Sunday, June 29, 2008

Paul Gibbons on "Fugue: In Medias Res"

“Fugue: In Medias Res” is my attempt at hearing hope as much as seeing it. There are the two Isabellas’ hopes and the man whose hope is presumably to quit his pain. The poem even begins with the “wish” of crickets.

This poem’s title promises “lyric” and even asks – no, rather it commands – its reader to pay attention, that its speaker knows the things introduced in the beginning may seem disparate but that they will all turn out with some meaning; nothing’s been let go to simple whimsy.

Perhaps this opening gambit is its strength, that hope is always in process, always engaged with something having gone before, concerned as it is with goats’ breeding history and a name getting a rebirth, among other things.

Although I am constantly on the alert for clichés, clichés constantly alert me – I put my back into them until they turn fresh and interesting to me.

Since clichés are a risk, always, I think the best solutions, or the solutions I’ve been most satisfied with, have always centered on going right into the cliché – pull its expectations apart. I don’t mean to pull it apart linguistically so much as to understand its possible meanings (explication!) and keep weaving until there is another context in which to put the cliché.

This poem’s genesis was a series of sessions in which I listened to its elements. Each time, as I read the poem aloud, another stanza or two emerged. But I constantly had to go back and read it through aloud and then work on the next lines. In this way, writing the poem was like chopping down a tree with an axe – with each stroke I heard and saw, I could make corrections toward a general result.

After three and a half pages of typewritten tercets, and still listening, I began trimming.

The moments I was listening for were those where the thematic lines intersected or harmonized. Places where I could write, “put its back into it,” or, “was not a drill.” Places where, right out in the open, distinct meanings emerged by repetition.

I took a little advice from E.M. Forster: “Only connect.” I think Bach followed this advice before him, and lyrically, I found it useful. In many of its meanings.

As for the title, a fugue is what this poem is, voices or plot lines or stories that weave together in passing harmonies. I kept listening for that harmony on a meaningful (and somewhat musical) level.


  1. The imagery that evokes the sequence of time lures the reader into the world of the poem. No questions, just admiration.

  2. Echoing imagery gathered my thoughts through the darkness of the poem--sacrifice and purification--to find one final angle of incidence, a father certain and gentle in the bathing of his child.
    You cannot step into the same river twice, but when you step twice into the same river, the second time is a self-conscious act. Would it strike true to purify some partial past tenses to simple preterite?

  3. Thank you both, you anonymous readers.

    To the anonymous reader who found the angle of incidence (perhaps equal to the angle of reflection?), I'm afraid I do not know what a partial past tense is. Is a partial past tense something like the verb phrases, "was walking" or "has spread"? Am I correct?

  4. Hey Paul,

    So, I'm interested in how the Heraclitan reference to the "same river twice" operates within the fugue form; for H, all is flux, and in the fugue, all pieces repeat to form a pattern - Lines like: "He is so tired / no night is unusual" seem to me interesting, because they hint at the effect of the fugue's repitition, but what about our fluxy, flowing buddy H - his river is so unclassic, unpatterned, that I want to read his appearance as "ironic counterpoint."

    For some reason, I want to "part out" this poem - it's intricate, and perhaps it can only work as a whole.


  5. Jared,

    Nice. In responding to the previous post re: tenses, I realized how varied the tenses are in the poem, from simple past to present indicative to future, etc. I bring up this point because events in this "flow" of time -- much like the flow of music -- never quite land with the same meaning. The second appearance of "the river" is spoken (thanks for the editorial advice there, Lee), and so even the river is not the same. The man with cancer is not the the same as the man with the child. The Isabellas are not the same, either, yet they do converge harmonically. Even the drills are not the same -- one is a rehearsal (before the explosion early in the poem), while the other suggests the physical tool (and perhaps a greusome image suggested there with the child's eye). Part of the difference is the time that has passed on the way to the images. A fugue's themes do not quite come back the same way, especially in the middle -- they are in different keys, they might be shortened, they might be an octave higher or lower. And although the theme of a fugue usually comes back for a grand finale -- clinching the straight up repetition and pattern you've referred to -- with language, the flux is already built in. It is as lived experience, not necessarily the recorded kind that gets played back the same. As a side note, Bach's fugues turned out to be highly in flux, in that he broke the canonical rules for harmonies and leading tones and such often. His melodies were always going somewhere, never sitting on simple repetition for very long (say, like a Chopin melody), and so the harmony often was constantly changing, sometimes in ways very uncharacteristic of fugues of the time. In any event, does the tension of the repetition vs. the not-sameness make for ironic counterpoint? Do tell.

  6. I love the repetition and the various melodies, or perhaps reverberations, of dissonance and harmony. A beautiful and at times terrifying poem, as beauty and terror are kin.
    Regarding verbs, the absence of active subjects ('there were goats chained' / 'goats were separated' / 'there was the question') feels like fate, which I can't reconcile to Isabella or to the ending. Unfortunately, my inability to reconcile is likely no fault of the poet's but rather a lack of perspective--or talent--on my part as a mediocre reader who loves to read and talk about poetry but sometimes needs help. I honor Paul the poet both for his fine text and his willingness to suffer fools who write back.

  7. Paul, this poem is certainly a great epic stripped of all its prattle and fat. I deeply enjoyed it!

    I am not sure if you are making the explicit connection but I love the way the way the poem literally cuts into time. As you say in your discussion “…writing the poem was like chopping down a tree with an axe – with each stroke I heard and saw…” And then in the poem, the man “Watching light come apart…” So light here is time as harmonized by, “This was not a drill. Crowds of photons were busy deciding: wave or particle?” So if we hear the other meaning of “drill” then the goggled men are “cutting” not practicing an exercise, but functioning like the tool? They are cutting into a body’s time as light?

    Can I make the assumption that there is a central male hero who might be one of the goggled men? And that this man is a time traveler of his own psychological dream terrain spanning greater history to his personal current events?

    I am reading all the motifs cut through a central man and “the question of how a body will react to such light…” Funny too because that is always how I react to Bach’s Fugues. As light cutting into darkness, that he was searching himself with a palate of dark but acute lanterns in the total blackness of his soul. Perhaps you are translating something of what he was feeling into words…

    So much more to say, but I will leave it there, extremely inspiring piece, thanks.

  8. Some excellent comments to catch up on here.

    The lack of active grammatical subjects (brought up by you, anonymous) does suggest an unknown, fateful, great force -- I hadn't thought consciously of those passive verbs in quite that way. Excellent catch, there. Isabella clearly has "her God's plan" while the goats are consigned to a fate across generations. And for the friend at the end, his daughter is also affected, though it seems that, at least temporarily, there's more hope instead of the fateful light of God and atomics. Then again, the child is still "in the middle of things beginning," so perhaps the destructive cycle will consign her, too? I'll stop there. Whew.

    Those passive-standing verbs, too, help deliver the poem more parabolically (take that with the mathematical metaphor as well, the arc . . .), as if speaking with a lesson in tow.

    To Adam, thanks for the praise. Thanks, too, for the connection between the phrase, "This was not a drill," and the cutting of light. I have always heard that line as "this was the real thing that had been rehearsed for," adding the idea that destruction was something planned, even by light itself (here we are back at fate again?), and your idea that cutting light (splitting the atom to split bodies) escaped me, at least consciously.

    AS for your other question, one of the goggled men could be seen as the central one -- he certainly comes up with his cancer and his beer and his reportedly spoken authenticity ("this man who was there") of the experience of the bomb. He carries that weight, even into the ending, where his "oooh and aaah" rings more like his own pain than the child's pleasure and fascination to me.

    The psychological dream-terrain time travel: can you give me more about what you mean by this idea? I'm intrigued by what you're seeing there.

  9. Hi Paul, thanks for being so open to others perceptions—very generous.

    At first reading I flowed with the dream sensory trance of the poem, where an everything-ness was happening in an immediate montage, and the time reality of the poem’s universe was complete as built by the poem’s internal pre-rational logic.

    At second reading and/or as I began to think about what was going on in the poem (in a voice in my head as I might want to relay it as a story to a friend) I found myself wanting to pull out an epic narrative order of sorts.

    Looking at the Isabellas, who I took for granted as connected by their name, I began to wonder what their possible relation could be—if there was a hidden meaning to their pairing. I saw that the first Isabella abandoned bathing as result of a historical action and that the latter Isabella was indulged in bathing by an extremely loving father. So, I wondered if they could be linked in a narrative that was beyond their own lifespans. If there was a dramatic cause in addition to the Moors’ presence that inspired the first Isabella to abandon bathing. And what in the intervening years transpired, what chain of characters between the two Isabellas might have sought to repair that original deprivation and offer such a full and exquisite bath as the second Isabella was receiving. (Though, as the reader, I avoided any exaggerated assumption and allowed these possible characters to remain abstract.)

    So then I wondered who was traveling through this time? Perhaps it was just an omniscient narrative presence? Though I am always looking for an exalted hero and so speculated that the cancered man staring into the glass was somehow traveling, was somehow encompassing the whole narrative.

    I found a connection between the words “goggle” and “glass” in both sound shape and in their actual object relation to water. Goggles block water from the outside and a glass holds water from the inside.

    So I wondered, was he then somehow traveling both in and out of this primal water theme, through time… aahh, there is so much. I could keep going. I hope this communicates the gist of my time traveling experience. That was a lot of fun to think through by the way…

  10. Adam, and any possible lurkers on this conversation, people who may visit these comments, etc:

    I had forgotten about the distinct connection between the Isabellas -- while writing the poem, I had a fortunate phone call which mentioned Isabella (the child) and I remember thinking about the connection between the two, so the link, I guess, was/is deliberate, for what it's worth.

    The speaker I have always thought of as a sort of a soothsayer, or someone you'd find completely involved in an epic -- biblical in its largeness and span of conceit. It's strange how the short lines at the beginning and the commands set up that tone -- "listen all ye children and fools" seems the neighboring attitude to what "Fugue" projects. It's dignified, to say the least, and full of gravity and irony.

    The cancered, presumably goggled man seems to have a similar attitude, I suppose, though the expressiveness of his "ooh" and "ahh," along with him declaring his authority almost bitterly by saying he was "there" (suggesting, "and you weren't!") seems to separate him from the equally authorial but more reportorial and insistent speaker.

    Of course, the above paragraph could be poked pretty hard -- and perhaps the reading would take a different tack. It's strange how much came out of listening so consistently to the poem as it emerged.

    Any other readings out there?