Review of Clamor by Elyse Fenton

All winter and into spring I’ve been reading and writing about poetry in the courses I’m taking. One of my assignments was to write a review of a prize-winning first book, and I chose to review Clamor.

As the University of Wales web site states,  the Dylan Thomas Prize “is awarded to the best eligible published or produced literary work in the English language, written by an author under 30.” Fenton is the first American to win this prestigious, international award, which comes with a prize close to $50,000.00 dollars.

Clamor also won the Cleveland State University Poetry Center First Book Prize in 2009, selected by poet D.A. Powell.

Subject Matter

Part of what intrigues me about Fenton’s work is the subject matter–she has written about her experience of living far away from her young husband while he was deployed in Iraq following the 911 terrorist attack.  The theme of young love and the Iraq War gives her project a heightened sense of relevance that one does not always expect from an emerging artist. The collection, which revolves around a central, narrative theme, places the project squarely within current trends of poetry books that also tell a longer story, such as Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard or Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno’s Slamming Open the Door.

I haven’t read many poems dealing directly with the wars in the Persian Gulf region. Sharon Olds has included a section about wars in her 2008 collection One Secret Thing (Knoph), but she does not specify particular historic dates.  Robert Hass has a poem titled “Bush’s War” in his latest collection, Time and Materials (Echo, 2007), but the title alone indicates a polemical stance toward the conflicts. Lynn Emanuel has written eloquently about the home front in Noose and Hook, (Pitt Poetry Series, 2010), but the specific wars are implied in a surreal, sometimes mythological manner that taps into a societal zeitgeist.

Elyse Fenton has indeed written about the war in Iraq, but her perspective is that of a lover who is separated from her husband.

Context

As mentioned in an NPR interview, “War Poetry, Inspired by a Husband’s Service,” Fenton’s husband, Paneesh Shah has expressed concerns that her book will be received as a portrayal of his war experiences.

Now that the collection has received so much attention, Fenton stresses in the interview that the project deals with her experiences as a war bride, and is not an attempt to depict a direct experience of the Iraq War. But given that most Americans have experienced the wars in the Middle East from our living rooms, Fenton’s poetic recollections of her conversations with her husband serve as a kind of intimate distillation of the U.S. occupation of Iraq and the effect this war has had on the families of soldiers.

In his essay “Feeling into Words,” Seamus Heaney speaks of technique as the ability to recognize moments in one’s life as fodder for poetry, and he writes that this technique can not be learned, but must be felt. Fenton’s vocabulary of love and war combines both technique and craft in a powerful book of love poems. She has written about the timeless subjects of love and death, war and separation: the wife who remains on the home front while the soldier engages in battle.

Yet Fenton is not a typical wife, because she has written poetry about her experience of separation and fear of the unknown. In her poetry she displays the masterful command of language only a gifted writer can express. Her poems convey the passion of youth and the pain of separation from the beloved; at the same time she invokes the metaphors and cadences of an accomplished artist. Her unique skills as a poet have synchronized with a subject that is of global importance, yet the subject is intimately connected to her personal life.

As she says in the NPR interview, “The last thing I looked at before I wrote was the screen [instant messages] with our sort of fractured and distant communication. And so, that text was what I focused on.” She goes on to explain that her accounts of her experiences came from her perspective as a “war bride,” and that she did not intend to relate her husband’s experiences as a medic in Iraq.

Poems

Clamor is divided into three sections, with an introductory poem titled “Gratitude,” which comes after a dedication to P., Fenton’s soldier husband, and a three-part definition of the word “clamor,” which paradoxically means both a loud noise and silence.

“Gratitude,” from the meaning of its title, could imply the poet’s intent to reveal at the outset her gratitude for her husband’s safe return, and also her thankfulness that as a medic he has the skills to revive the life force of the injured. One aspect of this first poem that makes it especially powerful as an introductory poem is Fenton’s acknowledgment of her awareness of such journalistic lingo as “[to be injured] beyond recognition.”

The other image in this poem that stands out is how she describes her conversation with her husband, how as a medic he had to insert a catheter in “that soldier’s cock.” The speaker relates her own experiences with “the way the struck chord begins/to shudder, the fierce heat rising into the skin of my own sensate palms [,]” implying that she remembers the touch of her beloved’s body, and she knows the power of bringing the metaphorically dead back to life.

Fenton has woven into her entire collection the same unique perspectives that that she begins in the introductory poem: words that both conjure a war and reveal her perspective as a physically distant yet passionate spectator, both a lover and an individual who remains engaged in the world where she is located in time and space. While speaking to her husband on the phone in “Gratitude,” she imagines “rotors/scraping the tarmac-gray sky.” Several poems in the first part of the book contain journalistic war expressions that the speaker relates to her emotional state and which she explores in her imagination.

In “Beginnings” the speaker, as she travels through Boston on the metro, compares the “clamor of a train/jerking roughshod through its gears,” to the human heart. “Word From the Front” makes use of “corkscrew landing”  as an extended metaphor for the emotional falling she perceives in the sound of her husband’s voice on the phone.

There is a poem called “Friendly Fire,” in which she exposes the cruel irony of this euphemism, naming it the “fratricide” it truly is.

Fenton contrasts of the ruined flesh of war victims with words of sensuality, creating heart wrenching pathos. “Notes on Atrocity” compares a list of scientific names for specific nerve endings with “all our flowering parts.” The overlap between body parts and flowering parts is echoed on the cover art (also titled “Clamor”) image by Mary Jo McGonagle.

The swirling tendrils look like a close up of greenish nerve endings or veins, twisting like vines. In the artist’s statement on her website, McGonagle says her images in this series are her exploration “of controlled chaos” represented as “organic abstractions.” The artist’s image, which also separates the three sections of the book, underscores not only the imagery of flesh found in the collection, but also the concept of the random nature of death and the very real chance of the untimely death a soldier that a soldier’s wife must face during wartime.

Narrative arc and Imagery

There is a narrative arc to Clamor that follows a roughly chronological order. The first section, which is also the longest, portrays the speaker’s thoughts and emotions while her husband is in Iraq. The settings in the first part go back and forth between the speaker’s imaginings of her husband’s world in Baghdad and her life working on a farm in Oregon. In “The First Canto,” the speaker contrasts the oppressive desert heat the soldiers endure with a scene of a wolf and a cold lake she has read about in Dante’s Inferno.

The imagery of heat and cold runs throughout the book, as do references to hell. Since the final circle of hell in the Inferno is of ice, by contrasting the coming winter in Oregon with the impossible heat of Iraq, the poet implies that her emotional landscape is a frozen hell, just as the oppressive desert sun of war is another type of physical hell for her beloved and the other soldiers.

In another poem, “Refusing Beatrice,” the speaker invokes the name of Dante’s muse, saying, “ I could never be Beatrice, couldn’t harbor such good faith.” Later in the poem the speaker, speculating on what if the sniper doesn’t miss her husband’s helicopter at take off, she says, “I won’t be there to see the wreckage/or papery flames, the falling arsenal of stars– [.]” Other references to hell and winter in the first section are the poems “Charon,” referring to the ferryman in Greek mythology, and “Late February (Persephone).”

Another chord the poet sounds is that of working the earth and bringing forth new life. In “Planting, Hayhurst Farm,” the speaker directly addresses her husband as if she were speaking to him in the same room, a kind of dramatic monologue or a reverie of their most recent conversation, recreated in her thoughts while she is planting seeds in the fall. She compares her husband’s description of putting human remains in body bags to her action of breaking up clods of dirt and putting seeds in holes.

One of Elyse Fenton’s many skills as a poet is her ability to recreate her thoughts in a way that is both a natural imitation of thought as well as a an insightful, extended double meaning. In this case, the metaphor stands for both endings and beginnings at the same time, the plunging of human remains in bags combined with the placement of seeds in the ground, an intersection of death and new life.

Clamor’s second section consists of only nine poems, and are grouped not only around the time when the poet’s husband is ending his deployment in Iraq, but also around the form the poems take, since all the pieces in this section are written in paragraphs. A few of these poems are written in the third person, as if they were stories or fairy tales. “After the War,” for example, names the husband as “The Returned,” with a capital R, which underscores the archetypal roles the speaker feels they are playing.

Fenton introduces the third and final part of Clamor with a quote from Canto XXIV of Dante’s Inferno, in which Dante and Virgil are climbing out of hell and Dante catches a glimpse of the stars and the sky. This quote sets a mood of hope for these final sixteen poems, in which the speaker describes the couple’s lives once they are reunited.

This section includes a poem titled “The Dreams,” in which the speaker dreams that her husband is still in Iraq, stalked by danger and death. This poems shows an awareness of how sometimes it takes the psyche longer than the conscious mind to process traumatic events. Even though the speaker’s lover has returned, she continues to feel the aftershocks his absence caused. Another poem based on dreams is “Infidelity.” The speaker, who again directly addressed her beloved,  confesses that in all her dreams about her husband, “I never dreamed you whole.”

Form and Style

On their web site devoted to the Dylan Thomas Prize, the University of Wales describes Dylan Thomas as being “known for his deviation from strict verse forms, favouring a more musical and flowing poetry and prose style[.]”  Likewise, Elyse Fenton writes in a free verse style that contains a strong sense of what is musical and what is vernacular. She pays attention to words and the images words can create, as well as the juxtaposition of working with the earth and the work of battle.

She often writes in couplets or tercets, which mimic graphically the patterns of phone conversations and instant messages. And she has included a few poems, such as “Love in Wartime (II)” with dropped, three beat lines, similar to the style of William Carlos Williams. The spare, dropped lines seem to imitate the sense of what is not said in a conversation between two people who live, as the speaker states, with “seven thousand miles/ of earth and sky between us.”

The title poem of the collection, “Clamor,” comes as the last poem of Part I. The speaker stops during her planting work at the farm to contemplate white petals that are falling, the color of which she later compares to the static on a blank television screen, a blank page, or an empty field. The extra space between the lines of this poem accentuate the third meaning of clamor which, in a now obsolete definition, means “to silence.”  The word clamor appears again in the last poem of the collection, which the poet has curiously included after the third section, and is printed on the inside cover, after the last page, a final repetition of the cover art.

This last poem of only six lines, is called “Roll Call.” This type of roll call may refer to the military tradition of a final and formal calling of the names of the soldiers who have died in battle, which is accompanied by a twenty-one gun salute. Fenton could also imply a reference to 911 and the tradition of calling out the names of those who died that day, the event which ostensibly created our reason for for going to war a second time against the Iraqis.

By placing this poem after the last poem of the third section, after poems dealing with a visit to a cemetery on Veterans Day, the poet implies that the war will never be won, and it will never truly end, even though her husband has returned. This parting poem, coming as it does like outtakes at the end of a film, reminds the reader of the tenuous nature of life, and that the speaker will always be listening for that roll call of names.

Most poets would be happy to have even one poem as rich and meaningful as the body of work Elyse Fenton has produced in her first volume of poetry. U.S. poetry readers cannot help but be pleased that one of our own has written such magnificent verse about the Iraq War without  engaging in political mud-slinging. Fenton has stayed true to her innermost subject, which is love and life amid the ruins of war and the fear of untimely death.

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