of a local poetry reading group, and occasionally go to local poetry readings. Were happiness an emotion known to him, the whole endeavor would make Kant happy: it is, by and large, untainted by joy.
So it is a surprise, and a pleasant one, to have encountered Joseph Fasano’s Inheritance, which satisfies on the level of the well-turned individual phrase, on the level of the well-wrought individual poem, and on the level of the well-organized collection.
Let us begin with the level of moments. The primordial thrill of poetry is the startling phrase, startling in its beauty and its accuracy. The book is full of them. For example, from “The Blind Foal”:
At a touch
of my hand she blossomed, briar-wracked,
her withers, dragged
from the barn’s dark loam.
I have what seems to me a rather poor visual imagination. It is rare, the verbal sequence that can place within my mind an image of even moderate vividness. This is such.
Skipping now from the lowest to the highest level, the collection has a satisfying unity, brought about by a continuity of image, mood, and technique. Horses run throughout these poems, no mute and static symbol, but spilling over the sides with life, resonances that reach in all directions. I enjoy especially the recurrent image of “breaking” horses. It puts the entire collection in conversation, in ways I have yet to fully explore, with Homer, who also sang of “breakers of horses.”
The poems seem to inhabit a sort of generalized space, not tied any concrete locality. Even the poems that do mention particular places nonetheless seem to occur in this abstract locale. The seasons do change there, but mostly it is October, perpetual October, at the onset of cold, on the verge of cold, but not quite there, still straddling the line. As if there is always a threat, not yet realized, but present as threat no less. This place is a mood more than a place, and gives the book unity.
There is unity, too, in technique. I am thinking especially of Fasano’s use, throughout the book, of negative definition. Inheritance is apophatic. What must be said cannot be said directly, must be approached through negation. Examples:
You rise. You turn back to the room and repeat what you know:
The earth is not a home. The night is not an empty bridle… (“The Figure”)
You must learn to be sung through
as the wind wills: not wholly, not lowly, not risen, not shriven,
not long. (“The Dead”)
But this is not a story about wisdom. (“Young Mother and Child Awaiting Evacuation from Sarajevo”)
Relatedly, there is a running thread of skepticism, on the part of the poetic voice, of his own choice of description, where that description is positive:
Maybe we shouldn’t say it this way,
but only dignity is endless. (“Young Mother and Child Awaiting Evacuation from Sarajevo”)
……………….I know it’s not good form
to say it this way, not here… (“Man Falling through an Elegy”)
Which leaves the level of the individual poem. I have left it for last because I understand it least. The moments are immediate, send shivers down the spine that need no interpretation. They are self-standing. And the unifying themes of the collection can be sensed and their importance felt with a similar immediacy. But the middle level of the poem is, for me, a bit more analytic. I do not feel I quite know what any individual poem is doing. Suffice it to say that I want to: it is more than I can say about most poems. My first reading has convinced me these are poems worth unpacking. It is hard to ask for more.
If there is a weakness of the collection, it is that the endings of poems are, at times, a little formulaic. I am thinking specifically of the way he uses repetition in his endings. Examples:
We abandon the dead. We abandon them. (“The Figure”)
but who loves so few, so few. (“Author”)
the rest belongs to Fire, only Fire. (“Heraclitean”)
Look at him. Look at our splendor. (“Middletown, NY”)
No more songs, Sweet / No One. No more, no more songs. (“Novitiate”)
not wholly, not lowly, not risen, not shriven, // not long. (“The Dead”)
in his hands no flint no gun no bow / no fire? (“Ceremony”)
Considered alone, these endings are sensible and effective. Juxtaposed, they have a sort of weary repetitiousness. But this complaint, though real, only slightly diminishes the pleasure I felt while reading Inheritance, which pleasure was—as is pleasure’s privilege—more real.