Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Gary Fincke on "Things that Fall from the Sky"

Books of Lists—I own a shelf full, and I read them the way some people watch afternoon talk shows, fascinated by the wry humor of oddity and chance. In one of those books is a long list of “Things that Fell from the Sky,” including, as it turns out, seeds, powder, documents, and meat.

But I’ve never been interested in “found poems.” The happenstance of the things that have fallen are details I’ve come to know like those from my life and the lives of those close to me. They’re triggers, if the writing of the poem goes well, for something larger.

It’s like the difference, in fiction, between anecdotes and stories. Anecdotes can be as oddly charming as items in those documented lists, but it’s the deepening of character and place and event—what the great short story writer Andre Dubus calls vertical writing—that creates a story. I’ve written a number of stories that I hope have succeeded in accomplishing this, but it’s also how I feel about writing poems. Who are these people and their circumstances? How do these strange things matter? Because everything is available. Because the fantastic sometimes visits us and leaves the indelible mark of circumstance.

In this sequence and others like it, I work with the mysteries that have befallen others until I discover how those stories might somehow illuminate some small part of who we are. This sequence began with how the sections were arranged. How one built on another like scenes in a story until, as a writer, I made a discovery that I believed made the sequence about something more than “the weird.”

Last week I drove through a sudden summer storm, traffic slowing, hazard lights blinking, cars pulling, at last, onto the shoulder of the interstate. And then, less than half a mile from those waiting out the storm, I drove out of it into clear skies. It was so stunning a change that I pulled off and looked back, half-expecting to see those rubber strips that slap your car clean at the car wash, traffic emerging from something like a fogged-in automated door.

A few hundred yards behind me were drivers who believed the storm huge and unmanageable. It wasn’t meat or seeds pouring down, but that rain had been so intensely heavy that I had nearly given in to paralysis. Likewise, when, on that list of odd things falling, I read about the body from a small airplane accident that crashed onto the hood of a woman’s car, it conjured the memory of 9/11 and those minutes of looking up toward the intermittent shower of people choosing to jump from the towers rather than burn. There was an “I” in the poem now, all of those oddities culminating in that strange hail of desperation, surprising those of us who watched, filling us with terrified wonder.


  1. Thanks for the terrific poem and blog entry. Your comments on discovering the "I" and thus discovering the greater purpose of the poem greatly interested me.

    I'm most interested in how you made all the sections flow so eloquently into one another. I imagine it must have been difficult, seeing how different the syntax and tone is in each section. I’m wondering if you could comment on the process involved in creating each section’s shape and how you made them work so well together despite their diversity.


  2. Thanks for the kind words and thanks to the BPJ editors who suggested I drop one section ("Hay") from the sequence because it seemed redundant.I wrote a few of these--"Seeds" and Powder"-- as individual poems, and I was fascinated that they became much sparer than most of my poems, which tend to be longer and denser and heavily narrative. I thought distance had a great deal to do with that (and the absence of an "I"), and it wasn't until I began "Bodies" that I discovered the possibilities of sequence. 9/11 had crept into that poem, and I began to consider how I might write other sections that could build las a kind of meditation on these oddities yet somehow, at the end, give the reader the surprise of inevitability that is such a pleasure for me when I read a poem or story that leads me in a fresh way to discovery. Best, Gary Fincke

  3. Hi Gary,
    Very interesting and provocative poem. The main thing I came away with was ambivalence toward a dream-like cannibalism. Kind of like, does one take their cup of Christ's blood light and sweet or punished and cataclysmic? Does that resonate with you?
    Adam Shechter

  4. Adam--I'm glad you find the poem "provocative." What you suggest does resonate a bit. Surely what falls upon us often seems as "accidental" as your words suggest. What we're left with is the will to carry on and perhaps discover moments of light and sweetness.
    Best, Gary

  5. I really enjoyed your poems. "Seeds" was the one that I connected with because your words made me see the wonder the family had. very nice!

    Denise Wolfe

  6. Hey friends,

    I have to say, this poem affected me. Well done, Gary. Aside from all the obvious connotations it brought into play, another thing it echoed in my mind was the food and supply drops that the US and other countries do over "war torn" countries (a term I'm uncomfortable with, but haven't found a better replacement for). Ben Lerner (who BPJ was first to publish) has an amazing poem in his book "Angle of Yaw" comparing this phenomenon to the falling of manna. I myself have been working on a poem called "Let it Rot" that considers certain cultures that will not eat anything they haven't grown themselves and so, even if the village is starving, they will let entire food drops rot away.
    Another note "Things that Fall" reminded me of was, when the recent film "The Happening," had advertisements running on TV, they repeated a scene over and over again of construction workers falling limp off the sides of buildings. Surprisingly, it disturbed me so much that I reacted physically every time it came on, shivering, etc. That image, for me, so potently reeks of the Twin Towers falling that, even when rendered in art, I find it slightly devastating. I feel you, Gary, were aware of that and chose a very effective image for your poem. Still, however, 7 years later, the idea of that horrible jumping act--a sort of involuntary suicide--seems like such a raw scab that I feel a certain controversy here applies (kind of the old Levertov vs. Duncan argument) and it brings me to my question: in writing this poem, were you concerned with the fact that artfully referencing the deaths of those in the towers would cross the boundary from illustrating a point to being vulgar? I, personally, can appreciate many sides of that argument. However, it's something I constantly struggle with, sometimes to an obsessive point, in my own (quite vulgar) poetry. Anyone...thoughts?


  7. I enjoyed your poem very much..And for others who also are and have been inspired to be fascinated by mysterious events..I think this is one of your sources, or the source for your poem,'Things that Fall from the Sky.'

    Between 1919 and 1832 Charles Fort published his collections of oddities..of science and nature. He was THE collector of the unexplained and mysterious facts that defied rational explanations..then, and even now. It was his ‘The Book Of The Damned.’ There is an edition in paperback now. I read it many years ago, was fascinating then and still is.

  8. Correction for my previous post..Meant between 1919 and 1932..not '1832.'

  9. Denise--thanks for the kind words--I'm glad the poem resonated with you--Gary

  10. Nicki--interesting post--when you finally brought up your question, I was already anticipating it, but that doesn't make it easier to answer. However, I didn't feel I was crossing any sort of line because I didn't set out, with all of the other imagery, to write a 9/11 poem, especially one that might feel exploitative of the victims who jumped to their deaths. I didn't even know where the "bodies" section was going until mid-way through it, which made it (to me, at least) feel earned rather than contrived. Best, Gary

  11. Artemesia--I've read some of Fort's compilations of oddities, and yes, they're as fascinating now as they were decades ago. As I indicated, I have shelves full of such books, and though this one is not among them, others often reference that book, so some of it ultimately trickles down. Gary

  12. Your wonderful poem and essay lead me to think a lot about the form of the sectionalized poem versus other forms of poetry as well as other forms of writing. I think this topic comes up for me particularly when you discuss the poem by making an analogy to fiction writing. I'm curious as to the development of this poem, and of your work in general. What draws you with this particular topic to write a poem rather than turning these into scenes of a fiction piece? Is it simply the approach a poem naturally takes to the topic versus the way a fiction piece would approach it? And how about the sectionalized poem versus all these scenes together somehow in one long section? It seems, to me at least, there's a kind of piece that can be written in all three--fiction, multi-section poem, unsectionalized poem--so what drew you in particular to the form the poem takes now? What different decisions do you think you would make and which elements would be added and/or subtracted from the piece? Thank you in advance for your reply.

  13. Matthew---an excellent question. I'll start by giving a partial, simple answer: I'd written three of the pieces as individual poems before i discovered that there was the possibility of them becoming part of a sequence that might "arrive" in a more significant way than the individual poems themselves.
    As for the question about the possibilities of a story rising from these, I'll say that a slight variation on these oddities, which I read under the title, "The World's Smallest Rain," became a story for me. In that case, the character recounting a rain shower that was only a few dozen feet in diameter, took over the story, and I knew that there was more to this strange weather than the rain itself, that the occurrence had opened up a story about family, death, and coming of age. That story, in case you're interested, is called "A Room of Rain," and will appear very soon in The Journal, the magazine published out of Ohio State. So yes, those are real possibilities for me (and I'd add nonfiction as well, since I've opened what I expected to be a poem sequence into extended nonfiction prose. For what it's worth, I'm very much attracted to poem sequences, most likely because I write in three genres and am always alert for the chance to push deeper into any image.