How It Looks Away from Here, by Joan Fiset. Edmonds, Washington: Ravenna Press, September 2020. 110 pages. $14.95, paper.
A girl, around eight or nine years old perhaps, and tightly wrapped up against the cold, stands motionless on a small trampoline. She got here having walked on duckboards across an uneven and muddy yard from what looks like a shabby barn. Who she is and what she represents, if anything, is anyone’s guess; she is what we make of her.
Such an image, one in a series of seemingly mundane, yet enigmatic, photographs that separate the poems in this collection, very much mirrors the content of the poetry itself; that is to say, it is a fragment, a snatch really, of something recognizable, yet indefinite. Mostly short and unpunctuated, the poems give us glimpses of insight; small nudges towards half-realized awareness which, like the picture described above, reward interpretation.
Joan Fiset, a teacher and psychotherapist, sets out her stall with a preface in the form of a longer poem, “Imbroglio,” pointing to a theme, an idea implicit in what follows: that of travelling towards an unattainable destination, described in a later poem as a “beloved promise incomplete” with:
Summer always back of us, white, crisp
elevated and luminous, the way it looks
away from here
She continues with little dabs of color to illustrate the moments of clarity, scraps of memory and realization experienced along the way, which are revealed, rather like unwrapping a gift, layer by layer. And if some of the titles appear almost random, it is up to us to make that connection, to join up the dots. “House for Sale” being an example:
we ran too fast
bright whip snaps
to thin red sting
Others, though, are perhaps more accessible, such as “A Street in Gardner, Mass”:
it spoke from no one home
wore a familiar coat
settled in to what was mine
down sidewalks here and known
which is printed under an outstanding photograph of two windows close together, identical but for the four birds sitting within the panes of one of them, like musical notes. Similarly, effective images—a child’s shoes pretty with flowers, abandoned on coarse grass; a boarded-up window crisscrossed by creepers or vines; a weird, Dali-esque image of a girl pushing a toy pram, wearing an enormous horse’s head—all lend further interest to the poems which are never less than intriguing. It’s almost as if we are being asked to consider the essence of an autobiography, and to find some common ground which we can identify with. Most poetry, other than the rare examples of the pellucid lyrics of a Clare, say, or W H Davies, will of course pose the same challenge, but in this case, we are working with much less material than we normally would; we are given not so much an allusion, but a whisper.
I liked the feeling of a whole new world beyond, on reading the following:
presents a space
to enter into
there’s more to do
where a few succinct lines lead us to a small opening; maybe referring to domesticity, or a career, or a relationship—it really is your choice—and at the same time making us aware of the vastness it inhabits, and the responsibilities and opportunities outside of the known, what might be found there.
And there’s a four-part poem, “Ignis Fatuus,” which is helpfully defined as a phosphorescent light that hovers or flits over swampy ground at night, describing … what? Again, its almost abstract in form, but with more recognizable imagery:
On hands and knees she settles in. Everywhere
needles and pins. Memory of fingers, a tight tap-
tapping on her chest. Bird feet stick-like, falter in
a brittle noon.
It appears to revolve around a house with “white stucco, red flowers growing;” but is it a new house or, as suggested by the title, some sort of ephemeral memory? A woman wanders between the rooms where, against the wall, shadows form a bridge; and with “white sheets pinned within the maw,” her mind is “stock still in ice.” It’s a poem of some depth, gently revealed.
In another longer poem, “Ricochet,” we find these particularly resonant lines:
To the fields of cornflowers stand up and say,
You cannot be this terribly blue and have
no eyes to remember me.
Lights on the rhododendron wink like flirtation’s
tattered dress. Come hither glance around and
around the dusty barn.
along with a “woman in her green sundress walking back and forth. The way she belonged there.” and another sitting on a granite bench “beside a pool of orange carp, wavering fins in the filtered light she clung to.” In other poems we find a host of beguiling images, airy allusions and unfinished stories that claim your attention, your curiosity, as well as your imagination, amongst which are lines like “dark will carry songs we knew / backwards into faded news” or “snowbound fragments overwhelmed / tattered ribbons in the drawer.” And the cryptic “… if you ask me a question / if you never ask / I will carry the answer / in cupped hands to the river.”
The photographs which accompany the words are particularly impressive in that they add a further layer of ambiguity, but also a suggestion of meaning to these sometimes obscure, but always fascinating poems: a tilting, stained lampshade; scraps of material on a wire fence; an isolated fan on bare floorboards; a wrecked sun-lounger … they all signal a mood, a state of mind that, however obliquely, guides us to a little more understanding and, furthermore, are hauntingly beautiful in themselves. This combination of off-key photography and short form, equivocal poetry makes for a most absorbing read.
This is undoubtedly an ambitious collection insomuch as it invites us to construct their own story around the sparse information proffered; to take the inferences, the clues, a nod of acknowledgement here, a spark of memory there, to throw some light on their own particular direction of travel. The poetry is thoughtful, emotionally intelligent and weighted with a keen sensibility; like inklings of illumination, fireflies along the way.
I’ll end this review with the title poem, “How It Looks Away from Here,” which rounds off the book nicely, and which, in all probability, paints a realistic but not entirely pessimistic picture of what it all boils down to anyway:
woman sat on a park bench
felt hat and veil both royal blue
as hours conclude
day’s brief sunlight
Robert Dunsdon lives near Oxford in the UK. His work has appeared in literary journals, newspapers, and anthologies in both the UK and America. He is poetry editor with Between These Shores Books.