A Note on Patricia Fargnoli's Work

by Ilya Kaminsky

“Duties of the Spirit”by Patricia Fargnoli(Tupelo Press, 2005)

With majority of poets of her generation being employed as college professors, PatriciaFargnoli’s position of an ageing woman writing about life at the near poverty-level inAmerica, is unique and special. Let me correct myself right away: it is special, first of all,not for its subjects but for the lyricism and passion of its language. And yet, it is the subjectmatter that so clearly drives her poetry, empowers it. There are two poets in America whohave been justly celebrated for writing about the same subjects for years: Phillip Levine(poverty, working class) and Stanley Kunitz (ageing). And, yet, while she has clearly learnedfor both, Patricia Fargnili has found her own, very distinct place, and from there she speakswith a very moving—and, at its best, deeply spiritual, wise—voice that tells us about what itmeans to live in our time.

Fargnoli is not a poet who hesitates or is afraid of people. Her beautiful second full-lengthbook, “Duties of the Spirit,” is filled with names, situations, invocations, animals, humancharacters of strangers and dear ones, dying and staying alive at whatever’s the cost.

Now, the obvious question arises: how, given the heaviness of these subjects, can thispoet—or, for this matter, any poet—achieve wisdom and grace in the space of a one orsometimes two, pages? Fargnoli does it in several ways. Her trademark is perhaps her abilityto juxtapose the direct, open, often rhythmical, statement such as “Yes, I am getting old; /Yes, being poor takes too much out of me” with an image that is unexpected, but gratifying:“Here is the safe way station, filled with the seaweed / Scent of salt. The waves emit light /As if from a thousand windows.” Generous image and the directness of tone are the toolsFargnoli finds most useful.

But it is not that simple. For instance, when I say “directness of tone,” I mean more than onething; what in the previous example constituted mere two lines in the act of accepting theinevitable, can in another poem (“Happiness”) extend through the two page long precise andquite painful observation, spoken by a woman who looks at the old photograph of “the oldcouple sit[ing] on the stone ledge to their stucco house / laughing, while bells ring in thevillage.”

In “Happiness”, Fargnolli’s directness of phrase and voice are the tools of tightly controlledpassion. We begin with looking at the photograph where “the man has one of those flat woolcaps the Irish wear. / Maybe they are Irish and have lived through The Troubles. / May be they remember hunger. // And because they are old, I know people died in their lives. /Friends with hearts that burned out, sons caught / in crossfire—something like that.” Ok,direct enough; almost innocent enough. But at this moment, very quickly, we get inside themind of not just the speaker, but these people in the photograph: “They know this, but theydon’t think about it.” Then the movement shifts, and we are in the future—or, what musthave been the future, the realm of prediction: “I’ll bet they buried him in his absence of teeth/ with his back horn-rimmed glasses // and her next to him under a matching stone / in herscrubbed-thin dress, her blue socks, her sandals, / Bet they kept her watch on.” The passiongrows larger, it is on fire, the details make things grow hot, each next detail, precise as it is,makes us feel the heat.

At this moment in the poem, Fargnoli shifts the gear again, and gives us a broader picture –we see the city: “In Sorrento, the widows come with buckets of water” and then, one stanzalater we are back at the direct address: “I’d like to do something like that for these two. / I’dbring them bread. / I’d ask them // do you remember the day of the photograph / or why youwere happy?” Here, at the poem’s finale, she is addressing us, herself, and the page: “I doubtthey’d know it -- / happiness arrives for one moment / and then flees past the sheep.” Thehappiness of the final words is earned: it is lived through, both in the lives of the characterson the photograph discussed, in the life of a poem and its author meditating in front of us,and in ourselves, as we read it, as we go from one emotion to next, as a mood shifts, as thewisdom arrives on its heels. The poem becomes both the story and the lyric address; it isbuilt on precise physical images, direct statements in which the author both argues withherself and learns something in the end. Final idea of happiness is unexpected perhaps, andyet it is there.

There are many poems like this one in the book: “Arguing Life for Life,” which is aboutovercoming suicide, or “Locked,” about being left alone in the middle of a suburban prairie,with one’s car locked at the parking lot, in the very early AM and no one to call for help. Butto describe such poems in this way is to do them great injustice for each of them isextremely theatrical, each a little play that is staged right in front of us, as if it is going onour own open palm as we speak. What gives these poems power—in addition to theirmeticulous design and poise—is Fargnoli’s passion. This poet can be lyrical and passionate,narrative and passionate, humorous and passionate, erotic and passionate, wise andpassionate, silly and passionate, despairing and passionate, even somewhat cold andcontrolled and still, somehow, passionate within that frame.

Things that move Fargnoli most, as mentioned above, old age and poverty, allow her to talka broader look at the existence itself, give her voice a certain volume: “I am slipping on thescree on my mountain, / I am sliding, my knees give, my hips. If there / Is a bottom to allthis, I haven’t found it. // If there are answers one comes to after long life, / They areillusive.” She speaks for the certain part of American society (that her even tittles claim rightaway: “On Reaching Sixty Five” or “Old Woman Dreams”) which before “Duties of theSpirit” was published never had such a clear spokesperson in verse. “We old women,” shesays “when someone tells us / what passes these days for the truth / we argue with them andrefuse to believe. / Instead, we look to the stars for faith and confusion.”

These almost epic claims are supported and given integrity by her lyrical voice: “I writeabout beauty; I cannot resist”. “I am asking for the clarity / of a fogged-in morning,” shesays, “I am asking if it’s possible—/if it’s still possible.” The title poem, “Duties of theSpirit” is a brilliant example of how it is still “possible;” other pieces, such as beautifulsequence of “Desire[s]”, which sometime echoes Kunitz’s “Hornworm” sequence and his“desire, desire, desire” of “Touch me,” and yet as Fargnoli’s sequence comes together it isentirely her own, a voice of an ageing woman in search of the ability to “give praise, if not toa god, / then at least to light…/to herons performing tai chi in a salt marsh.” This sequence,as all of the book, is held together by the absolute honesty of the speaker’s voice, which tellsus the truth, something not always very pretty, about herself and the world—tells us the truthwithout patronizing: “How hard she tries to be good, to be good enough. / And fails. Moreoften, she feels like the man / in the novel about Africa, who stumbles like a child / throughthe rain forest howling: I want, I want, I want.