By Greg Bem
In Aaron Fagan’s third poetry collection, one of this Fall’s releases from The Song Cave, A Better Place is Hard to Find, the poet seeks moments of rest amidst the chaos and loss of the everyday. It is a book that is chiseled to a core that is multitudinous and multidirectional. It is pensive and loud at once. Fagan writes with intention: voluminous details are marred with minimalism one moment; stories of exasperation open temporarily like flashbulbs in a cavern the next.
The result of this spectrum of hook and drag, catch and release is powerful in its sense of juxtaposition and the quaking heartbeat of reality. The rhythms are full and challenging, as with some of the book’s opening lines in the poem “One World at a Time”: “Every word is a delusion, and I / Say too much and too little.” (page 1). This delusion is the amorphous wonder of poetry: a palace of crystalline structures, smoke, mirrors, and the fullest sense of humanism. Humanism meets a sense of Eastern eternity soon thereafter in “Quandary”:
To become one
With the universe,
You already are—
Breath, a portal
To the present,
Doubt, a form
Of time travel—
Fagan’s voice lingers in every poem. The reflective lyric, the interior itching outward. These are moments, utterances, gasps that document and describe. Often the scenes are so vast they feel unsettling in Fagan’s tight, constricted forms. When he writes “. . . your hands / Tug at your face / In Quiet oblivion. The sky is clear. / You can see for / Miles in every / Direction” (“A Complete Nobody,” page 8), Fagan filles the columns, fills the towers with retrospective and a resounding, a reverberation.
The poems in A Better Place open with references to cities and towns, a bland (and opaque) American urbanism that feels like the echoes of the poet’s daily life. That sense of pensiveness, that sense of booming curiosity, is at odds with time and distance. Existential in this collection is exploration of process and commitment. Often the answer, or the key, feels vaguely pastoral. Natural. Becoming beyond the behemoth of the city. Nature’s artful relations are cruel and absorbing in Fagan’s literary twists and turns. The poems feel critically uprooted or mysteriously evaporative:
I raced through
Tearing my skin.
Lashing my face.
Breaking my bones.
(from “White Deer,” page 46)
The poems never fully connect. Fagan always appears an arm’s (or breath’s) length away. As such this collection persists in a harrowing sense of dissatisfaction and depletion. The loss is resultant and, in the context of these poems, a highlight, a resolution, a summary. To end is to move into and with the “end.” The book ends with the lines “Wading our past the bend, joy rips me / Asunder, carrying your body back to life– / Where everyone seems lost in conversation.” (from “The Deluge” page 68) and this ending feels beautifully within the shroud of contrast.
Never fully a reckoning, Fagan has created a series of moments of collapse. There is no room for drama as the dust has not yet settled onto any surface. Utterly unique is the effect: a lingering opening for life’s departure before the worst to come, within the next beating of the heart.
Hearts and moments of contrast are prevalent in The Song Cave’s other major release of the Fall: Rough Song (or Canto Villano) by Peruvian poet Blanca Varela, gorgeously translated from the Spanish by Carlos Lara. Despite widespread acclaim and achievements in her country, this bilingual collection is the first translation into English created, which is exciting given the profundity of the work.
At roughly 40 pages of translated poetry, Varela’s Rough Song is also minimal and constricted. Many of the poems feel like poignant, segmented statements or aphorisms, a la Char, and many feel poignant in isolation, a la Lorca or Williams. Most of the poems feel brief, and their density is a quality that affords a blend of certainty and uncertainty: an invitation into revelation and extraordinary confusion.
The effect is one of perplexation and prudence. Varela’s philosophical descriptions of experience and environments are painted intensely with Lara’s gritty intellectual tones. The translation is one that stutters and explodes as much as it passes along quietly.
Almost every poem, regardless of its tone and pace, is striking. “Eve Leaves” closes with: “and the word / slithering / will be your footprint” (page 41). Lines pocketed into “Monsieur Monod Doesn’t Know How to Sing” subtly rip the poem apart: “the scent of fish and spoiled milk / dark mouth of the wolf that conveys you” (page 50). Examples flow past like flotsam and jetsam, a conceptual anti-space that opens and closes like a chasm. Lara describes Varela’s work in his afterword succinctly:
“Varela’s focus zooms in and out of physical reality until we are faced with the troubling observation that everything is alien when you call actual attention to anything.” (page 83)
The intention of focus and movement within Varela’s works is profoundly jarring, and reading it in our digital age reminded me of the glory behind the shock of beauty in Avant Garde cinema from 100 years ago. “slowness is beauty” opens the poem “Speaking Softly” (page 56) that furthers this sense of material and time. And indeed, the book reads slowly and steadily, the words careful and collected, of calm and ease.
And yet, while a peace may be found within such ease, and while meditations abound in Varela’s poems, there also exists a serendipitous quality, one of flamboyance and rupture, even slightly twitching with playfulness. Lara writes: “There is imminent loss, pain, but also the spontaneity of beauty, and the beauty of spontaneity, in these poems” (page 85). Examples spin across the reader’s experience time and time again, as in this section from “Road to Babel”:
bird of the city
bird of the kitchen
blue slag of the morning interrupting
our nocturnal meditations
The lines wail and pound, break down across the page in that same flow, with kinetic energy building upon itself, growing exponentially, revealing the other side of the coin: there is totality and a figuring to this work. Varela’s consistent contrast is one to both tastefully console and radically depart. The book identifies that she was respected by peers like Breton, Sartre, Michaux, de Beauvoir, and Giacometti: it’s clear that her work was in electrifying conversation with theirs.
And also: her work in electrifying conversation with self. The poet is distinctly of her own mind. The work barely feels emulative, no matter how surrealist it gets. Varela’s poetry is beautifully unique, a phantasm that reveals extreme strength in its features of light and dark, of being and of absence. Rough Song is a collection capable of impressing, lingering, and becoming the dream that it enticingly imagines.
You can find the books here:
Greg Bem is a poet and librarian living on unceded Duwamish territory, specifically Seattle, Washington. He writes book reviews for Rain Taxi, Yellow Rabbits, and more. His current literary efforts mostly concern water and often include elements of video. Learn more at www.gregbem.com