In Review

The Fundaments by Greg Purcell. Poor Claudia, 2015.

cover of The Fundaments

Reviewed April 1, 2017 by Jay Besemer.

The poems in Greg Purcell’s full-length collection The Fundaments are spare and elegant in form, using quiet language to establish a surprisingly solid presence for the people, locales and ideas they evoke. Comprised of a long abecedarian poem buffered by three shorter, related pieces, the volume offers readers an intriguingly off-kilter yet surprisingly meditative experience. The range of quotidian human concern is present, often subtly, and is heralded in the epigraphs. Taken from Schopenhauer and Pepys, these quotes cover both the basic and the scatological dictionary definitions of the title word. Written over a fifteen-year period, The Fundaments amply rewards multiple readings.

Throughout both the titular poem and its satellites, Purcell has scattered homages and references to various cultural manifestations, both popular and unpopular (i.e. poetic). One example is the city of Detroit, along with its symbolic baggage, which haunts the book like a chilly specter. Most obvious in “Devil’s Night 2013,” the city also cameos in the “D” arm of the title poem:

He was a Dilettante

A Dilettante



That the message

Of masters

Rolled over

Until it became


Wild at night.

The “message of masters” performs a personified action, transforming into the character Detroit. It’s a ghost of a town on many different levels, and it bears—or manifests as—contradictory messages.

Another series of evocations centers around a trio of canonical American writers who used language in catalytic ways. Dickinson and Whitman are name-checked in the text, but Stein’s presence can also be detected, particularly in this section from the first poem, “The Lilting Heavy”:


So I said to him I said

Over in the gallery I said

The maligned is forever

In the office of unbestable dreams

She said I heard you right

she said I heard you better

In the office of unbestable dreams

There is a boxer;

And his ears are tight and even fatter

Then soupe de l’egalitaire

From unlistening

And his hands are swatters

He’s right he said

You’re right she said


An arm’s length

He just stands there and hits.

Some of this poem is about the sounds of words, how they echo in one another (unbestable, unlistening) as well as how they conceptually play, in this section, off of the title words: lilting like tilting, tilting like listing, listing like listening and lilting, and tilting—and title! Naturally this flight of linguistic fancy is my own, yet the inviting nature of Purcell’s language would lead any reader into a personally associative territory. This is one of the book’s major strengths. The way these words occupy the mouth feels Steinian, as does the way they become objects while representing objects. But there’s deep work afoot, beyond mimicry. Rather than simply dabbling in language, Purcell seems to become one with it, like a moray in its watery cave.

Returning to the titular piece, we discover that the section after the Detroit cameo is the one devoted to Dickinson. “He was Emily,” it begins, “Emily Dickinson.” The male protagonist of the poem inhabits the poet’s legend

With no witness

And with no witness

He untitled

His works in a row

And in that darkness

An eye

Like an animal.

The entire poem uses some of Dickinson’s methodology, most obviously in the capitalization of key words, but also in the flow of those words, whose movement from stanza to stanza can be very resonant with Dickinson’s own:

He was an Ugly Girl

Who frustrate is/


Sage returned a foil/

Attacked an eager man

As had/ made light

Of certain toil/

As heavy-breasted

Girl as was/

Or ever was

A man/

A handsome man

As handsome/ as

The flat part of a hand/.

The segment doesn’t pass the “Yellow Rose” test (it can’t be sung to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas”) but between the irregular rhyme and meter, the personal punctuation system and the content, this is a poetic moment that reads like a Dickinson tribute.

What happens when we encounter Whitman? The poem here departs from its previous structure, offering “Let’s not even start with/Walt Whitman” where there had been “He was___________.” In this case, the iconic lines and moves of American poetry’s favorite beardy weirdy are grouchily refuted one by one, having been rendered suspect by the corporate modus operandi of neoliberal global capitalism. Witness:

And if you want to

Contradict yourself

You can forget

About landing

That greeter position

Waxing pragmatic

At Harvard

Getting hired at the Ford plant

It’s called inconsistency.

What’s being satirized here—is it Whitman, current economic systems, expectations of life in the U.S., or all of the above? Most people, consistent or not, can forget about getting hired at the Ford plant (another nod to Detroit) or waxing anything but floors at Harvard. The extended moment of The Fundaments speaks to this—we are living under inexplicable conditions, to adapt the Schopenhauer epigraph, and poetic navigations of the everyday inexplicable are no more illuminating than any other way of getting by. But neither are they any less illuminating, or any more absurd, than a greeter job or an act of seasonal vandalism or a career as a rock star.

Let’s go back to the Detroit of “Devil’s Night 2013.” Wrapping up the book with this nine-page poem, Purcell enlists Glenn Danzig (the text omits the second n in Danzig’s first name) as his east-coast spirit of pre-Halloween mayhem. Here, commercial haunted-house effects and imagery blend with a Silence of the Lambs shout-out and the quoted refrain from a classic Misfits song. As a whole, the poem sees through the entertaining illusion of spectacle—whether spook or sport—and stares squarely at entitlement. Is the privilege of demanding the pleasure of property destruction the same as the privilege of demanding exemption from destruction through owning property?

What does Detroit mean, in this book? The city as “message of masters” unites these poems with its song of capitalist failure, betrayal of the working class and the poor, of gentrification and racial segregation. It provides the spook story, the cautionary tale of incendiary misbehavior, against which other cities can project their own public images. But perhaps it also contains the contradictory elements highlighted in the epigraphs—the sublimity of Schopenhauer’s inexplicable alongside Pepys’ need to “shit often and vomit too”—because after all that is what our lives encompass on a daily basis. If Purcell has a personal relationship to the city, it may not be a literal one, a biographical one. The characters in The Fundaments (including Detroit) are similarly flexible, meaning many things at many times. Make your own pact with them, and see what they make of you.

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Jay Besemer is the author of several poetry collections. His critical essays appear in many publications, including Rain Taxi Review of Books and PANK. He is currently serving as guest-editor, with Joel Allegretti, for a special issue of Nerve Lantern: Axon of Performance Literature. He tweets @divinetailor.