On Allan Peterson’s Fragile Acts (2012)

A version (and a better edited version) of this review may appear in a future issue of Redactions: Poetry, Poetics, & Prose issue 16.//

   Epistemology Follows   

   The ocean seems endless when two dolphins divide it.
   Epistemology follows. We know they have bones
   below their smiles because two lost vertebrae sail
   in our standing glass cabinet. Phylogeny follows.
   The linked oceans are peptides cleaved by those dorsals
   so the gene of understanding can be inserted by thought.
   Years ago trains threw oars of light from their windows.
   In endless black you could see them rowing through Kansas

Allan Peterson – Fragile Acts_96dpiSometimes when I read a new book of poems I come across an image I’ve never experienced before. An image so startling that it stops me. It stops me in such a way that I’m not sure if I want to read anymore of the poem or the book. I just want to keep on experiencing that image. Or it’s an image so rich and unique, I wonder why that image wasn’t already part of the common language of the description of things. This is what happened to me when I read the above poem (of which only the first half is quoted) in Allan Peterson’s Fragile Acts (McSweeney’s).

The image “trains threw oars of light from their windows. / In endless black you could see them rowing through Kansas” stopped me dead in my tracks. At this point of the reading, I was reading the poem silently in my head, so when I read the image, I exclaimed aloud to my empty room “Wow.” This is one of the few times I was glad I was reading the poem in my head instead of aloud. (Maybe that image does need to be experienced in silence.) Luckily, I continued through the rest of the poem and then reread it a few more times and then continued through the rest of the poems. But if I hadn’t, if I had dwelled and remained on that image, I would have been a happy reader, and the book would still be successful.

I did continue and there were more unique images to experience, like the opening line to “Evolution,” “So our toes and fingers were all roots, once touching.” Or the final stanza to “Local News”:

Last night in the yard I passed Minneapolis
but it was only gardenias calling bees
no news at all but pleading
As a child I knew I was sleeping when I began
falling through still furled in my sheets
and I would look over other people’s shoulders
to see what they were reading
The headlines the footnotes
a boy has left his room through the map on the wall

Or the beginning to section three of “In the society of glass, one shatters for the least mistake . . .”

   It was like opening Webster's to "emptiness," void,
   the invisible axis around which a rose opens

I want to pause and talk about this image for two reasons. One, I want to experience this unique image again. Two, I want to show what it is doing. In this image we experience language as language and on a meta-level by referencing the dictionary and the words “emptiness” and “void” as words. We also experience an abstraction in “invisible axis,” and we experience the image of “a rose.” On one level, Fragile Acts is the fragile act of negotiating between the abstract and the image and the awareness of language, which seems a rare occurrence to me in today’s poetry. Usually, a poet is successful at incorporating one of those, such as image, and occasionally a poet is successful at combining two, such as abstraction and the meta. Often the poet follows Pound’s lead, “Go in fear of abstractions,” which is still sound advice when fully understood. But Peterson treads where few poets fear to tread, and he steps right into all three: image, abstraction, and meta. But it’s not Peterson embracing all three that makes for the successful poems, but it is by embracing all three that his poems are able to create a deeper experience. That is, we get to see the mind of a Peterson poem working on three levels experiencing an event. We see “how a mind could make a world” (“There was an Era of Ashes . . .“). The images become three-dimensional. They become round instead of flat. Roundness creates experience whereas a flat image creates observation, and Peterson’s poems are images of experience that are discovering.

This negotiating also occurs on two levels. The one level is within the poem, as just described. The other is on the level of the book as a whole. This book is interestingly organized. There are sections . . . of sorts. There is a section of poems followed by a longer poem composed of its own multiple sections followed by a section of poems followed by a longer poem composed of its own multiple sections, etc. The sections of poems tend to be very vivid with images and occasionally with the abstract and/or meta. The sections of poems have 16 poems, 12 poems, 10 poems, and 11 poems. After a section of poems, the book rolls into the a longer poem which change the velocity of the book and slightly alter the book’s direction. In the longer poems are where the image, abstract, and meta interact to full effect. And when the effect is completed, they blossom or overflow into a section of poems of vivid images. Eventually, the book concludes (or appears to conclude) in the longer poem “We put up with gravity . . .”.

There’s so much to experience in this book that the book can’t contain itself. Even after the “Acknowledgements” page there is a poem. And when you close the book, on the back cover, in secret, is another poem. It’s not obvious to the eye, but it’s there under the back cover label of comments from John Ashbery, Laura Kasischke, and Lewis Lapham. Normally, a publisher prints those comments directly on the back cover, but not McSweeney’s. McSweeney’s has done a beautiful job in designing this hardcover collection of poetry. It’s not a manufactured product, as books often are these days. No, this is a book. And on the back cover is a sticker with those authors’ comments. Underneath the sticker, rumor has it, as mentioned, there’s another Peterson poem. I can indirectly verify this, as I can faintly see the words to the poem below the label, but I will not involve myself in the fragile act of trying to peel off the label. No, in this case I will stop reading the book, and be happy that I experienced it. Or maybe I don’t want to peel off the label because it would be too overwhelming, such as the end of “Here at the Intersection”:

   [. . .] Mr. Lincoln pulled back the curtains on the French doors
   and left the White House on three occasions to have his son dug up
   just to look again upon his face.




Peterson, Allan. Fragile Acts. San Francisco: McSweeney’s, 2012.//




For a high-res, full-size image of the cover, click: Fragile Acts cover.//

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