Book Review: The Looking House, Fred Marchant

Fred Marchant. The Looking House. Graywolf Press (2009)

Fred Marchant’s latest collection begins where he left off in House on Water, House in Air: New and Selected Poems (2002) so that the prologue poem, “House on Water, House in Air,” acts as a link or gateway to his earlier work and takes us deeper into his compassionate exploration of human suffering. Arranged in three interconnected sections, The Looking House moves in a deliberate path from intellectual uncertainty to revelation, from a place “where the riverbank is firm,/but crumbling,” where “a boy among the living/thinks that nothing is near, or worth/believing in,” to poems that expose human indignities, such as, old age, mental breakdown and death, and poems raging at larger indignities, such as war and torture, to a final, dawning realisation of nature’s soothing balm. Marchant’s great achievement in The Looking House is to create a new anti-war poetics out of seemingly disparate subjects and images.

The first poem proper, “Ard na Mara” begins with remembrance and return, at a house both “beside the sea” and “above, during a summer spent in Ireland, far away from war.

The war in Viet Nam still ongoing, but I was well out of it,

as far as I could get. I went in 

to Donegal once a week for newspapers and wine gums.

 Dominated by images of past conflicts, there’s no respite in his selfimposed

exile.

across the rocks, and then looking up, you’d feel dwarfed

by the one wall left standing—

a fragment of Sweeney’s castle—just a stone wing-blade,

but you got the idea: fortress,

and the fear of raids. Later when I first read the opening

of the Agamemnon, I thought

 the Greek signal fires must have been lit on points like this,

 the war won but not over

Since his honorable discharge from the Marine Corps as a conscientious objector, Marchant has quietly raged against “war won but not over.” His indignation stalks this assured fourth collection. In The Looking House he continues to prick at his own and the wider American consciousness; looking back from present conflicts to when he struggled to understand by writing it down, “to tell why I joined/and how I came to quit the war.”

[…]

Marchant tells us, in “Credo,” that he’s interested, not simply “in words alone,” but “what lives in between them.” The controlled imagery and motifs include thresholds, doorways, a windowsill, apertures that provide closure as well as openings; beginnings and endings: “hiatus: opening, rupture, fissure, gap,” “Knock on the doorframe and step out.” The magnificently imagined title poem, “The Looking House Stanza,” gathers up the disparate subjects of memory, war and mental breakdown into a “room without roof,/by a window minus its wall,” where, Lear-like, boundaries break, lives unravel with the revelation of “how little we knew about fatal/sorrow, and indignity without end.” The final two poems return to the hopeful expectation of “a boy’s face, turned up” in the prologue-poem. “Pinckney Street” depicts nature’s “respite,” the “shook ‘foil’ Hopkins wrote about—/ the minutes we have of grandeur, hope, gratitude” while in “First Song Again” the “lofted/Blue heron wing” recalls “the long, sleek, and pointed call/that rose, as if in response, out of the estuary/ of night and storm” of that summer spent in Ireland away from the Viet Nam war. So, perfectly, full circle, Marchant ends as he began, pondering humanity, urging us to

Trust above all the imminent return

Of the small, but persistent

            Impulse to sing.

The complete review is available in the current edition of Pleiades, Vol. 30:No.1, 202-204

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