An Uneasy Motherese
by Pepper Luboff
Inmost, Jessica Fisher, Nightboat Books, Callicoon, New York, 2012, 96 pages, $15.95 paperback, nightboat.org.
THOSE WHO AVER THAT A TURN TOWARD the matriarchal would bring about world peace will find a more nuanced and uncomfortable analysis in Jessica Fisher's new book of poetry, Inmost. The American mother in these poems acknowledges that she plays a part in U.S. wars on others' shores by contributing to their erasure at home: "This is what is meant by 'to draw a blank.'" ("Hurt") She assays, with lacerating affective exactness, the motherly impulse to shield a child, the home, from the world's monstrosities. Veering away from the usual discussions of motherhood, the book bravely owns that, when a mother's love takes part in this erasure, it conspires with society's ablative forces at the same time as it may nurture the child
As she raises her child, the mother in Inmost notices herself both screening war's horrors and flattening into a screen from and on which social mores project; in a very literal sense, she becomes self-sacrificing. Through role-play, mother and child recast themselves both as screens and actors in the theater of whitewashing; the domestic scene is the "gessoed canvas" on which war makes its "bright mark." ("Firebird") With the "mother [as] a mirror," the child appears as an instance in cultural reproduction's mise en abîme—the optical effect of seeing an endless, ever-diminishing replication of one's image when standing between two mirrors. ("Inmost") A child, transformed by love, is made in its mother's image, and the two "become indistinguishable." ("Want") The infant's lips take on the same color as her mother's nipple during nursing, and later these lips parrot the mother's words as she plays baby. Mother and daughter quote the quotidian, shushed script: "Ours is a scripted love. We stick to it. But wordless, the shshsh kept up long after the child's asleep." ("Inmost")
The poems also show that, within an economy of fear, the protection of mother and child are often used as the justification for aggression, making the home a "deathbed / turned into a throne…." ("Remove") In Fisher's American usage, survive carries the connotation of its morphemic denotations: to live above (dead and buried bodies). As noted in "Ravage," "we are after all to teach [children] // how to survive in this world // how 'to continue to live after / the death of another.'" (page 14) Here and throughout, attention is drawn to the moral ambivalence of privileging the survival of one over another. Always, though, the speaker considers this ambivalence from the position of devotion to her daughter, who was "[w]anted," "born of [her parents] love." ("Want")
Fisher takes mise en abîme as both the figure and the ground for the collection. She mirrors lines back onto themselves: "Here: semilune puncture. / Punctum: here." ("Pare") She uses the idea of the frame story; there's a play within a play in "Remove," a dream within a dream in "Hurt," a poem within a poem in "Taken." She gives us nested images—"The sun an eye in the mind's eye" ("Refract")—nested speech—"your words // in her mouth, my words / I mean…" ("Remove")—and images of nesting—"she buries her egg in my nest." ("Spell") She places words within words by excavating their diachronic and synchronic meanings and making them resound with homophones, homonyms, near rhymes, derivations, and diversions.
A punning game logic—"'Sounds Like' a strategy in the game of charades"—courses through the book. ("Hurt") Fallow attracts harrowed, plow, narrow, hollow, flower, shadow, follow, swallows, furrows, grows, snow, O; mother reverberates with mum, mortal, mortar, matter, mater, materiality, and fathom with father; red echoes read, ride, write, white; whiteness implies whitewashed witness; blank transfigures into black; pare reshapes as parent and apparent; and dismember iterates as disassemble, misremember, and remembrance. In many ways, this word play resembles a child's proliferative associations or mistranslations of overheard speech. But even as the poems' words become pregnant with accumulations, they circumscribe their own limits. The cul-de-sac of intertextuality blockades: "The roads on either side impassable.…" ("Via") All is subsumed by signs' subterfuge, as "Russian dolls in a Chinese box." ("Inmost")
On the flip side of the same record, language's constant subsumptive trumping composes a many-layered inwardness that is "a kind of body […] the sensual world in code." ("Bildungsroman") And that body passes through the body. In "Via," Fisher places the line "Blood courses through the veins, feeds the heart that goes unfed" just two stanzas away from "Words are not in the body. Words move through it, lift it like a stringless kite." So she at once asserts that words are volitional and activating, and implies that they are circulatory, interior, "in the blood." What seems to be exterior and artificial is also inner, organic, and embodied, and vice versa.
Inmost's speaker dreams of imperviousness—"Thought I could live in it / & not let it in, impervious as / a body floating in saltwater." ("Ravage") But she knows the experiences in which we are well-versed work on the premise of increasing perviousness; no exit, but ingress. The poem "Familiar" reminds that the familiar (sounds like "familial") is "the thought of an intruder." "Home" imagines an outside and inside, and this imagination both realizes intrusion and is the intrusion.
The conscience behind Inmost wants to uncover the cover-up, to pull back the burial sheets from the dead, where the shroud is a sheet of paper is "stultifying snow" ("Ride"), is a starched white bed sheet that covers our soundly slumbering bodies. Yet Fisher makes clear that recursion can't resolve as either a mother's body or a casualty, and as a deconstructive technique, it won't succeed in disassembling language. Words have a pornographic propensity for self-propagation, regeneration—"each child clambering for position every other word a pornographic." ("Ride") What Fisher will do is catch herself red-handed: "I've done it before I can show you see I can show you what might come of it pen on paper…." ("Ride") She discovers herself ravaging with her own ravishing lyricism, implicating herself. The deconstruction the lyric enacts is violent, even barbarous: "What else is lyric / But a dismembering of / The beloved…." ("Winter")
Fisher also prods and traces the partition between "the fiction of happiness" and reality by sewing her own mythology of the mother into the rips made by Ganzfeld. ("Remove") Ganzfeld describes a perceptual condition induced by exposure to an invariant stimulus (or sensory deprivation). One effect of Ganzfeld is akin to blindness or deafness, depending on the type of controlled stimulus or deprived sense. For example, when a subject is exposed to a uniform color field, her brain eventually shuts down to the unchanging input, and she begins to see black. Fisher makes the comparison between this first effect and the result of motherhood's mise en abîme; a mother's uniforming love, its conspiracy with culture, makes for a society blind and deaf to the atrocities it commits.
The second effect of Ganzfeld is hallucination: the brain makes up for the loss of a visual signal by magnifying other signals into visions. It is within this mental tear that Fisher tailors her mythology—a delicately seamed pastiche that draws on nursery rhymes, Gerard Manley Hopkins's poems, Slavic fairy tales about the Firebird, the Grimm brothers' Snow White, the myth of Persephone, Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale, Nikolai Leskov's The Steel Flea, and P. L. Travers's Mary Poppins stories, among other sources. At times feverish—rushed, nonlineated, jerkily associative—at times dense and lucid, and still other times porous and hovering, Fisher mixes imagery of flowers, fruit, fields, birds, flames, the sky, the sun, light, snow, ice, the moon, darkness, water, spoons, lips, and wounds to create a Dreamachine of words. This flurry represents our shared hypnogogic state; processes our waking lives, in the way that dreams do; and encourages hypnogogic hallucination, visions with day- and nightmarish oracularity.
If we want to break from the hallucination, Fisher tells us, we can begin by opening our eyes and bearing witness. In "Ravage," she reworks "The Star-Spangled Banner" to exhort the child: "Say what you see." Toward the end of the book, quoting Virginia Woolf's The Waves, she says, "if we blink or look aside . . . we inflict on the world the injury of some obliquity." ("Spell") However, what we wake to is another frame within a frame. Images can be posed, edited, and contextualized to naturalize cultural values. Optical illusions may fool us. Watchfulness can become belligerent, as when vigil extends into vigilante ("Vigil") or as in the Department of Homeland Security's slogan, "If You See Something, Say Something." Much of what we avert our eyes from is already out of sight, in the past or distant, unless it's mediated. We may not feel for what we see, or if we do feel for it, we may fetishize it or fail to reach it in time: "ne touche pas or only with thine eyes." ("Refract") The thing seen may be a projection: "Immanent or emanant." (page 57) And even if we did witness with a clarity of vision, the seen "crosses into memory / as if the darkness // which is almost here / disassembled the world." ("Vigil") We travel from a house of mirrors to a hallucination and back again.
In the procession of replications and refractions, the speaker pauses in front of one set of images at length: photographs of her mother. A submerged narrative of childhood abandonment surfaces. The title poem, "Winter," and other scattered fragments suggest the speaker's parents separated, and her mother "Flew with her lover / To the foreign shore." ("Winter") Even abandonment Fisher renders multivalent. The speaker will probe the punctum these photographs evoke, put her finger in the print of the nails and thrust her hand into her own side. The poems come to believe the wound is real; it is the nest in which the speaker raises her own daughter. At the same time, Fisher suggests the injury of abandonment—which materializes as punctum, the one refuge of the irreducible—also accounts for the speaker's "particular form of / failure, to feel for the unreal." ("Remove") After the separation, the speaker and her mother "read together, apart. The page a Ganzfeld. And made a home of the mind." ("Inmost")
Without the moralizing of a fable, Inmost uses a fabulist imagination to bring awareness to edges, joints, contractions, reflective and receptive surfaces, mechanisms of projection, and prepositional relationships. Particularly, Fisher looks back to the icon for its intensely self-reflective, deictic potential. In the perspectival shift of deixis, words can be a "Floater on the eye" ("Elegy") or "Condensation on the window or in the mind [indicating] you're not where you thought." ("Want") Two lines that bookend Inmost point back at the reader, reaching from behind the page to touch its surface: One of the beginning lines in "Mortar" reads, "In the foreground, a pointing finger, the icon for here." Then the book's final poem "Taken," an erasure of a poem Keats wrote in the margins of his own manuscript, ends, "red life / —see here it is— / I hold it towards you." Deixis's emphasis of surface and announced referentiality briefly crystallizes as a sense of the body, before language resettles into the closed intertextual system.
With elegiac grace, Inmost locates where the world touches its reflection and disappears, and fathoms the ambiguities of love's allegiances. The emotional intelligence of Fisher's collection compelled me to read it over and over again, and each time I found a smaller box of even finer construction inside. I want to keep going, keep opening the boxes.
Pepper Luboff is an Oakland-based writer, editor, and artist with an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Utah. Her chapbook, And when the time for the breaking, was recently published by Ark Press, and she is a regular reviewer for Drunken Boat and OmniVerse.