Alex Walton on Robert Fernandez

To kick off the second week of our feature of Robert Fernandez’s poetry, we’ve asked friend-of-THERMOS Alex Walton to write about Pink Reef. — AS

A Note on Pink Reef

Usually I’m thinking about this part of the Marvell quote: “Meanwhile the Mind, from pleasure less, / Withdraws into its happiness […] Annihilating all that’s made / To a green Thought in a green Shade.” But in the ellipsis, between “happiness” and “Annihilating,”

                    The Mind, that Ocean where each kind
                    Does streight its own resemblance find;
                    Yet it creates, transcending these,
                    Far other Worlds, and other Seas;

— which a perhaps worthless gloss once told me Marvell references a “then-current doctrine” of pseudozoology in which each land-animal was supposed an aquatic complement: horses and seahorses, mermaids, mermen, and people. (Sir Thomas Browne frowned on this theory in his Pseudodoxia Epidemica. He did not stamp it out.) Charming and bizarre theory, I remembered it this weekend, thinking over Pink Reef, the second book of poems from Robert Fernandez– what quality does the ocean have that makes us look for our resemblance there– not our exact semblance, not saltwater Narcissi, but in uncanny form, the seahorse looking the horse in the mouth. We have a persistent sense of an obscure submarine self-sufficiency, a completeness unto itself, which must, if complete, contain some reprised versions of our own lives, intelligences, constructions. And threatening as it mirrors: “Few eyes have escaped the picture of mermaids.” (–Tho. Browne again.) When at low tide that wettest trope of sublimity retreats, we are confronted by a spitting, crawling, particoloured yard of hissing jellies and festery barnacles, Ernst Haeckel’s sweet-shop, you know it, one is uncomfortable among these forms of life which (animal or vegetable? or mineral? industrial trash washed back up?) if they reprise or repeat our life, may do so satirically; difficult to tell. Pink Reef (whose pink is what – human? blood in the water? coral encrustation?) has that uncanniness and that pulsing, hissing life to it; the encounter of “streight its own resemblance find” just as it occurs between the mind, in its withdrawn happiness, and the annihilating thought. “How strange to be called F-e-r-n-a-n-d-e-z.”

A “candied light of a distinct South Beach nihilism” (Fernandez, ex-Floridian, in an interview) showing through the title, through dolphins variously quartered or apostrophized, does not imply any ruminating on this or any other attitude, landscape, system. Not ruminating anything: active with coral’s living, distributed vigor from the smallest scale upward; a restlessness through, not with, poetry; the questing-in-place through which spirit might appear, not as an apparition before but as the appropriator of ourselves and our material reality, together, in an objectively audible coach. (Conch?) Beyond this self-requirement to be ceaselessly in motion, to posses by music whatever material is at hand (and regard everything possible as material), it gives no proscription as to what may occasion, or carry, poetry. Forms expedited: flat-rate, compact, signature confirmation; not book- or bulk-rate. To be free from feeling that poems ought conform to their own idea of lyric, or virtuosity– is virtuosity; for these poems to attend to and certify their individual rhythms goes far further into poetry than any hovering attempt to subvert or interrogate Poetry.

                    I have compared thee, O my love,
                    to a smear of gold teeth in Pharaoh’s chariots

in one place,

                    & clop, clip-i-
                    ty clop

in another. I would like to mention the Polyhedron as a figure here, “Polyhedron” being the title of the first poem in Fernandez’ first book, We Are Pharaoh: “Intending to begin at the billowing page,” beginning instead at interlocking angles, joined surfaces, “Think of the bardo as 2,700 intersecting tiles”; in other words think of an intermediate state, the space between you and anything, as if states themselves were something angular, irregular, and investigable as Durer’s solid. The sections of “Polyhedron,” the poems in Pink Reef, fit that way: shared edges (returned images and objects: blood, roe, discs, violets, many more), and heavy repetition inside individual poems. Across one face of the solid flashes clear imagery; its opposite side quotes a joke; the adjoining side detourns it; one’s metaphor becomes another’s ground; those turned part way away, grow obtuse and thin in perspective, but stay in sight. “Imagines itself a Cadillac- / mouthed cupid” — which is fantastical, impossible, and then, when the grille becomes a grill— an image of intense complexity and vivacity. What returns does so not as gratuitous hieropanting [sic] but as the seams and edges of that solidity we feel or desire to feel in reality. There is, throughout, an obstinate insistence on a material reality of such density that each thing slides out from another like rows of overlapping scales, as if the fact of overcrowding were the source of the metaphoric faculty. But the testament of that reality is not in trying to apply fixative to a single transcendent image; it is, rather, in the sound one makes of it. As in Zukofsky when Zukofsky says:

                    One can go further, try to dissect capillaries or intelligent nerves– and speak of the image
                    felt as duration or perhaps of the image as the existence of the shape and movement of the
                    poetic object. The poet’s image is not dissociable from the movement or the cadenced
                    shape of the poem.

That “cadenced shape,” I mean, is not only how and where we encounter ourselves (our voices), but how we can be made to feel the entrenchment of things in themselves. Not unrelatedly, Pink Reef’s alternations between the flesh as hunks of meat under a dicey MRI and at the flesh as intricate, delicate systems of separate (nervous, skeletal, circulatory) self-life-support clarify that the view that seems more gruesome is in fact less terrifying, in the sense that a true vision of the working circulatory systems is far more unsettling than the sight of spilled blood.

Rimbaud, his verve, fired pupils, drunken boat knocking between everything that could be in language as language, is a precedent spirit, and when Robert quotes (not, I should say, without reservation) his statement that the poet might, for instance, “die charging through those unutterable, unnameable things [n.b. “charging through” not: “seeking to name” -AW]: other horrible workers will come; they will begin from the horizons where he has succumbed!” it is clear that the show of fragility and the show of intensity are unavoidably one; one is already a bull, already in the china shop. Poetry is the ensuing. And the china, Rimbaud’s opulence, is in Fernandez’s poems compacted and recapitalized by available, mythic brands: “Cartier chariots strung with pearls”; “ecstasy’s Versace”; Chanel; Jeff Koons; “a pearl farrari / [approximating] the angel of history.” It makes sense: all that toil and cash to pack a whole atmosphere into the brand-name each season; which name, redeployed in poetry, can spread perfume with concision.


                    one who flatters a lyre
                    clips the spine’s fused discs,
                    spreads the mind’s bloodied butter
                    on flat, brittle, cold dry toast

But wait:

                    just the smiles
                    (just the smiles)
                    just the smiles

Here and elsewhere, whether exactly echoing or wholly departing, each line responds to the line before with as much attention as the mind might bring; but it is the ear attending. This may sound obvious. It is a rarity in poetry. Pink Reef is a pleasure: a record of a hypnotic attention, not hypnotized, that makes things dream awake. “Look in thy ear and write!” (Zukofsky-Pound-Sidney). If the variety of, if the extent of, a fantastic imagination is coextensive with the variety we see in reality, it endures for us with that reality: much in the way it is the Ocean’s magnitude, more than the incidental existence in it of seahorses, lions, and other such complements, that seem to make it promise a total complement of the terrestrial. That alternately primordial and avant-lapsarian “soup is / all the good stuff / mixed in.”

2 responses to this post.

  1. Always useful to see a reference to specific text by Browne and where in P.E. he ‘frowned’/ queried a particular theory.


  2. pseudodoxica epidemica, book 3 ch 24


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