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Usher: Poems
B. H. Fairchild
W.W. Norton & Company, 128 pages

B. H. Fairchild is an award-winning American poet whose tremendous narrative abilities and giftedness for portraiture allow him to paint a vision of America that is both vibrant and conflicted, a richly textured human panoramic. No stranger to the small-town, Fairchild frequently writes on the subject of human longing and incompleteness using characters, images, and events inspired from his upbringing in rural Oklahoma, Kansas, and Texas. In Usher, he continues to voice their hopes, struggles, and desires in the section entitled, “The Beauty of Abandoned Towns,” a series of poems that collectively catalog and mourn the passing of self-sustained agrarian economies.

Although Fairchild devotes a section of the collection to reflections on rural America, the breadth of his subjects implies not regionalism, but a poet speaking for the nation through a series of testimonies. It's an American mosaic of narrative poems where every character is the main character. As the title implies, the poems in Usher read like a verbal cinema, with the majority of the poems being written in dramatic monologue or lyric fashion. But the most striking aspect of Usher is not actually what happens onscreen in the world of the poems, but the “suspension of disbelief” that occurs in the audience off-screen.

Usher is a live replication—it is us watching ourselves. Frieda Pushnik, the namesake of one poem inspired by an old obituary in the Los Angeles Times, is the “Armless, Legless Girl Wonder” that people come to see, and yet it is through her eyes that we find ourselves in the helplessly fascinated audience:

These are the faces I love. Adrift with wonder,
big-eyed as infants and famished for that strangeness
in the world they haven’t known since early childhood,
they are monsters of innocence who gladly shoulder
the burden of the blessed, the unbroken, the beautiful,
the lost…

From Manhattan to rural Kansas, Texas to Los Angeles, from post-World War II to post-9/11, to memories of his own part-time experience as an usher—we are the main attraction, the feature film, and B.H. Fairchild dims the lights, fetches the magic hourglass, and reels the tape so deftly one might swear it was moving all on its own.

The opening poem, “The Gray Man,” is a narrative of the poet’s experience as a young boy in rural settings forced to work alongside a hardened, unsociable new hire—one which sets the tone for the rest of the collection with its unforced, austere style, in a thoughtful examination of the psychology of restlessness. Thematically, we encounter in the poem a representative of our human interconnectedness: the gray man cannot escape from his relationship with the world around him, no matter how strongly he desires to be cut off. His fears are ultimately realized in remembrance of the sacred command, “Love thine enemy.” These are his first and final words in the poem, spoken aloud not as a command, but a troubled confession that sets a striking tone for the rest of the collection.

Usher is divided into five sections: “Trilogy,” “Godel,” “Five Prose Poems of Roy Eldrige Garcia,” “The Beauty of Abandoned Towns,” and “Desire.” Throughout the five-part collection, Fairchild employs a number of religious, philosophical and biographical references that the reader may find daunting at first. “Hart Crane in Havana”—an inventive series of postcards from Crane in Havana written before his suicide—unsurprisingly must come with its own key afterward. But the collection owes a great deal to Crane’s vision of Brooklyn Bridge as a symbol of hope, as Fairchild’s personae exhibit strength of will in the face of despair, undying desire and unyielding, outstretched hands.

Overall, Fairchild successfully exploits the allegorical poetic with minimal fuss—one of the more humorous examples being found in “The Cottonwood Lounge,” where the speaker recalls a scene where Ira Campbell—a character readers may recognize from Fairchild’s previous works—lines bottles of Coronas on a table, imploring his friends to conceptualize with him George Cantor’s theory of transfinite numbers: “ ‘with infinitely small Coronas / this table becomes, my friends, an infinite space / within finite limits’…” It is the passage of time, however, that allows Fairchild to cut to the ontological heart of the poem with the kind of lucid, developmental precision that has become so well-acclaimed in his work to date:

          …and time, illusion though it
may be, argues Ira, is walking past the table
in the form of Samantha Dobbins, all big hair
and legs and brown eyes like storms coming on

who I would date that summer and leave behind
and regret it even now, for time in its linear
progression, real or not, is, I fear, terribly finite,
as it is for God, who, looking down or up

or from some omnidirectional quantum point
in this one universe among many suffers
the idiocies of four beer-stunned boys stumbling
in the long confusion of their lives toward

what one might call the edge that is there
and always will be, for three have already found it,
and the one who has not ponders the mathematics
of the spirit, and Ira Campbell, who found God there.

Although the mode occasionally leans intellectual, Usher never strays wholly out-of-touch, replete with images of incompleteness and irrepressible human longing. Godel’s theorem is the abstract, and in “Les Passages,” the crying of a baby in Nordstrom’s is the case study—the noise which causes us to “[search] our pockets, wallets, purses, tooled leather / handbags for something that would stop that scream.” Again, Fairchild uses the image of a crying infant in “Madonna and Child, Perryton, Texas, 1967” to illustrate a desire for satiation that grows, rather than being outgrown, with indulgence:

Sancho’s wife dances alone behind the cash box
while her daughter, Rosa, tries to quiet her baby
whose squalls rip through the store like a weed cutter
shredding the souls of the carnal, the appetitious,
indeed the truly depraved as we in our grievous
late-night stupor and post-marijuana hunger
curse the cookie selection and all its brethren…

This particular collection is perhaps best enjoyed from cover-to-cover, as many of the poems feature recurring themes and images that make reference to each other. The opening trilogy and ending triptych mirror each other almost exactly. In the end, the reader will come away with a sense of something having changed. Ultimately, Usher is a feast for the imagination—one that objectifies the human condition in all its vulnerability without the sense of despair—held up in part by Crane-like bridges connecting each frame of motion to the next.

Evelyn Yang is a writer living in Illinois.


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