Boundlessness limited by skin: Americana and artifice in Alice Fulton’s “Unwanting.”

In The Poet’s Notebook, a 1997 collection of excerpts from 26 contemporary American poets’ notebooks, Alice Fulton transcribes a rather famous quotation from country singer Dolly Parton: “Most people spend so much time looking natural, when somebody like me takes less time to look artificial.”

Because the timeline is approximately right, I have always liked to think that Fulton was sketching out a study for her poem “Unwanting,” which first appeared in the literary journal Epoch and later published in her 1995 collection Sensual Math.  On the surface, the Parton quotation is similar to “Unwanting” in its use of comic relief to address the rather serious subject matters.  Both also raise very potent questions of what is “natural” and “artificial” in an American experience rife with excess and artifice.  Fulton addresses these themes in “Unwanting,” and pits descriptions of Middle Americana against what I will say is the thing represented: reality, memory, and ultimately, death, what the poem calls the “exdream.”

 

Unwanting

 

Laura Fulton Carpenter, 1969-1990

Laura: Latin feminine of laurus, bay laurel

As the wave grew ample in the outer mantle

of her mind, my mother dreamed

she was at Laura’s grave.

There was a picket fence around it,

and inside, a little tree.  From each of its leaves

a discrete fragrance reached:

a carnation, lilac, rose, and more.

She thought—a tree like this will never need flowers.

When she woke, day was undimming

the windows with so much enough

that some leaked into the house.

Over her instant “cup of dust,”

the freeze-dried stuff, and muffin with Promise

that wasn’t an abstraction but safflower oil

spread thin, she could still smell

the hardy perfumes—bloom split into bloom’s

constituents—within the fence.

She had “Today,” her morning shows, the heater

rumbling when she summoned.  The touch-tone to me.

But she wanted that tree.

(To get a grip on memory, hold your hands apart

like   so

and think of this space, though definite,

can be minced into ever and much

smaller bits.  And staring at that boundlessness

limited by skin, you’ll grasp it: things go

farther into diminishment

and still exist.)

I’d like my presence this hour

to be idolatrous—to have and to hold

the instant rather than the else:

the meadows—held by winter purl—and galaxies

of books against the wall.

The synapses of taste, touch, tone

and sight.  Of smell—

that helps us know things at a distance.

“I was scared of the fence.

But the tree I just loved.

Where did anybody get a tree like that?”

When the hushed philharmonic of the lightning

bugs upstaged the Independence Day displays,

I realized one firefly—

the minimal—could not have

turned the tree sidereal.

We put out the headlights to take it all in.

Desiring is nothing to having

the night sing to you in scents or gem.

Trees of completion—presence—and immersion,

what can compete with the unwanting—

the exdream—the world gone into god again?

At its core, the poem’s language and meaning focuses on separation—physiological phenomena, physical boundaries.  My essay will try to make out a system of Fulton’s images with, I think, greater and lesser degrees of success.  The enterprise is very much worth the effort, however, since a fuller reading of Fulton’s poem, as in all great poems, bears fruit and helps us find possible alternative readings, especially when one unpacks the words, images, and sounds.

In “Unwanting,” the poem addresses issues of what I call Americana, boosted and contradicted by an artificiality and, ultimately, death.  All of these focal points support what I call the poem’s “thesis” in stanza 3’s last lines: “things go\farther into diminishment\and still exist.”  The poem moves away from an objective tone of a narrative in stanzas 1 and 2.  Although it maintains a pastoral element of Americana that describes the speaker’s mother’s dream and life, the poem dovetails abstract, elegiac commentary into the narrative situation by poem’s end.  After the parenthetical, indented third stanza, a commentative strand takes over, builds momentum, and switches the poem’s point of view.  This culminates with the poem’s final statement-as-question, “what can compete with the unwanting—\the exdream—the world gone into god again?”

As we move along here in the poem in a slow, deliberate fashion, it’s my hope we can appreciate how this meditative lyric’s images of Americana are wedded to place where the poem was composed and indeed, inspired by: Middle America. But I also want to point out the poem’s many negations. I wouldn’t go so far as to say these negations offer some sociopolitical comment on an artificial American experience, but they do counterbalance the memories and feelings images Americana have long offered.

***

On a mechanical level, the poem’s internal rhyme, regular consonantal sound system, and irregular line lengths all support a sense of boundaries, of hesitation. This underscores the internal dialogue of the poem, its binary narrative-commentary strands. Let’s take a look at stanza 1:

 As the wave grew ample in the outer mantle

of her mind, my mother dreamed

she was at Laura’s grave.

There was a picket fence around it,

and inside, a little tree.  From each of its leaves

a discrete fragrance reached:

a carnation, lilac, rose, and more.

She thought—a tree like this will never need flowers.

Let’s also backtrack briefly to the poem’s two epigraphs.  One outlines a lifespan that ends prematurely (i.e., 21 years). The second outlines the etymology of that same person’s name, Laurel.  The effect of these two epigraphs on the reader is is to be encouraged or directed to think of both a physical being as well as the name of that person on a language-, word-oriented level.  Much of stanza 1’s commentary is, ultimately, separate from emotion, or least emotionally reticent.  Several possible readings of the poem’s sense denote a separation; some are literal, some are abstract.  The first line’s “outer mantle,” for example, carries a curious ambiguity straight away: we have one meaning, of a cloak or garment; another for a covering; and still another, that of the geological region between the Earth’s crust and core.  The meanings of “wave,” too, ring with ambiguity. A wave is a ridge of water, or something that represents or implies this, and is also a single curve in the course of a wave.  Any and all of these meanings may apply, since we are talking about a person’s “mind,” to which poets and philosopher have always broken down into elements and metaphor.

But what is curious here in our artifice-as-Americana reading is that, from the very first line of the poem, we witness both the concretized and ethereal.  The imagined, clichéd Americana of “picket fence” around this more conceivable, literal grave also denotes a separation.  Compared with the solemn “grave,” “picket fence” sets a mood; but it also carries a certain American pastoral weight, similar to stanza 6’s “Independence Day” scene, as we will see.  The “discrete fragrances” from “each” lead the reader’s ear into a sound-level poetic compartmentalization with, one could say, no real, literal resolution.  The use of “discrete” is the first of many unlikely syntactical moves; that is, the ambiguity of the word’s meaning, a question of the state of being discontinuous or individual. The stanza’s last line introduces the emblem of a narrative strand that the poem will follow through on: the tree that appears in the mother’s dream, addressed as if it is real, one that would give off distinct smells from different flowers, but nonetheless “will never need flowers.” One thinks of an installation piece instead of a tree, inside a picket fence, giving off different smells; an Americana-as-artifice smell memory machine, if you will.

***

We’re hardly inside an ideal or simple prosodic scenario here. Regardless of the overwhelming smell from the indefinite amount of flowers needed from this “little tree,” we are placed in realms of synesthesia and a diminishing metaphor.  For instance, the tree is called upon to represent all-encompassing “trees of completion” by poem’s end.  This kind of illogical logic is supported with definitive verb forms (i.e., “will,” “to,” and “still”).  The use of internal rhyme through long verb sounds, too, in particular the long-e sound, creates a sing-songy quality.  In the poem, words that unnaturally appear together—line 1’s “As the wave grew ample in the outer mantle” and “From each of its leaves\a discrete fragrance reached” (italics mine)—are not only supposed to make sense: they are part of the narration.  To be sure, the long-vowel sound cacophony is in part due to the repetition of the word “tree,” and is imitated by other words, as the abstracted commentary imitates a real life.  The varying line lengths throughout the stanza, too, is carried throughout the poem, which to my mind adds to a hesitant quality and prompts borderlines of thought: 12-, 9-, and 7-syllable lines are stacked on top of each other, and the effect borders the lines’ prosody.  Two of stanza 1’s three 12-syllable lines bracket the stanza, and leaves a tone of definitiveness of what has been said, that it was all true.

When she woke, day was undimming

the windows with so much enough

that some leaked into the house.

Over her instant “cup of dust,”

the freeze-dried stuff, and muffin with Promise

that wasn’t an abstraction but safflower oil

spread thin, she could still smell

the hardy perfumes—bloom split into bloom’s

constituents—within the fence.

She had “Today,” her morning shows, the heater

rumbling when she summoned.  The touch-tone to me.

But she wanted that tree.

Stanza 2 is the aftereffect, the residue of stanza 1’s dream.  Words such as “undimming” and “leaked” break down the barriers, respectively, of “fragrances” and the “mantle” and “fence” of stanza 1.  The rather Hopkinsian negations in the “-un” and “-ex” prefixes, too, break down strands of logic: “undimming” is more than just a play on “dim” and an artful way to say “illuminating.” It is emblematic of the way of the whole poem, negating what is being said in an opposite tautology, and through this we have a peculiar order. In other words, there is second, shadow set of concrete, domestic images that jibe with the border-creating, abstracting, and fissioning of those descriptions.  The “day” undims; it is “leaked into the house.” It would be obvious for sunlight to do so; on a prosodic level, then, we’re prompted into synesthestetic skepticism at its clearest level.  We grasp for the literal here, searching for meaning, only to be rebuked, “with so much enough.”

***

But it’s not until this stanza’s use of commercial product names that we get down to the real Americana-as-artifice nitty-gritty.  Promise—what a great brand name to use in a poem—is a kind of margarine, an artificial butter spread.  For people of a certain age, it is a regular on every American’s retiree’s breakfast table. The poem makes a point of pointing out the artificiality of this “Promise”—it “wasn’t an abstraction but safflower oil\spread thin.”  Some readers of a certain age may also remember the Promise ad campaigns.  One slogan seems apt for our readings here: “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.”

So reader, indulge me here: “Promise,” literally and figuratively, isn’t real, isn’t “promise”; it’s a physical substance that has been broken down, “spread thin.”  Perhaps more relevant to our reading of Americana-as-artifice is the instant coffee, described in the poem by the mother as a “cup of dust.”  The coffee is described as some who, plainly put, has actually seen dust, or would have that on the tip of one’s tongue.  These rather Grapes of Wrath images could deflate, if not negate, stanza 1’s “picket fence”: both are colloquial, down-home terms presented immediately after separation and border terminology, in this case

the hardy perfumes—bloom split into bloom’s

constituents—within the fence

Again, borders separated by borders.   One is reminded of the last few lines of Williams Carlos Williams’ “Queen-Anne’s-Lace,” another image-negation poem “machine,” as Williams himself defines poems:

Each flower is a hand’s span

of her whiteness. Wherever

his hand has lain there is

a tiny purple blemish. Each part

is a blossom under his touch

to which the fibers of her being

stem one by one, each to its end,

until the whole field is a

white desire, empty, a single stem,

a cluster, flower by flower,

a pious wish to whiteness gone over—

or nothing.

In “Unwanting,” the “bloom” is “split” into its “constituents,” one of many Latinates used in the poem, and put “within the fence,” a concrete term that a reader would normally take as straightforward.  But this reader at least has to remind himself again that it is a fence from a dream, soon to be the “exdream” by poem’s end.  Even the warm, approachable tone, the down-home, concretized account of the mother’s daily life is held at bay through tone, syntax, and sense.  As in the Williams poem, I see the use of sound as compounding the rattling effect on the poem’s meaning for the reader.

Granted, it is simple enough to say that a poem’s sound is distinctive or unlike common speech.  But it’s quite another thing to explore how the sound parallels and supports strands of logic in a poem.  Even so, the reader may end up asking what the point is in the poem, what all this listing, for instance, is is leading up to. This questioning, to my mind, is compounded by a mellifluous f-sound repetition in this stanza—“enough,” “stuff,” “muffin,” and “safflower.”  Only one of these terms (“enough”) is used in a truly poetic way;  it personifies comments coming out of a certain room, presumably the speaker or the speaker’s mother, while the remaining three deflate a classic image of pastoral, peaceful breakfast scene.

***

The reference to The Today Show, or “Today,” really takes the Americana-as-artifice cake, and continues the leitmotif of introduced-then-debunked terminology for the next two stanzas. The Today Show, for those readers who do not have a TV, is NBC’s long-running ‘morning show,’ which for the past 10 years has a stage outside its studio in Rockefeller Center in midtown Manhattan.  I worked as a proofreader for advertising agencies in that area for couple years, and I can assure you that, far from being a hip venue for native New Yorkers to stop by, it’s an island for early-rising tourists from the middle of the country to get on TV, often with signs for friends and relatives back home (random sample from a recent morning’s telecast: “Hi Grandma in Lansing, MI”; “Kansas City Cheerleader Champs!!!”). The Today Show experience—I would say, as have many others—is one of Americana looking at itself, a manifestation of the Americana artifice’s self-gaze.  The tone in the poem comes from that antiseptic variety of imagery, and how it packs its wallop from the difficulty of broaching the subject matter at hand—namely, a mother dreaming of the grave of her daughter, her daily life at home described by a sympathetic speaker—because of the gratuitousness of the poem’s hesitant, irregular quality.

This hesitation—this Midwestern reticence, I’m tempted to call it—culminates in the end of stanza 2’s rim-shot punch line—“But she wanted that tree.”  Before this line, there is a pause, an out-of-breath end-stop after the speaker’s catalogue of items.  The packed-in e-sound (“she,” “tree”) reminds the reader of the poem’s opening passage, the dream of the mother; the effect of recalling this dream provides a kind of precarious balance until the poem’s end.  Stanza 3’s parenthetical indent, for instance, will address the reader directly, as if conscious of the two  warring elements the poem had dealt with thus far, aware that a respite is needed from the warring elements of memory and commentary.

(To get a grip on memory, hold your hands apart

like   so

and think of this space, though definite,

can be minced into ever and much

smaller bits.  And staring at that boundlessness

limited by skin, you’ll grasp it: things go

farther into diminishment

and still exist.)

This indented, colloquial aside reduces meaning to linear statement. It is presented as directions, not unlike a cooking segment on a talk show such as The Today Show—“can be minced into ever and much/smaller bits” seems straight out of Iron Chef, except we’re talking about “this space” of memory, not onions for a non-fattening soup.  There’s also reassurance here that you will be able to grasp the space/memory the speaker is speaking about.  The tone here is instructional, but also reassuring, maternal.  It’s almost metrically regular as well, and notice that it rhymes (“so”/”go”, “bits”/”exist”).  In short, it’s pure, plainspoken Americana, which, much like the Dolly Parton quotation from Fulton’s notebook, talks about an artifice “limited by skin.”  Stanza 3 acknowledges the predicament of borders, limits, consciousness, and, ultimately, that of the poem; the narrative and commentative strands switch gears, as does its sound-meaning.  Beyond fulfilling those tonal requirements, however, the stanza is a distraction: stanza 6’s Independence Day narration will depict another distraction, a break in attention span that, in a prosaic sense, adds to the characterization of the speaker.

***

Because of this uneasy dance between real emotion and its negation, between images of Americana and its artificiality, and with it a documentarian’s struggle to avoid condescension to her subject, it would be acceptable by the stanza 3 not to trust the poem’s speaker.  Such distrust may help the poem along, you could even say; we are, after all, being taught about distances, about separation.  The speaker seems to be giving these directions for personal as well as poetic benefits, as if it’s a brass-tacks, bucolic lesson in distance, in borders.  How we are to be taught this lesson of separation and memory, the speaker seems to be asking, without being separated from something?  Structurally and tonally, the internal rhymes are still present, albeit quieter; to my ears, thought, it is a hollowed-out version of the e-sounds or the loping, soft consonantal system of stanza 2’s f-sounds and internal rhyme.  The stanza supplants these with the softer t- and s-sounds.  And then we get to the poem’s thesis statement, “things go\farther into diminishment\and still exist.”

Stanza 3 eludes the reader rhythmically—what is addressed, we think, is no different than stanza 1’s fantastical narration or stanza 2’s border-breakdown leitmotif.  But in the first two stanzas, the 12-syllable lines are the support beams.  They carry less emotional weight than the shorter, more succinct lines—or, for that matter, impart as much meaning.  But they do add to the poem’s chatty tone.  In my successive readings, I imagine Stanza 3 as an 8-line hiatus from form, content, and meaning.  Call it a poem-within-a-poem (“The stanza’s the thing!”) that plays by its own rules and prosody.  The reader, however, is not ultimately allowed to enter this internal poem as literally, or at least get inside the thought of the speaker or both speakers. To “get a grip,” we are told to hold our arms apart

like   so

And so, there the reader is, holding out hands, twiddling thumbs, told to imagine memory for no other reason than for the information it provides. The directions given lead up to the larger, prosodic point: “things go farther into diminishment\and still exist.”  Arguably, the last two lines could have gotten this message across by itself.

***

So why is this stanza in the poem?  The very use of parentheses, as well as indention, form a palpable border around the stanza, a “picket fence,” a “boundlessness\limited by skin.” By the time we reach an explanation of this “boundlessness” and “memory,” we realize it is a kind of parlour trick, and speaker’s authority hits bottom.  Fulton uses a kitchen-sink, mild concrete poetry approach to get across an image of physical space— “like   so.”  The gesture is explicit, followed by a quieter-sounding syntax and off-rhyme scheme (“minced,” “diminishment,” “bits,” and “skin”).   In stanza 1, the diminishment was manifest in the grave, the picket fence that surrounds it, and the tree that emits “discrete” fragrances from the tree within the fence.  In stanza 2, the idea of real-world artificiality is shown with instant coffee, “Promise,” “perfume” (instead of the natural world’s term, stanza 1’s “fragrance”), a heater that is “summoned,” a call to daughter with a touch tone.

Stanza 3’s direct tone, on the other hand, has this reader twiddling thumbs and hands. The body becomes involved, like watching an exercise tape. Another narrative situation, introduced in stanza 5, will maintain a balance of narrative and commentative tones that supports the notion that no memory can be understood.  The narrative returns in stanza 4’s rather declamatory tone, one that reminds the reader of an accountable speaker.  I say this not only because of the introduction of the speaker’s “I,” but because all answers provided to the borders question have been loaded with representation, and so the speaker as well as the reader must get involved:

I’d like my presence this hour

to be idolatrous—to have and to hold

the instant rather than the else:

the meadows—held by winter purl—and galaxies

of books against the wall.

The synapses of taste, touch, tone

and sight.  Of smell—

that helps us know things at a distance.

The ‘idolatry’ here, I would say, is another version of Americana, the idol instead of the thing idolized.  This representation of nature is another separation: an embroidered, or ‘purled,’ representation of nature.  This marks yet another separation, the frame that surrounds the image.  This stanza’s personal statement talks us through the issues in the poem thus far: the speaker’s presence is equated with the instant, the point where nature takes a back seat to humankind’s attempt to imitate, even perfect, the natural world.  The tone of stanza 4, as in stanza 2, contains the sound- and literal meaning residue of the previous stanzas.  In stanza 2’s “leaking,” we are led to the last line’s comment by the mother.

In stanza 4, we also arrive at the key word of the poem’s prosody: “distance.”  Stanza 3’s “diminishment” and “minced,” as well as so much of the rest of the poem’s scenes and scenarios, address this issue of distance.  It is a testament to the poetics’ and the speaker’s hesitancy that a word as unmitigated as “distance” sounds so immediate, even refreshing to read.  The main point of stanza 4—to acknowledge the differences of senses, rather than stanza 1’s sense-bundling—is an attempt to bridge the gap of commentary and narrative, and as we shall see by the testimonial stanza 5, narration will take over, dovetailed (or ‘stitched-in’) with commentary.  The speaker  jump-starts dialogue between the self and “else”: perhaps the abstract, perhaps the mother, probably a combination of the two, a distinction the speaker would probably not care to recognize.  Just as the mother enjoys her instant coffee—her “cup of dust”—the speaker enjoys the referred rather than the referent, the account rather than event, the stitched and framed embroidery “held by winter purl” rather than meadows it portrays.

***

I have long felt I would be stretching my reading of the poem a bit here if I relate it to my notion of Americana as artifice as an overriding theme in the poem.  But then I came upon other fragments in The Poet’s Notebook, where Fulton asks, “Why do we value what is real?  Rather than imitation?  Real in what sense?” Here’s another fragment:

            “Book Shapes: The unwanting.  Enough.  The line infinite & closed.  Surfeit rather than    desire.  To have rather than yearn or lose.”

Fulton echoes the marriage vows in this stanza (“to have and to hold”), I think, to ask how, when our desire is satisfied, is that feeling satisfied again, if we are to assume one always feels desire. If we assume again that these notes are studies for “Unwanting,” we see that Fulton is also thinking about the very act of writing, the “books on the wall” as a “picket fence” around words, a border as well consummation of desire. If questions about what to do with a surfeit of material things a person has isn’t an American question, I’m left wondering what is.

***

So with that out of the way, some others words about the primary sense of the poem: smell.  It can be said that the olfactory sense, equated with “distance” in this stanza, is the most honest and pure of senses.  Indeed, there is no way to ignore smell or not smell except by distance.  Something stinks or something doesn’t,  just as something is fragrant or simply isn’t appealing.  The only real way to get away from a bad small is to walk away.  There are no grand aesthetic debates over smells, nor is there a literature of olfactory criticism, as in music or painting.  The main sources of smells are either fragrance-makers—perfumes, great foods, coffee—or things that simply stink—dog shit, body odor, a decomposed body.  There’s no middle-ground in a smell argument, as there may be for “taste, touch, tone\and sight.”  This argument for the appeal of the idea of smell, that is it “helps us know things at a distance,” also benefits the reader in decoding what has motivated the poem’s argument; that by recognizing the senses we use to perceive distance, we can actually distance ourselves from the perception of that distance, and see the world’s artifice, the Middle Americana landscape, far from being robust, is in fact fragile and ephemeral.

***

By stanza 4 we’ve gone full circle in the poem’s argument.  As we have at the end of each stanza in this poem, another distinct device is about to be foisted upon us, stanza 5’s testimonial:

“I was scared of the fence.

But the tree I just loved.

Where did anybody get a tree like that?”

After the back-and-forth of distance and perception, and the narration filtered through a filmic eye and a breakdown of senses, stanza 4’s snippet of dialogue turns the poem again on its own head.  The quote, presumably from the mother of stanza 1 and 2, reminds the reader of the dream, the tree, the grave, and also the border, the fence, which the stanza’s speaker is “scared of.”

The mother’s re-introduction here is the most haphazard move in the poem.  It grounds the readers over the sense of the poem, but it also holds us at a distance.  Put another way, it’s a case of too much information (a “surfeit”), but we don’t feel privileged enough to hear this.  Because of the distance and point-of-view tricks from the poem thus far, the quoted passage is perceived as a found object, and is treated with commensurate skepticism.  There is a sheen of genuineness, a generosity that echoes stanza 2’s convalescence vignette.  The reader may also detect some mild senility—“Where did anybody get a tree like that?”—or at least infer that someone is getting over being upset, an attempt at comic relief from what was a disturbing vision.  The plainspoken tone, however, is deceiving; the stanza’s meaning is yet another microcosm of the poem’s arguments.  The fence is mentioned, as is the tree, in dramatic terms, an eclogue from a pastoral where the narration-commentary balance must be held.  It is Shakespeare’s “visitation scene” where Henry V, visiting the common soldiers; the real King asking questions about himself and the upcoming battle.  Again, as in stanza 2’s punch line, we are reminded of the tree, and an e-sound repeated to echo the poems sound-meaning scheme.  In dialogue, narration and commentary meet, and it can be said that stanza 5 is the quiet epicenter of the poem, a continuation of stanza 3’s inertia and stanza 4’ s assertions regarding distance.  The next stanza begins with a first-person vignette, another distraction:

When the hushed philharmonic of the lightning

bugs upstaged the Independence Day displays,

I realized one firefly—

the minimal—could not have

turned the tree sidereal.

We put out the headlights to take it all in.

The pastoral stanza 6, as mentioned earlier, echoes and fulfills the image of stanza 2’s Americana.  There is an element of finality embedded in the narrative approach to the commentary; rather than the hand exercise of stanza 3 or an argument of small-distances in stanza 4, both narration and commentary work toward proving the same point: that the smallest of stimuli can distract from the most grandiose.  Just “one firefly” can “upstage” that ultimate sacrament of Americana, the Fourth of July fireworks, to the point of distraction; we “know things at a distance.”  The use of the past tense and our assumption of a mother-speaker relationship from our reading of the poem up to this point, we can assume this is a childhood memory or at least one that involves family.  The tone here is of resignation to nature; for the first and only time, nature is pictured in real-world, real-time terms. And although the speaker realizes that the “minimal” version of the real thing, rather than the fantasia of fireworks, cannot displace a vision (“turn the tree sidereal”), the stanza offers an appreciation of the lightning bugs’ “hushed philharmonic,” the natural world. The ambiguity of “philharmonic,” involving a society of like-minded fireflies, is another type of fragmentation, an attempt at naming each “smaller bit”—a stitch of embroidery, a cacophony of smell.  “Sidereal,” meaning “of or measured by the stars,” also implies documentation, placing or domesticating the visionary within a frame, no matter how fantastical.  The double e-sound of “tree sidereal” reminds us again of the tree-dream and is part of the overall sound-meaning scheme.   (Here’s a statistic.  Long vowel sounds dominate the poem: out of 51 lines, only 8 do not have long vowel sounds.)

The distractions of the light, as in stanza 2’s “undimming,” also comment on the sense of sight: all it takes to distract one by sight is fireworks or fireflies, turning off the headlights to “take it all in.” The speaker, on the most basic level, is trying to say the dream of stanza 1 explains her daughter’s death, and somehow allays the mother’s grief, as if that sense merely required some sieve, unlike stanza 4’s ‘synapses’ that hold certain overloads at bay, to “know things at a distance,” light or grief. There is a sense of relief in knowing the soul cannot wholly obsess, that distraction and distance are lifesaving, natural tendencies.  The poem’s last stanza wraps up the commentary began in stanza 6:

Desiring is nothing to having

the night sing to you in scents or gem.

Trees of completion—presence—and immersion,

what can compete with the unwanting—

the exdream—the world gone into god again?

One of the great points about this poem is that when there is distraction or borders, when one element is separated from another, there is a judgment, a “desire” to “compete” between one and the other.  In the process of that inevitable choice, there is at least a second of distraction, like the “hushed philharmonic” or fireflies, the “instant rather than the else” of domestic comfort, or the idyllic “Trees of completion” in stanza 7.  One does not choose because of want or need of exclusion; rather, this happens because of an accumulation of experience, stanza 4’s “galaxies\ of books,” or the stanza 7’s “immersion.”  The poem works not because it makes some rather quaint comment on how Americana is full of artifice; anyone who has seen the bathos and pageantry of a fireworks display can draw that conclusion. The poem is effective because of its equating distraction and artificiality with unconscious desire, instant coffee with an “idolatrous” space between nature and the self, characterized by sense.

what can compete with the unwanting—

the exdream—the world gone into god again?

It would be unfair to say these last lines can be paraphrased as direct competition between god and the natural world.  What should be taken away from the poem is an idea of free will, that assigning these classifications is the ultimately humane task of naming, again an exploitation of our notions of Edenic Americana, separation, border-creation, the speaker’s “unwanting.”  What these last lines address is the aesthetic debate of preternatural versus organic, how human relationships prevent us from direct criticism, just as the speaker relates to the mother.  Remember that this commentary, by combining itself with narration in the later stanzas 4, 6, and 7, attempts to find the order of things through borders, separation through representation, and in the end we have in part is an elegy to the American landscape, the pastoral, very human in intent.  No choice was really made between the two strands in the poem, but only one can really be addressed as a time.  In this sense, death is perhaps the ultimate order, the “world gone into god again,” a continuous cycle that makes ‘competing’ with nature a moot, absurd point. Let’s throw in the Biblical sound-meaning ambiguity of the word “dust”—“for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (King James Bible, Genesis 3: 19).  It attempts to move outside the sophisticated arguments it is making, whether through plain-spoken language or by narration, or through making the speaker just accountable enough to the reader to empathize with the personal sense and feeling.  The poem’s last lines recall W. B. Yeats’ “Among School Children,” in which the poet asks about the same separations in life.  Both poems end similarly, with a question:

O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,

Are you the leaf, the blossom, or the bole?

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,

How can we know the dancer from the dance?

(Yeats 123)

In both poems, we are asked to distinguish the indistinguishable.  The free will of the imagination, combined with a healthy skepticism and the tricks our own senses play upon us, ensure that there will always be an “exdream,” some negation.  The speaker, then, remains ambivalent to the end, relying on Americana vignettes to drive the commentary, and that is perhaps the most powerful argument the poem leaves: we will never have anything to comment on, to desire or dance about, unless we experience life and death itself. Just as Dolly Parton asks about spending less time looking artificial than people trying to look natural, so does Fulton asks about how we spend our entire lives to get to that decisive moment when we grasp memory “just so,” put a picket fence around it, and breathe it all in.

Works Cited and Consulted

Ehrlich, Eugene, editor. Oxford American Dictionary.  New York: Avon Books, 1980.

Ellman, Richard, editor. The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, Second Edition.  New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1988.

Fulton, Alice.  Sensual Math.  New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1995.

King James Bible. New York: American Bible Society, 1980.

Kuusisto, Stephen, Tall, Deborah, and Weiss, David, eds.  The Poet’s Notebook.  New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1995.

Richards, I.A. Practical Criticism: A Study of Literary Judgment.  New York: Harvest/HBJ, 1929.

Turco, Lewis. The New Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics.  Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 1986.

Yeats, William Butler, Rosenthal, M.L., editor. Selected Poems and Four Plays. New York: Scribner, 1996.

5 Comments

Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Teaching

5 responses to “Boundlessness limited by skin: Americana and artifice in Alice Fulton’s “Unwanting.”

  1. lucewriter

    Wow, I’ve been away from this world for so long, this completely transported me back to when I was writing essays explicating and theorizing poetry. You also transported me back to when I first found Fulton and her book :Dance Script with Electric Ballerina.” This essay is thorough and compelling. Thank you.

    • lucewriter

      Why did a smiley face turn up in the middle of my post? sigh

      • I liked the :) actually. Thanks for the comments. Sometimes when a poem is so good I have to just examine it line by line. My thinking is maybe it will rub off on me somehow when I write my next poem. We’ll see about that. But isn’t Fulton just the greatest?

  2. lucewriter

    She’s fabulous! I’m glad you appreciate the smiley that came out of nowhere. A Freudian slip maybe. Or WordPress doing my thinking for me.

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