Simmons B. Buntin reviews Various Modes
of Departure, poetry by Deborah Fries
There are, I must admit, a number of advantages to editing a journal like Terrain.org. Not least of those is the labor of reading submissions from new (or perhaps more appropriately not-very-published) writers. If the use of the word ‘labor’ seems harsh, it’s not meant that way, not anymore than the new (or shall we say only-recently-first-book-published) poet Deborah Fries uses the word ‘plume’ in the poem of the same name:
Plume. The word bubbles purple through the
If I left it at that—if she left it at that—we wouldn’t have the whole meaning. So by ‘labor’ I also mean the routine, maybe even the mundane, and then the sudden shift that alters, perhaps only slightly, our perspective on things from here on out. So by ‘plume,’ Fries also means:
So by ‘labor’ I finally mean: Reading through all of the submissions for our issue on The City Wild, and finding and absorbing Fries’s poems “Leaving Whitefish Bay” and “Alone on Más a Tierra”—both included in that issue as well as her first book—my perspective was slightly altered. Now, reading the 32 poems that make up the award-winning Various Modes of Departure (Kore Press, 2004), my perspective is fundamentally altered. Altered, that is, as if I’m suddenly able to view a new light in the spectrum, a light always there but just beyond my vision.
Good poetry does that, and this is very good poetry. It is good like the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop and May Swenson, like that of Billy Collins. Yet whereas Collins has been (absurdly) criticized for writing about nothing, Fries’s poems are definitely about something. They are about the visceral memories and events that make up a life, conversing as a life often does and then hanging—on the edge of the line, on the edge of a thought—as life itself does in so many unplanned ways. For example, in “Florida, 1983:”
And then the hang:
Eventually, however, this and another storm pass, and “By noon the sky broke clean and / the pool filled with pale northern children.” But then another hang, like life itself: “Even then I knew that pictures from our last vacation would be / reviewed, handled, thinned.”
As the poems teach us, and of course the title reports, there are Various Modes of Departure. The beautifully designed book (despite more than a few typos on the interior) divides these departures into three modes: The Disappearing Act, The Steamer Trunk, and The Astral Shift. All three sections begin powerfully and carry that puissance—and often it’s not a force that we nor the narrator can control—throughout the section.
The Disappearing Act meets us head on with the book’s first, and perhaps most haunting poem, “Like Field Mice,” about abducted children:
While subjects change and to a degree the mood in other poems is a bit lighter, there is always a seriousness delicately woven into the poems so that they are not overbearing. The lines are on the longer side for modern verse, and yet the spacing between the lines gives a bit more light, more air. Yet, it is the crafting of the poems themselves—the tight play of the words, the subtle meanings and implications, the illusory imagery—that allows the reality of the poems’ topics to succeed.
In The Steamer Trunk, the poems are more autobiographical, beginning with “Leaving Whitefish Bay,” in which the narrator admits that:
And in “Leaving the Life,” the narrator’s parents abandon generations of farming in America for idyllic small-town life, leaving more than just a profession and homestead behind:
The third and closing section, The Astral Shift, may not be where the reader’s shift of perspective occurs—by now, that’s already happened. While the first two sections are more clearly defined (that is, the poems fit more neatly into their categorical titles), the poems in the final section are no less strong than their brothers and sisters of earlier sections, and their refusal to conform into even the poet’s own ‘sectioning’ may be what makes this the strongest section of the book. See, your perspective is shifting!
There is something at work here, something that we can conveniently call ‘astral’—we’re allowed that now given the section’s title. The shift that occurs in The Astral Shift is one both of subtlety—as in “Early Photo of Mother in Chair,” in which a photograph reveals the narrator’s mother holding her as an infant,
—and one of real change, as in “Danger:”
And as politicians and priests and poets are wont to do, Fries may well have saved the best for last. “Boxes,” haunting like the initial poem, is a tale of a serviceman who returns to his parents’ house after “he had hunted through the caves in Afganistan, finding / only dust,…” In the time he is home, before shipping off again, he creates a room-maze of cardboard that his mother finds once he’s gone:
Fries reveals that we don’t need to be young children to be abducted.
Not surprisingly, in reading Various Modes of Departure, we have been abducted as well—taken to a place of real memories and hard stories finely documented through the ink of a new American poet worth noting. In her first book, Deborah Fries brings a shifting perspective, a change that pays off now and for a long while to come.