The Dear Illusive Dream: Jennifer Firestone’s Gates & Fields
By Nicholas Birns
In its oracular tone, sparsity yet pertinacity of diction, and gnomic emotionalism about experience, Jennifer Firestone’s Gates & Fields (published by Belladonna and featuring a ravishingly arxhaic book design) recalls Emily Dickinson. It is one of many instances where contemporary American women poets are using Dickinson as a source for a poetic at once experimental and felt. Yet this relation is made less homey and ancestry than might seem because of Dickinson’s pessimism and her own poetry’s resistance to being thematized:
Heaven is so far of the mind
That was the mind dissolved
The site of it—by architect—
Could not again be proved
What cannot be articulated is so unable to be formulated that we cannot even discern its frame; and thus not just Dickinson’s incantatory austerity but an underlying elusiveness is there in Firestone’s work as well as generational peers of hers such as Katy Lederer and Lisa Jarnot.
But, on this particular day that I sat down to write this post, the anterior American female poet in my mind was not Dickinson, but an even earlier figure, Annis Boudinot Stockton, who may well be to the late eighteenth century what Dickinson was to the mid-nineteenth or Anne Bradstreet was to the seventeenth:
And is it thus the dear illusive dream
Of social bliss and happiness serene
Must vanish quite—dissolved in empty air
And leave my heart a prey to pangs severe….
Importantly, Stockton is not just writing an elegy for another woman, Ann Meredith Hill, itself rare at a time when the elegy form was dominated by young men mourning their young male peers—Edward King; Keats; Hallam—but an elegy for Mrs. Hill spoken in the voice of her sister, Mrs. Clymer. Stockton, like Dickinson, is always personal, yet not always autobiographical. This totally fortuitous juxtaposition enhanced my sense of the dramatic tectonics of Firestone’s book, in which so often a female persona is evoked, who is observed or watched or commented upon a first-person plural chorus:
As in yesteryears days seemed long
A ball upon her very neck
We were there saying come what you are
We were there saying
The ‘we’ could be the mourners, and the ‘her’ the mourned object; but the “her” could just as well be the speaker of the poems, and the “we” the audience. This indeterminacy about who is speaking and who is echoing, who is acting and who is contemplating:
She authenticates herself unknowingly
She has laid her vision bare
We collaborate our chorusing
She has laid her vision bare
There is also a constant alteration between past and present tense, which further ramifies the state of the action: at one minute we are face to face with the “she,”, or, alternately, the speaker is face to face with the observed or mourned object; at another, we are commenting, or the speaker is noting, a recorded past, perhaps more a near past than a deep past, but a time sufficiently lapsed so as to have its consequences recognized.
Yes you just say it She is just one body Hardly there.
We can say field and feel it because we did not designate
The sky turned pages and the language rained. We do not hesitate.
We did not designate, but do not hesitate. Why is one verb in the past, and one the present? Does it have something to do with the "she” being incarnate and yet also evanescent? Yet the non-designation is presented as enabling: because we did not designate the field we can say the word ‘field’ and feel it, entering into a surreal release of signification where we do not hesitate. Breakdown, dissolution, can liberate:
The latch of this is broken the latch of this is open
In other words something done in the past has enabled something done in the present. Elsewhere, though, the event in the past seems to have been tragic, catastrophic, or at least precipitating a diminution, as seen near the end of the volume:
We are in this time All has been done
And then, on the next page of poetry:
There is she who is here in our space so near
There is she who is here in our space so near
Her work may or may not have gone to waste
Her waste is re-defining as this night star sun.
The easiest way to read this is as about a person who has died, with the ‘we’ are the mourners. But this is not exclusive, or denotatively confining, because the “she” is so elusive, and her presence, even if altered or re-formed, still so felt. Again, we see the alternation between the present and past tense. There is a possibility of seeing the past tense as the 'gate’ and the present as the ‘field’. Certainly gates are closed and fields are open, gates material and fields ideal—as a field is really a human perception of space on a natural tableau—gates fixed and fields fluid. The late Japanese-American artist Minoru Kawabata had a similar dichotomy in his images of gates and robes, which for him were tantamount to objective and subjective. But Firestone’s dichotomy of gates and fields is a bit more elusive. Both pertain to death: the gates to hell, but also the Elysian Fields. If fields are the afterlife, gates, as the transition-point to the afterlife, at least have the tangible link to life of marking life’s ending, the proximity of a portal.
The various shapes are we collecting down the trees
We will come from the leaves down the trees
We are more confident in this space than she
We impress ourselves this way
Our perception is the light, the light
In almost any other context, the last line would be a visionary affirmation, and the words shine with a spiritual intensity. But here it is a sign of a diminution or perhaps more a substitution. Our perception must needs be the light that the ‘she’ has once been; or more convincingly our perception was once the ‘she', but is now reduced to the light, as a stand-in, a vicarious absence. Also notable is the inverted syntax of “various shapes are we collecting down the trees,” where conventionally it should be ‘We are collecting the various shapes”, though it would typically be not ‘down the trees’ but ‘from the trees.’ The inversion diminishes our agency, makes us random vagabonds among the trees rather than exercising dominion or decision in them. There is determination in ‘our’ stance here, but also some presumptuousness. ‘Our’ confidence and love of impressing ourselves makes us almost blunderers; we are more confident in this space than she, but not more dignified or more present. And, if the ‘she’ is indeed dead, that we are ‘more confident in this space than she’ is not so much an inability to admit her passing but a tender acknowledgment that at once she is still there, perceptually, and that her absence means so much that we cannot say it other than decorously, timorously.
For all the abstract musings the reader must make about tone, stance and address it is very important to note that Gates & Fields is a narrative, a story. It is a story without names or characters or places, a story without context, but nonetheless a story, a chronicle of what has happened, with a gap between past and present that complicates the translucency and intuitiveness of the pure lyric utterance. The English language (as contrasted especially to French) has had trouble establishing genres that are in-between fiction and poetry. Yet, for all this book’s homage to Dickinson, and genuine lineage in her vein, Firestone’s work inhabits this expansive and elusive middle realm between lyric and narrative:
Presently attend to this whole space not a designated marker