Poetry as the “Art of Thinking It Through”

The first of the prose poems that dominate William Fuller’s Daybreak is called “Tractate,” but it reads nothing like a formal treatise in logic or philosophy. It begins with a trumpet blast: “When the great doors of the sky have shot open, and the wind blows all night long for months and days, and billions of insects land on street corners and crawl into bottom drawers ….” We are on the verge of a moment of revelation, an apocalypse where “the distinctions we have painstakingly drawn gaze up at us in anguish, stung by things drilling through them.” But then “a figure approaches in happy forgetfulness, examining the draft report, glad to have read so thorough an analysis suggesting further areas to explore ….” The uncanny has almost imperceptibly made space for the bureaucratic. The transition is utterly characteristic of Fuller’s poetry. His language moves from sentence to sentence, clause to clause, in bewildering, unsettling shifts, but underpinned by a precise, reasoned, eloquent syntax.

Daybreak by William Fuller, Flood Editions, 2020 (image courtesy Flood Editions)

“Tractate” is a single, virtuosic two-page sentence; Fuller at the very outset is putting his reader-passengers through a hair-raising test drive of his language. The sentence concludes its opening prepositional phrase (“When …”) at the end of the first page — “how speechless then” — only to jet off again with a pair of directives (“go grab whatever you have access to … or stay here and clap quietly while I make some sandwiches”), and come to an end in an intense knot of weirdness:

our strange pallor and inability to speak won’t matter when it comes to wherever it wants to go, unless the crazy odes start drinking again, thumping the ground with lizard-headed feet, laughing at every strange deduction, and smelling their own hair all night long as a point of aesthetic pride, pure and simple, jarred out of their stupidity.

“Crazy odes” is an awkward term for Fuller’s poems, but they’re finely burnished aesthetic objects, full of humor and “strange deductions,” and “jarred” miles away from any notion of “stupidity.” For all its deliberate flouting of canons of logic and coherence, this is a formidably intelligent poetry.

The title poem of Daybreak doesn’t appear until about two-thirds through the book itself; and that’s not surprising, for much of the book feels like night-work, even dream-work: “For the sake of illustration,” the poem “Jamblique” begins, “I fall asleep and things change as I breathe them in, the walls becoming floors, the floors becoming streets, the streets becoming fields ….” But that overt dream framework is only “for the sake of illustration.” A number of poems may make reference to dreaming, but the shifts of scope, diction, scene, and imagery in Fuller’s work are not an attempt to render manifest how the poet dreams — to create a kind of surrealist “dream world,” as it were — but rather a series of sustained odysseys of the linguistic imagination between the extremes of philosophical abstraction and the everyday concrete.

“I never affirm, that’s not my role,” begins “Possible Facts,” alluding to Sir Philip Sidney’s “Defence of Poesy” (“the poet, he nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth”):

But if there is a role it begins where the window meets what presses against it, at the boundary someone who’s not here occupies, or rather establishes by virtue of remote influence, or inference I suppose, keeping up the art of thinking it through before putting on a coat and heading outdoors, where all that happens could easily have been predicted given surplus time, though not here, not now […]

But is the poem merely (as Fuller writes) the act of “defending the thesis that no thesis has been asserted, so there is nothing to defend”? Is poetry just “emptying everything into a magic frame through which one might picture what words could express were they abruptly uprooted and sent off to a small room in some foreign city to be accessed only by trained personnel”? I don’t think Fuller sees it that way (though that’s a pretty pointed critique of the way poetry is discussed and written about in the American academy). The poet isn’t just “making it up” — he places himself squarely in the conceptual space where the world crowds in upon the mind (“where the window meets what presses against it”); poetry is “the art of thinking it through.”

“Possible Facts” ends by contrasting the poet, “alone and unaccounted for,” consoling himself with “reveries constructed from … modes of representing or reproducing words in lasting and visible form,” with the possible vision of “a realm of real stability” — perhaps the purely rational vision of Plato’s Forms, or the divine empyrean of Dante’s Paradiso. And this suggests one of the primary tensions underpinning all of Daybreak: the mind’s ongoing dialectical search for “real stability” behind the shifting screen of appearances. 

The pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus saw change or flux as the fundamental principle of the universe (“you can’t step into the same river twice”). At times Fuller seems a very Heraclitean poet indeed, especially in the fluid evanescence of his images: “This morning I caught a single thought, coaxed from the end of a pencil, only to watch it dissolve for lack of discipline; it was a pure play on the shifting space between then and now ….” But underlying the ripple of Fuller’s clauses and sentences, from image to image, scene to scene, abstraction to abstraction, is a similarly pre-Socratic nostalgia for first principles, as in Pythagoras, who believed all of nature was produced by numbers, or Parmenides, who saw all existence as a single, voidless unity (and therefore believed that all change was illusory). “We speak,” Fuller writes in “Arsenic Decision Pending,” “of a unifying substance, an object returning home, a triad ruled by a monad, a waterfall to drink from in what language.”

Evoking philosophy makes Fuller’s poetry sound much more dry and “philosophical” than it is. (It’s true, the book begins with an epigraph from the phenomenological philosopher Edmund Husserl, nobody’s idea of beach reading.) What’s extraordinary about Daybreak is the precision, crispness, and vividness with which the poet crystallizes intuitions about our condition within a world of passing phenomena, a river of appearances that we try to capture, with doubtful success, in our own rational and affective abstractions. Take the title poem:

We make a new beginning, only to become aware, by damping of sound, that a partition is being interposed, and that the head once full of light is closing its eyes for the last time. 

And right now something happens I can’t quite account for. It leans its head against me, seeking guidance or awaiting word that all this shapelessness can be resolved to a simple quantum, so to start again with a clean approach and clear standards, pushing aside quirks, to mark out an exact point on the skin of each phrase.

The English poet J. H. Prynne, renowned for a long and prolific career of plumbing deeper and deeper depths of strangeness and obscurity, has called Fuller the “Secrecy Officer of American Poetry.” That’s not quite fair. (For one thing, Fuller already has a title: he’s Principal Advisor to the trust division of the Northern Trust Company in Chicago.) It’s not that Fuller’s poetry, in all its obliquity and oneiric defamiliarization, is concealing some “secret” from us: the secret with which it grapples and plays is all around us, every day, in the unceasing flow of phenomena. 

Daybreak’s final poem, “Windowpane,” ends with something like the apocalypse forecast in “Tractate” or the vision touched on in “Possible Facts,” an ascent into the realm of Platonic Forms: 

The eye was emptied of its own nature, and left the earth in search of a medium where colors could be seen in primal clarity, subject to pure laws, and ready to shower down life and expression on whatever called up to them, not to be resolved, or fed into some exquisite mechanism, but left in abeyance, to evoke another visibility, moving abroad beforehand, in a loose and fluid framework, whose teasing limbs would give us something to feel or be felt by, lying face to face, like painted shapes, not resisting modification, not suspending pursuit.

Just as Keats, contemplating the “Cold Pastoral” of the Grecian Urn, sees an image of both frozen eternity and ceaseless activity (“For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d, / For ever panting, and for ever young”), Fuller finds that the domain of “primal clarity” and “pure laws” evokes a “fluid framework” of eroticism, “teasing limbs” — “something to feel or be felt by, lying face to face.” “Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,” writes Keats. We will never fully grasp the noumenal principles motivating the river of experience, but in Fuller’s entrancing, rich poems we find ourselves “not resisting modification, not suspending pursuit.”

Daybreak by William Fuller (2020) is published by Flood Editions and is available online and in bookstores.

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