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Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest, B.H. Fairchild, W.W. Norton: 126 pp., $22.95

November 03, 2002|Carol Muske-Dukes | Carol Muske Dukes is a contributing writer to Book Review.

"The Art of the Lathe" by B.H. Fairchild has become a contemporary classic -- a passionate example of the plain style, so finely crafted and perfectly pitched that it both called to mind the voices of its predecessors in style: James Wright, Richard Hugo and Philip Levine (not to mention Whitman) and further refreshed the image of the poet as working-class hero. Those poems -- workhorse narratives suffused with tenderness and elegiac music -- sang of the dying vocations of hands-on ironworkers, masons, lathe operators and the unabashed raw grace of their labor.

That book paved the way for the broader, more plangent poems of Fairchild's new (fourth) collection, "Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest," which continues to excavate the familiar, profound and desolate territory of the earlier book. The book's epigraph is from James Agee's "A Death in the Family," and it should be noted that one poem, "The Welder, Visited by the Angel of Mercy," is reprinted from "The Art of the Lathe," because, as the author says, the present book in a sense "grew out of" that poem. These are the poems drawn straight from the memory of the worker's son, the dreaming boy steeped in a sense of place but haunted by the "displacement" of remembering and imagining what is disappearing before him. He is haunted too by the memories and unforgettable anecdotes of his parents, neighbors -- of failed baseball players, priests, storytellers, roustabouts.

The Lost Cause, the Lost Moment, the Perfect Escape are celebrated in poem after poem (including the failed life of the American Indian pitcher who strikes out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in "nine straight heaters," then blows his career). The poems' titles, such as "The Decline of Utopian Ideas in the West," "The Blue Buick: a Narrative," "The Second Annual 'Wizard of Oz' Reunion in Liberal, Kansas," all testify to the demise of Fairchild's despairing dreams and dreamers -- extending further into the author's mature wanderings. "The Memory Palace" weaves lines of the Agee epigraph through its own meditations:

Out back in the welding shop where men were gods, Vulcans in black helmets, and the blaze of cutting torches hurled onto the ceiling the gigantic shadows you watched as a child, place here the things of gods and children: baseball; a twilight double-header and the blue bowl of the sky as the lights come on....

Fairchild beautifully translates an epigraph taken from Blaise Cendrars' "The Subdividing of the Sky" and connects Cendrars to other themes, including the construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. His inspirations in mapping memory range from St. Augustine to Heraclitus:

How in Heraclitus

ideas of things, quality, and event

coalesce -- sun/warmth/

dawn --

the perceiver/perceived, too,

not yet parsed, not yet,

and then the great Forgetting...


The Blind Stitch

Greg Delanty

Louisiana State University Press:

64 pp., $22.95

A quick nod to "The Blind Stitch," an engaging new volume from Irish poet Greg Delanty. His voice is characterized by the heavily inflected, heady music of his mother tongue and a "Hopkins at home" feel. Its many beauties include the delightful, child's rhyme-ish, domestic lyric of the title poem:

... I have the eye

haven't I, the knack?

I'm Prince Threader. I missed it that try.

Concentrate. Concentrate. Enough yackety yak.

There, there, Ma, look, here's the threaded needle back.

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