When it comes to fame and poetry, the locus classicus surely must be this passage from Milton’s “Lycidas”: “Fame is the spur that the clear spirit doth raise / (That last infirmity of noble mind) / To scorn delights, and live laborious days.” We of the 21st century have not so far shown ourselves much disposed to scorn any delights at all, most likely because we are not inclined to accept Phoebus Apollo’s sermon to the effect that “Fame is no plant that grows on mortal soil.”
But the fame we encounter in the 51 generally short poems of Famous, by Kathleen Flenniken ’83, is firmly rooted in “mortal soil.” Distributed rather evenly over three sections—”Minor Characters,” “Minor Celebrities,” and “Fame”—the poems come across as technically competent, readily accessible, and cleverly playful, sometimes gemlike. “Nature abhors a vacuum,” begins one poem, “but God loves a good vacuuming.” “Most of us,” Flenniken observes in the lead poem, “The League of Minor Characters,” “decide to remain minor characters” (italics mine). I find this premise to be both perceptive and persuasive. “C’est moi,” I want to say, perhaps somewhat resignedly. We make this decision, Flenniken suggests, because the protagonists of fiction find themselves “in the thrall / of a relentless plot” that sends them “hurtling toward / the crumbling cliff edge.” We choose not to put ourselves into harm’s way. We choose not to take the risks of either hero or anti-hero.
“We are famous in our ordinariness,” Flenniken seems to say, and not surprisingly, many of these poems celebrate the quotidian, even when, as in “The International House of Pancakes,” the first-person speaker locates herself in the hospital next door. Also in the opening section we encounter poems on the speaker’s (presumably the poet’s) son’s lost coats and on her two-year-old daughter’s efforts to “read.” Even “Calling Up Ghosts,” in which the speaker reflects on her deceased parents, places us in the comfortably domestic realm of “Dad frying bacon in the kitchen” and “Mother’s Stickley and Spode.” These poems read well within one’s comfort zone: they do not shake us up. Do not expect to encounter in this book the arcane or profound complexities of Brenda Hillman or Jorie Graham. Relax. Sit back and enjoy.
As my earlier reference to their “gemlike” nature implies, the poems are carefully crafted; the language is conversational, colloquial. Consider, for example, this tercet from the playful “Map of the Marriage Bed,” picking up from the end of the previous tercet: “They / take their places, grip and grimace in the dark. // And a few times one has hauled off / and clapped the other flat on the head, / hijacked their moving vehicle and driven overland [. . .].” “What’s so neat about this?” I sometimes (too often, probably) ask my students. If they’re veterans of my classes, they know that I’ll admire Flenniken’s verbs here, particularly that “hauled off and clapped” business. Then they’ll know to comment on her alliteration (notably “grip and grimace”) and on the assonance, as in the long [a] sounds of they/take/places and the short [æ] sound of clapped/flat/hijacked. This demonstrates how free verse poems sing to us without meter or schematic rhyme.
What replaces meter in such poems, usually, is what one might call a stress-oriented line, haunted in this case, one might argue, by the ghost of iambic pentameter (I have imposed italics to mark the stresses as I read them).
take their places, grip and grimace in the dark.
And a few times one has hauled off
and clapped the other flat on the head,
hijacked their moving vehicle and driven overland.
“This is important stuff,” I will tell my students, but they will probably ignore me. Of course I will not pretend that scansion is an exact science, but as I read these four lines, I find five stresses each in all but the third. Part of Flenniken’s craft has to do with her feel for the pulse of the line. I doubt that she “measures” each line, but in composition and in the process of revision she, like most artificers of the well-made poem, knows the heft, senses when the line is full, or complete.
Perhaps poetry in these presumably “postmodern” days is approaching some sort of fork in the river: the accessible here (Billy Collins, Ted Kooser), the recondite there (John Ashbery, Jorie Graham). It should go without saying that there’s plenty of “et al.” to go around in both categories, and perhaps it also goes without saying that this state of affairs is nothing new. In the 17th century the gnarly complexities of John Donne and Henry Vaughan were countered by the familiar ease of Ben Jonson and Robert Herrick. Flenniken’s poetics might be described as conservative/neo-formalist: nearly half, 21 of her poems, are shaped up in tercets; eight are offered up in couplet form; seven are constructed as quatrains.
The 18 poems that comprise the “Minor Celebrities” section of Flenniken’s book, as opposed to the “Minor Characters” section, which pertains mostly to the speaker and her family, introduces such celebrities as the Cuban-American poet Virgil Suarez, violinist Sarah Chang, and primatologist Jane Goodall. My personal favorite among these is “Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Husband,” and this one poignant line in particular: “Oh the beauty of his wretchedness.” The poems in this section remain playful, however, and tend still to focus on the first-person speaker, as in “Colonel Mustard Between Games” from the board game Clue. The self (I/speaker/poet) appears, then, not only as a minor character, but also, indirectly perhaps, as a minor celebrity.
In the next poem of that section, however, “Sea Monster,” I detect a sort of raising of the emotional ante, of the pathos. The poem deals with efforts to help two girls deal with their grief after their mother’s suicide. And in the next poem, “Shampoo,” despite the disarmingly playful title, the first-person speaker washes her aging mother’s hair and thinks of her “trapped inside her aging body” like the 118 Russian sailors trapped in their doomed nuclear sub, the Kursk, in the Barents Sea in 2000. “Gil’s Story,” the next poem in line to deal directly with death, involves a traffic accident in which the narrator’s daughter is killed by a young driver “who has drifted an entire lifetime / into their oncoming lane.” Flenniken ends the section, however, with “Sotto Voce,” what might be described as a consolatory poem featuring the part-Maori operatic singer from New Zealand, Kiri Te Kanawa, as heard “infusing the kitchen with her aria.” The poem’s lyrical properties (assonance and alliteration) are especially pronounced. Listen to the long [a] sounds here: “blame the mixed bouquet of basil // and flayed tomatoes and onions / and one expansive high note blooming / like a rose in fast-frame.” The speaker confesses that her “genius may be small,” but she observes that “sometimes truth rolls right at” her. At this potentially epiphanic moment, however, Flenniken cannot resist the comedic undercutting, as her speaker concludes that the truth rolls at her “like a hard head of cabbage / and I see myself that suddenly, // draining the pasta.” At the moment of the potentially sublime, the speaker appears to be whittled down to the ordinary. She is not, after all, the famous opera star, but an ordinary (un-famous) woman whose “little voice sings / from the back of the auditorium” of her throat.
Perhaps one might conclude that
in postmodern America the sublime has been reduced to the ridiculous. Of course I employ the term “sublime” rather playfully here myself; we are far distant from Wordsworth’s sense of that word. But Flenniken’s poems do flirt with such moments: beauty, death, awe. Then, quite abruptly, she draws back, as in “Fireball,” the opening poem of the third and last section, “Fame,” which features Madge with her bottle of Palmolive dishwashing liquid, familiar from television ads of yore. In some ways the concluding couplet of the poem explains why the sublime does not function in the postmodern world: “Outside, the sun burns in its sky like a fireball, / which is what it really is.” The sun is a swirling mass of hot gases, not Phoebus Apollo.
Other figures celebrated in this section of Kathleen Flenniken’s book (usually in the ludic mode) include Bobo the gorilla, the short story master Shirley Jackson, poet Robert Lowell, diarist Anais Nin, poet Marianne Moore (taking a tango lesson), and Mary Todd Lincoln. The poet’s deceased parents also appear in three rather moving poems. The collection ends with “Prayer Animals,” the last line of which appears to be both prayer and imperative: “Pray to be shocking and irresistible.”
– Ron McFarland, Professor of English, University of Idaho