Recently I've had the pleasure of reading a manuscript of poems by Joanna Fuhrman titled The Year of Yellow Butterflies (forthcoming this Spring, from Hanging Loose Press). At the center of this jazzy collection is a sequence of prose poems (by the same name) that drew my mind into them, with a kind of magnetic charge.
Each poem starts with the phrase "It was the year..." What follows are often surreal, sometimes allegorical, takes on our culture's obsession with trends, satirizing our strange customs or jarring them out of their conventionality by infusing a healthy dose of wonder. "It was the year Goth, rockabilly manicurists applied mini-wigs to women's nails," one poem begins; another, "It was the year hipsters started using coffins as coffee tables..."; and another: "It was the year us geezers wore digital masks."
One of the ways this sequence achieves its poetically satiric effects is by fusing realities you usually think of as opposed, such as business and poetry ("It was the year no one could tell the difference between a poem and a resume..."), to natural and mechanical ("They'd hook you up in a gizmo that looked like a cross between a beauty salon chair dryer and a futuristic orange squid"). The following poem from the sequence is a particularly good example such fusion:
"It was the year everyone decorated the outside of their houses to look like the inside, and the inside to look like the outside.
You liked to wear a jumpsuit with an x-ray of a skeleton silk-screened on it. I liked to wear an earring shaped like a decaying liver.
Once I crashed into a friend's wall because I thought it was the sky.
We placed our teacups on a tree trunk ottoman and rested our heads on waterfall pillows. You were wearing an ocean on your mouth, and I was dressed like the sun."
This poem (which contains an echo of Kenneth Koch's "You Were Wearing") not only offers satire and humor, but, as I mentioned earlier, a charge of wonder. This is the result, I think, of what cognitively-oriented literary critics would term its "conceptual blending." In it, you find that images of the "natural" and the "cultural", as well as the "inside" and "outside" become integrated, like one of those reversible jackets they used to sell.
Such blending made me think of a painter like Magritte. In a work like "The Memoirs of a Saint," for example, what's usually outside (the sky) is contained inside a stage curtain. As in the Fuhrman poem, natural and cultural images are blended into each other -- in this case, in a sort of playful riff off the idea that "the whole world is a stage." (Or, is staged.)
I came across an even more pertinent example of all this in an essay about Emily Dickinson's famous poem beginning "I dwell in Possibility -/a fairer House than Prose", by cognitive lit scholar Margaret H. Freeman.
You might remember that in this poem, Dickinson offers a metaphorical argument as to why poetry is richer than prose. Here's part of her description of the "house of poetry":
Of chambers as the Cedars --
Impregnable of eye --
And for an everlasting
The Gambrels [Gabels] of the sky --
As Freeman points out, the suggestion of poetry's expansive possibilities as a genre is communicated here by the blending of the semantic concepts such as the "inside" (rooms of a house), with those of the "outside." In contrast to the conventional abode of prose, poetry's "house" is one whose roof is the very sky itself.
What's especially valuable about Freeman's essay is that it suggests how such blending offers a way to think about the act of writing poetry as a form of cultural politics. By drawing attention to a more integrated way of perceiving things, poems throw light on the impoverished quality of our normal, day-to-day existence. Along these lines, she quotes poet John Burnside, who defines surrealist Paul Eluard's autremonde as:
"that nonfactual truth of being: the missed world, and by extension, the missed self who sees and imagines and is fully alive outside the bounds of socially-engineered expectations -- not some rational process (or not as the term is usually understood) but by a kind of radical illumination, a re-attunement to the continuum of objects and weather and other lives we inhabit."
Such a comment clarifies for me what I find so appealing about the satiric qualities of writing like Fuhrman's. It doesn't just poke fun at the everyday, reified banality we are all party to in our world of total commerce.
It also offers a glimpse of what we're missing: a cooler, richer reality just outside of our conventional boundaries.