Hallowed/New and Selected Poems
Reviewer: Lee Rossi
Patricia Fargnoli’s recent book Hallowed combines new poems with selections from four previous volumes. Although she began studying poetry in her mid-thirties, Fargnoli, now eighty-two, published her first book just twenty years ago. A retired psychotherapist, she brings to her work a steady emotional intelligence. Her poems, even the earliest, display a disarming individuality. We encounter, for instance, meditations on pistachios and zebra finches, as well as an anecdote about a half-naked man walking the streets of her town with a crossbow and a quiver of arrows on his back.
The new poems, which begin the volume, offer a syncretic vision of life. Christian hope is balanced here with Buddhist sobriety. Death is everywhere, the hope for survival, for an afterlife is strong, yet there is modesty and realism to her longing.
“The Hours,” for instance, is a group of poems whose titles reenact the Divine Office, the series of prayers performed every day by Roman Catholic priests. Fargnoli’s prayers, however, are particular to this supplicant, including expressions not just of belief but also of doubt: “Give me certain knowledge of the soul, Lord, since my doubt is my deepest sadness.” Throughout the sequence she exposes her loneliness and her fear at the approach of death.
Fargnoli, however, is not an exclusively Christian poet. In her search for understanding and consolation, she draws on many other traditions—classical paganism, Romantic Pantheism, Native American spirituality, Sufism, Buddhism, and science. One of her most charming explorations occurs in “Reincarnate,” where she tells us, “I want to come back as that ordinary / garden snail,” with a garden snail’s ordinary longings:
… so I can stretch
my tentacles toward the slightly drooping
and pimpled raspberry, sweet and pulsing—
. . . weighed down by the almost
translucent shining drop of dew I have
been reaching and reaching toward my whole life.
That final image alludes, I think, to Moon in a Dew Drop, a collection of writings by Dogen, the 13th-century Japanese Zen Master, a title which itself is a sort of koan, an image of enlightenment.
From the beginning of her career as a poet, illness and death have haunted her poems. Necessary Light, her first volume, published when she was sixty-two, is organized around the image of light, symbolizing both the positive and negative in human experience. “Lightning Spreads Out Across the Water,” for instance, recounts a horrific incident one summer when lightning struck a lake filled with swimmers. The event leaves an indelible imprint on the senses: “the odor of burned skin / … twelve of them / curled lifeless on sand.” The poet is as shaken as the other survivors, offering no consolation, no attempt to fit this tragedy into some providential scheme:
… afterwards the pond
smooths to a stillness
that gives back,
as though nothing could move it,
the vacant imponderable sky.
In this early book she is moved at most to a qualified affirmation, as in “Roofmen,” where she witnesses signs of “the spirit behind the suffering, / the small light that gathers the soul and holds it // beyond the sacrifices of the body. Necessary Light.”
Throughout her work one encounters images that can only be described as symbolic, hinting at an intangible, spiritual reality. In a recent interview she tells of her conviction that the fox is her spirit animal. (See YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P5CUetLQedY.) And in “The Undeniable Pressure of Existence,” a poem from her second book Duties of the Spirit, we find a fox wandering a desolate, denatured exurb: “limping, gaunt, matted, dull-haired,” running “past the Citgo gas station with its line of cars and trucks … past Jim’s Pizza, past the Wash-O-Mat, / past the Thai Garden,” which is not of course a garden but a dingy restaurant in a dingy strip mall. Like the poet he is running towards “some point ahead of him, some fierce / invisible voice, some possible salvation / in all this hopelessness, that only he could see.”
Fargnoli is primarily a free verse poet, but she draws on many genres for inspiration. In addition to prayers, one finds fables, dramatic monologues, ekphrastic sonnets, lullabies, and an “Almost Ghazal with Thoughts Toward Spring,” in which the skeptical believer finds spiritual illumination in her own sensory experience as well as the example of others. We sense that she would be like Han Shan, the 9th-century Chinese hermit, who “lived in a mountain cave, wrote on trees / and sang to the wind. Light’s time, his only clock.”
Like Han Shan she returns again and again to Nature (capital N), as in the title poem of her third collection Then, Something, which reprises, in a condensed and elegantly somber voice Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Moose.” Watching a moose and his mate standing in a roadside marsh, the poet receives a moment of insight into her participation in the universal life:
We didn’t move
but might have been moving together
through the shallow satin of water,
losing ourselves, it seemed, in truth and beauty.
In terms of tone and rhythm, the two poems could not be more different. Bishop’s is loose and shaggy as a moose, Fargnoli’s contemplative, yet each exhibits what Bishop identified as the “grand, otherworldly” charm of that large symbolic ruminant.
Hers is a lonely spirit. While not exactly a solipsist—occasionally she will write about friends and lovers—the speaker of most of her poems exudes a separateness from the life of others. Only one piece in the current volume deals directly with the trauma which, we suspect, shaped her vision and approach to life. “Father Poem: a Collage” contemplates a key memory, haunting her and her work, her alcoholic father’s suicide. It is filled with unanswerable questions:
Where did you find the rope,
from what did you hang it,
did you stand on a chair?
What did you look like after?
Did you ever falter?
Wasn’t I enough to keep you here?
Didn’t you ever think of me?
One guesses that she became a therapist, at least in part, to understand her father’s action, and perhaps to lessen her own feelings of guilt or inadequacy. One remembers an earlier poem, “Arguing Life for Life,” in which she tells a suicidal patient not to kill himself: “No, because you can’t do this / to your children.” But the man is beyond her help and by the end of their session together, they have nothing to say to one another. “We sat a long time in silence,” she tells us.
Yet despite her terrible wound, Patricia Fargnoli did not remain silent. For years she worked to ease troubled spirits, and in the last twenty years as a poet, she has offered us her insight, her eloquence, and her great sympathy for our suffering world.