I thought often of the surrealist painters of the last century—specifically, Salvador Dali and Giorgio de Chirico—while reading The Fatherlands, Michael Trocchia’s brooding chapbook of thirty-three Roman-numbered prose poems. The opening piece, with its evocation of “a time when the hours themselves will be melted down for the glass of transparent death” brings to mind the melting pocket watches of Dali’s The Persistence of Memory. Like de Chirico’s barren landscapes, which are populated mainly by classical sculptures and other antiquities, the weight of the past—the metaphorical marble busts and architectural remnants that are everywhere in this chapbook—loom large over Trocchia’s meditative work.
A triad of figures—usually a man, a woman, and a boy—roam through most of the prose poems. In the hands of a sanguine sentimentalist, such a combination might be used to highlight Love and the passing of wisdom from one generation to another, yet Trocchia’s purpose seems to be the opposite. The boy, sometimes encaged and sometimes depicted as a wooden doll, often appears as only an afterthought. Although a “child-philosopher” is consumed by “thinking purely of the goodness in his father’s heart,” and a budding track-and-field star “will tell you that she has but her father to thank—for her ethic, for her education, her tenacity and technique,” the idea of generational progress is, at best, a sardonic ruse. As one man proclaims, “I brought myself up between the folly of wise men and the wisdom of fools.”
During the nineteenth and early twentieth century, plum in the middle of England’s sooty industrialization, people embraced the notion that history was an inevitably progressive force. Succeeding generations built upwards from their forefathers’ wisdom and accomplishments, creating ever freer, more enlightened and materially wealthier societies; the march of history was a one-way path that led to the betterment of mankind.
Trocchia, a philosophy professor at James Madison University, cottons to none of that Whiggish march-of-progress triumphalism. Instead, the debris of earlier generations—their accomplishments and marble monuments—belittles and mocks of the smallness of our own accomplishments.
Speaking of that budding track-and-field, Trocchia writes, “To her, the only competition is stone, the statues of a gone civilization.” Other characters are left “to study the erosion inside an hourglass.”
Measured against the greats of history, we cannot compete. After musing that “[t]he demand for a place in history grows by the day and the spaces are filling quickly. Who knows, they might have been eventually pushed out anyway, with nowhere past or present for them to stay and earn their keep,” one man “broods with a mind growing diseased and malformed with nostalgia.”
Trocchia’s characters inhabit depleted times, their ransacked abodes teetering towards implosion. The “metal roof [of one of these houses is] worth more than the three empty rooms over which it sits, all willed to him long ago by his father’s father.”
In another of these prose poems,
Three unlit bulbs hang from the ceiling. Stripped are the walls, the cabinets, the floors of the room. The oven is missing and the refrigerator is on its side; a porcelain sink hangs over the edge of the table. The man sets down his tools and rests for a minute, breathing out a dusty piece of existence. He stands among the room’s exposed wires and pipes and his eyes are full of fractured light.
Instead of creating glorious monuments their own, they are condemned to draft “blueprints of a city designed for prisoners of concrete and smoke.” One boy, “who some insist, despite the poor evidence, is the man’s step-son from his second marriage … [is] rumored to be designing an underground city for he and his countless kin …”
So what is there to do to make our present lives bearable? In one of the chapbook’s loveliest moments, a father
pictures himself atop a glass hill, scanning the blue valley below and the town he fled so long ago. He pictures his son, a small, unfocussed version of himself, running through its unpaved streets, looting its abandoned squares and shops, catching for a moment his reflection in the watchmaker’s window before heaving a stone through it.
Like the surrealist painters, Trocchia’s best prose poems (the longest of which runs about eight hundred fifty words) are built around pleasant absurdities. At times enigmatic, some contain the wisdom of a parablist.
“For what is a son if not his father’s boy?” one man asks.
Forgers, quilt-weavers, and storytellers abound in these pages.
“‘We don’t see the truth until we see we’ve overlooked it,’ says the illusionist’s son, passing a silver coin through the palm of his hand as if passing an hour through the pale part of the day.”
And there is plenty of plain wonderful writing:
A pasty warmth abides in the walls; in from the kitchen comes a boy, a handful of charred riddles in his mouth. How the boy sits in the smoke of his own quiet laughter. How he folds his napkin into ashes, blows them into the panels of the wainscoting, touches silver ambitions close to his heart. The woman leans her chair back into the hallow of a hungry attitude, drains a glass of sharp excess: a purple smile on her face, parsley between the teeth. The ingredients of their lives are strewn about, leaving mild stain on the floor … [the boy] sees the whites of his eyes in the neck of a wine bottle: they are the softness of a boiled egg, the stuff of unwritten songs.
The Fatherlands, by Michael Trocchia. Harrison, Arkansas: Monkey Puzzle Press. 52 pages. $10.00, paper.
Nick Kocz’s short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, Five Chapters, Mid-American Review, The Pinch, and, most importantly, Heavy Feather Review. A graduate of Virginia Tech’s MFA program, he lives in Blacksburg, Virginia, with his wife and children.