Overgrown American pastoral landscapes
Two debut volumes hold their pleasures but falter in parts
By Toh Hsien Min
A Little Travel Story
Sometime in the middle of last year, I went to an unusual reading featuring overseas poets. The reading was strange because although it was open to all, it was held in the apartment of Singapore poet Yong Shu Hoong. Besides Irish poet Iggy McGovern, who was en route home from Australia, the reading also featured two American expats sharing the same first name: David Oliveira, a professor of English at Pańńásástra University in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and David Fedo, a professor of English at Wheelock College in Singapore. Notwithstanding the apparent similarities, I hadn't found in the reading much more that the two Americans shared in common compared with McGovern, but reading their debut full-length collections uncovered some similarities in themes and techniques, and a common weakness.
David Oliveira admits to the influence of Philip Levine, and it's not difficult to see this in the cadence and the detailing. The progression of narrative that forms the travel story of the book starts in San Joaquin, where there is more than a feel of American pastoral about the nostalgic, even loving, portraiture of where Oliveira grew up. The portraiture is found in the "white noise", in the poem of the same title, in the "same nails / and bolts from Danielson's Hardware," while "the same women at the Leading Lady Salon / hear confessions with the patience / of a village priest". One could be persuaded that this is the core of the book, especially when the middle section, 'Stations of the Cross' goes through important events in the poet's life with as much delight as can be found in the plaster sculptures that appear outside Catholic churches over Easter, or when Oliveira writes that "a person carries the place where they are born / within them", in the poem just preceding 'Stations', 'San Joaquin'. Nevertheless, it is not an easy relationship:
If the poetry is simply not so much nostalgic but dealing with origins and testing our assumptions, this would already be a good point of approach to the construction of a collection, but then one has cause to doubt Oliveira by then, because the keynote has been struck in an earlier poem, also titled after the originary place, 'San Joaquin, Summer 1951'. Here, a little scene out of American Beauty foregrounds the deception:
This is the key also to reading the odd first poem after which the book is named. The poem starts with a story about a driver whose car has broken down, and who is rescued by a "Mexican farm worker and his pregnant wife". At the end of the first page, you are told it is not a story about any of these characters; the moment you turn the page, Oliveira tells you:
This surprise is expertly calibrated. The jump from narrative to a kind of magic-realist morality tale is a startlingly good example of how what one expects is frequently not what one gets with Oliveira. Here is a poet fond of garden-path sentences, as in the middle of 'Apricots' or the whole latter half of 'Summer'. The technique those poems exhibit come to a high point in 'In the Presence of Snakes', where a move towards simplicity infuses the poem with a mythic quality. Given the dimensions that the poetry strides through, the reader is entitled to be tired by the close of the collection, when Oliveira takes the measure of the Mekong:
Unfortunately, the reader is tired because the whole third section of the book, 'Why Is There Anything?', with poems like 'Why I Am Not a Vegetarian', which, en route to concluding with "pass the ketchup, please", whines:
Worse, 'Piss Jesse' seeks to be this century's version of Thom Gunn's abysmally bad 'Courage, a Tale', in the process suggesting a poet either not always in control of his craft or simply given to indulgence. Even if the contrast with the earlier mastery suggests there is more of the purposeful ambiguity at work, the hint that the equivocation is not duplicity but preciousness leaves a gaping crack in the core of the collection:
David Fedo may come from Minnesota rather than California, but there are similar elements of American pastoral and originary detail in his work. One can hear whispers of Alice Waters and Barbara Kingsolver in the Appalachian mountains – to say nothing of a certain Irish laureate – in the opening poem, 'Carrots':
The point has to be made that Fedo has some good poems, such as 'Towers', arguably 'Home', 'Contemplating Matters of Life and Death' (except for the last six lines, which ought to be cut along with the title), 'Malvolio, Ten Years Later', or the excellent 'Poem with Twelve One-Line Stanzas'. The middle section of 'The Light of Casco Bay' has some of that sensitivity to place that is found in Oliveira, as well as the spirit of T.S. Eliot's 'Four Quartets' trying to break out:
Fedo speculates that "Perhaps… even they are awed by such splendour", which seems to set up the poem to continue to build towards something substantial, but then, out of nowhere, he capsizes the poem with a stunning piece of bathos: "Of course / it is more likely / the three are just worried about yesterday's catch / and today's, too."
Fedo knows enough of the forms of poetry to lead one to ask if this is the same kind of trickery that we see in Oliveira. On occasion, he does show that; in a poem titled 'The Coefficient of Light', Fedo starts by saying "There is no such thing / of course", and by the end of the poem, there is indeed: "At this moment / the light is overwhelming / its coefficient clarifying the world". But more often than not, the feeling of finishing a Fedo poem is disappointment.
There are a few reasons why this is the case. First of all, the language is unexciting. Unbreaking a poet's lines is a little overdone as a critical technique, but 'Extinction' is a good reason to trot this one out again:
By adjusting seven words in that extract, one would have a perfect museum brochure. And, while inserting museum copy into a poem is perfectly acceptable technique where it is relevant to do so, three continuous pages of this will make one wonder if the book had been correctly classified in the bookshop.
Secondly, the poems often carry too much fat. For instance, I counted 12 redundant words in four short lines in 'In Memory of My Stepmother': "Later, / the doctor reported it probably happened quickly, / without suffering. / He may or may not have been right." Randomly flipping through the book would net the reader a bunch of these: "Mozart / or someone of the period" ('Dreams, My Father, His French Horn'); "Once he had awakened in a sweat / terrified" ('Dreaming of Trotsky'); and 'Even IMITREX doesn't help, although it is supposed to" ('The Onset of a Migraine'), just for instance.
Thirdly, there is too much indecision about what the poem is saying, most strikingly seen in the overabundance of the word "or". With examples already dotted throughout this review, I shall cite only 'Tremors' here: "but not halting our march / to whatever it was or is we're going, / or to where our desire or instinct or fear is taking us, / or not taking us, / for reasons sometimes known / and sometimes not." This could be poetry, or not, or it could be chopped-up prose, or a diary entry, or a Facebook post, or musing out loud. The more words I add to that line, the less it means. Fedo appears hampered by an instinct towards generality, whereas poetry more often consists of the specific.
When everything can be like everything else, there is little point to any comparison, as seen in the the last six lines of 'Contemplating Matters of Life and Death', which follow from saying that turtles may have had their reasons for beaching themselves:
The comparison is made in that first line, and quickly recanted in the second. But the four lines following are suggestive. Is the reason the poetry is bland simply that Fedo doesn't worry himself about it? In a poem titled 'Whatever', Fedo contemplates a T-shirt with that word on the front, speculates that the wearer could have been thinking one thing, or another, and then "Of course, / more likely it is neither". Indecision becomes indifference, and soon become a form of nihilism: "The common oyster / may or may not / have [a soul]. / Nor is the question / settled / for us. / This is of little consequence / for now." Is it really? Blaise Pascal must be shaking his head from wherever he is now. Yet, this pose underpins Fedo's inability to come to a conclusion, as when, after writing about reading Alban Butler's Lives of the Saints, Fedo merely ends his poem with "Such stories – / archaic, / partisan, / distant, / eccentric, / even mad – / are not unimportant." "Whatever the case", as Fedo writes, when the poet – or his persona – doesn't care, the reader picks this up also, and would be inclined to take the poet's advice in 'A Note to the Reader':
I could end the review there, with a piece of sophistry: the poet slates himself. I'm not going to. That closing note would suggest nothing in this volume worth bothering about, which is not the case. Rather, Oliveira and Fedo both contribute to the same object lesson that anyone preparing a first collection of poetry should seek out a strict and experienced editor, and to be prepared to prune all the weaker shoots in their manuscripts in order to reap the ripest, healthiest fruit.QLRS Vol. 9 No. 2 Apr 2010