In Review

Fragile Acts by Allan Peterson. McSweeney’s, 2012.

cover of Fragile Acts

Reviewed May 1, 2013 by Stephen Burt.

Look. Look again. Come in closer. Now step back. What do you see? What did you see? What, if you were somebody else looking equally hard at the same object, would you have seen? Who owns it, if it can be owned? How long can it last? They’re the kind of instructions you might get in an art class, or in an introduction to archaeology; they ask us to notice the way that every thing comes to us embedded in expectations, in a network of histories and a mesh of physical law, in systems that do not stop where the edges of objects lie, nor do they stop at just one perceiver. And all those systems affect one another in us.

And yet this matter of how we perceive perception, of how memory and expectation influence what we see when we look closely—and vice versa: how looking closely affects our thought—remains hard to get into individual poems. A poet must be smart enough and patient enough—syntax supple enough, terms subtle enough—to make the lines and sentences in the poem reflect all the cross-pressures and refractions by which the object turns into a fleeting mental construction, and that construction into what we remember and know.

It can be done, though. Right now it’s being done—as well as any poet alive can do it, and in ways that could not be mistaken for anyone else’s—by Allan Peterson, in poems whose patterns of grammar, logic and thought are as complicated as their tones are friendly, careful, human-scaled. Peterson did it in Anonymous Or, from a small press in upstate New York twelve years ago, and then in All the Lavish in Common, a funnier and less involuted book that won UMass-Amherst’s Juniper Prize, and in this fourth book he does it again.

Fragile Acts—unlike the first three—is clearly a Book, not just a set of poems. Separating the clusters of short works (each with a title) are four untitled, longer, accretive efforts built around anaphora: three pages of verse paragraphs all starting “It was like,” and later pages of “We lived,” “We could,” “Let’s say,” and finally “There were.” “There were lines on our hands mysterious as game trails... There were times when the dark was our nerves... There were days and days layered above us interspersed with storms.”

These pages tell us what Peterson, a man in his sixties, frequently has on his mind: the past (the past tense), the nature of description (“like”), the way we test general truths about the world (what we let ourselves say). And he pursues these topics with a mixture of patient enthusiasm and well-informed warning: three parts birdwatcher, one part prophet of doom. When birds kill themselves against windows (an image the volume repeats) their death suggests misperception, and human frustration, and ecological fragility too. We try to wash windows as if to wash ourselves, like Lady Macbeth, clean of the damage we do:

There were times glass would cry out itself,

even unbroken, little shrieks from rubbing

with water and ammonia while trying

to make the yard and dining room come closer

and times we did ourselves, unable to save thrushes

and warblers, believers in a deep and continuous world

stacked against the windows

“Did” refers back to “cry”—we cried ourselves, rather than letting the glass whine for us (with undertones of “cried ourselves to sleep”)—unless it refers instead to “come closer.” The whole passage builds up a double statement about eyesight and about guilt: we see ourselves in this dangerous window, and we blame ourselves for the fate of the nonhuman world.

More bird strikes, from a poem called “Seeing It Coming”—here they’re not just seen but heard: they are, grotesquely,

pillowed thuds,

the sound inside of which is the cracked sternum

the broken neck

or the dazed flicker imagining a tree struck back.

When Aretha sings another link in the chain,

I am thinking carbon,

polysaccharides strung like lights and vertebrate,

then the splashed flag

on the glass, birds without bladders.

Causal chains, molecular chains, chains of logical necessity, and chains of love all come together here, and what’s missing—overt grief, or shock—turns up at the end, with a last bird-victim “under the window, still with a berry in its mouth, / ants discussing its eyes.” Discussing.

The scientists who study the interconnectedness of systems on Earth are called ecologists, and they can grieve too. That sadness about the fate of nature counterbalances the low-key happiness of the long marriage and empty-nest household (think oikos, Greek root for “ecology,” Greek word for house) to which the poems also return: “I have loved you / eight presidents. Forty years. Five point seven in dog.”

Peterson lived for most of his adult life on the Gulf Coast of Florida, where he taught painting, and Florida’s spaces still appear in the poems: “water shuddering in one place, / asleep in another.” He and his wife, an environmental activist, now live for part of each year in Oregon, whose rainy green climate also informs the new work. In “Subdivisions Within the Idea of Place,” “Plant leaves under my window make fake eyes of moisture / hiding my face in each one among the only-known-as-weeds.” That is, the water droplets on the leaves contain reflections of his face, as when you see yourself in the lens of someone else’s eye; they are only-known-as-weeds because—in this region (perhaps the Northwest)—no gardener would plant them.

Because he works in such long sentences, because he pursues his intuitions so thoroughly, Peterson can bring out the multiple contexts, material and historical, for what he sees, for what we may have seen: if he has, as one title puts it, a “Hunger for Substances,” he also knows that those substances have qualities, and he puts the qualities into the poems:

And you have seen the young buy silver chains

against losing

a wallet, really just metals in place of plumage,

and a hunger

for substances strong as the moon that can’t

take its eye off us.

That moon, looking at us helplessly each clear night, is one figure for the kind of poetry that Peterson writes; the kids’ punk-rock chains are another, connecting things to other things, looking awkward, or cool, depending on how they’re worn.

Beautiful and careful in his sinuous descriptions of what molecular biologists know, Peterson can be tender and patient—but also a bit stiff, a bit overgeneralized—when he’s writing directly about people. He can indict, but more often he tries to forgive:

Let’s say we made up stories from profound misunderstanding,

one of which was the necessity of guilt, a product like a dress shoe

you would grow into though it blistered and never fit.

Its failure was supposed to be your fault and you paid with your life.

Still, don’t think we hadn’t noticed the wheels on the furniture

that could roll away at any moment as if a stage set,

how the carved chairs with wings and garlands were prepared

to fly off from the living room scattering flowers.

In crude paraphrase: I suspect that we often cause one another to believe accounts of our lives in which we assign blame; those assignments seem both misplaced and inevitable, though we can also recognize how flimsily based they are, how easily one scenario for a life gives way to another, like a set rolling offstage. (“As if” is short for “as if it were,” which is why “stage set” introduces no verb).

Such paraphrase is always possible, in Peterson, and often helpful, and often hard. Peterson is above all a poet of patient complexity, for whom one detail always leads on to more: “I never could have done this / without everything I’ve left out,” he reminds us in a cleverly versified endnote after the Acknowledgements (which thank me; I’ve reviewed him before). “We want more, but more is an emergent property”: another quiet, pro-science, pro-complication opening line that also tells you one goal for the poems.

If you know all Peterson’s other collections, this one might seem a bit stagy, a bit self-explanatory; if you don’t, it’s the best place to start. This poet belongs to no school, stands in no clear line of stylistic descent: he seems to have started writing poems decades before he published a book, and that independence gave him time to grow. The last poet so obviously intelligent, so attentive at once to the sounds of language and to the look of the nonhuman natural world, so interested in domestic and small-scale affections, so distant from big trends, was A. R. Ammons: if that comparison, along with those passages, doesn’t recommend Peterson to you, then I do not know what could.

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Stephen Burt is Professor of English at Harvard. His recent books include The Art of the Sonnet (with David Mikics) and Why I Am Not a Toddler and Other Poems by Cooper Bennett Burt (Age One); a new book of poems, Belmont, will appear in 2013.