Small Wisdoms, Large Spirit: Patricia Fargnoli's Duties of the Spirit

by Edward Byrne

Duties of the Spiritby Patricia FargnoliTupelo Press, 2005

The stars continue as far as we know, as far as we can see, and as far as we can’t.

—Patricia Fargnoli, “Small Wisdoms”

When Mary Oliver, as judge for Utah State University Press’s May Swenson Poetry Award,chose Patricia Fargnoli’s first manuscript of poems, Necessary Light, to be the 1999 winner,the selection seemed admirable and appropriate for a number of reasons. Foremost amongthem, Fargnoli’s poetry appeared directly descended from the works of May Swenson andMary Oliver, as well as additional distinguished women poets who had written about therelationship between nature and self with great insight, especially when the subject of thepoem involves experiences of marriage, motherhood, or other aspects of life viewed from,and enriched by, a distinctly female perspective. Indeed, the strong sense of affinity fornature’s beauty and grace, combined with a feeling of awe for its mystery and power, inFargnoli’s poems may be traced back in an honored line through the finest works ofElizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore, and Emily Dickinson.

In 2004 Patricia Fargnoli produced Small Songs of Pain (Pecan Grove Press), a sequence of37 poems inspired by Marc Chagall’s 1920s paintings portraying LaFontaine’s fables.Although such an endeavor may seem to have the potential of being limiting to the poetbecause of the precise content of the paintings and the derived context of the fables, wiselyFargnoli often allowed herself to wander from an objective rendering of the content or astrict interpretation of the context; instead, she invited readers to witness inventive personalimpressions and innovative flights of insight arising from a skillful ability to closely observeand openly imagine the emotions one might attach to such images or the concerns that mightaccompany such narratives.

Patricia Fargnoli’s new book-length collection, Duties of the Spirit (Tupelo Press, 2005),presents a wonderful blending of the characteristics displayed in the two volumes. Thepoems in this new volume continue to demonstrate the shrewd wisdom, generous spirit, andastute intuition introduced to readers in Fargnoli’s first book with the keen observation andfree association needed to assure originality in the second collection. In addition, the poemsshow once more Fargnoli’s command of language and careful crafting of lines. The voice of the poet is reassuring and welcoming, while at the same time exhibiting vulnerability andhumility.

However, again and again, readers are repeatedly impressed by Fargnoli’s refreshing imagesof nature—the surrounding landscape and its animal inhabitants, the borders betweenwilderness and civilization, or the long course of coastline that separates the land-lockedspeakers in the poems from the vast openness of the ocean before them. Readers areparticularly rewarded with poems revealing instances and experiences where contrastingelements of different habitats meet or the distinct environments come into conflict, as well aswhen an individual resident of one world trespasses upon another. On just such occasions,Patricia Fargnoli’s poems resemble most closely similar pieces by Elizabeth Bishop. Indeed,if a poetic kinship with Fargnoli were to be determined, Elizabeth Bishop would be a primecandidate.

Marianne Moore, the nearest poetic spirit to Elizabeth Bishop, once commented in herreview of Bishop’s first book, North & South: “Elizabeth Bishop is spectacular in beingunspectacular.” Likewise, Patricia Fargnoli is at her best when a poem subtly allowsobservation of the outer world of nature to be comprehended and complemented by the innerrealizations arrived at naturally by the poet or speaker, small wisdoms by a writer with alarge spirit, rather than forced to fit some preconceived notion or manipulated by a desire toclose the poem with a clever, but unearned line. As in Bishop’s poetry, there also exists apersistent sense of loss, or fear of losing, and an elegiac feeling to many of Fargnoli’s poemsas they examine issues of illness and dying, death or absence, aging and pain, as well ashuman conflict or diminishment of nature. Similar to Bishop’s poetry, Fargnoli’s poems posequestions with an exacting clarity of purpose, yet with a consistent charity of humankindness.

Like Elizabeth Bishop recalling her own home area of New England and Nova Scotia,Patricia Fargnoli is most comfortable and at ease when delivering to readers the landscapeand shoreline of her native New England. Born in Massachusetts and raised by relatives inNova Scotia and New England, Bishop attached great emotion to geography, especially tothe settings she remembered from her childhood. Fargnoli, who lives in New Hampshire,also associates some of her speakers’ emotional states with the geographical New Englandstates and the characteristics of their landscape she knows so well. As in Bishop’s poetry,Fargnoli explores her surroundings, focusing primarily upon those features where nature andhumans, wilderness and civilization, the real and the imagined seem to blend, overlap,trespass, or intrude on one another. Jeredith Merrin has written of Bishop’s attention to“blurred boundaries”: “She seems always to have been fascinated by what occurs in theliminal state between consciousness and unconsciousness, waking and sleeping.”

In Patricia Fargnoli’s poems such a blurring of boundaries or intersection between natureand human supplies significant imagery. In “Happiness”: “The sheep wander into thedooryard and eat the grass.” In “From a Clifftop Overlooking Pigeon Island,” the speakerconfides: “The only need I have is this enclosure, this day / folding around me, / and beyondthe cliff, the sea alive with silver.” In “The Small Hurtling Bodies,” readers are made awareof the dangers in the conflict between nature and humans: . . . they hurled themselvestoward the light, their wings, their bright bodies flungthrough glass, flung at the beacon meant as warning,flung at the source itself until feathers and smashed glasssprayed out north, east, south, west.

Yet, in “Brief Encounter” the blending of human and nature contributes to a moment ofreflection: “How easily we slid through waters too slick / with swirls of reflected light / togive back our faces.” And in the lovely “Couplets by the Cove after a Hard Year,” the unionof nature and human opens an opportunity for mending:

Below my rock, the water laps in—gentle as handson a breast—bits of foam, blades of sunlight.

Dried leaves, blood brown, mend the fracturesbetween the boulders. Waves’ gravely speech.

There is healing here: poultice of salt, bandage of moss,the little enduring hips of the beach roses.

Impressively, Patricia Fargnoli surprises the reader with the multitude of emotions evokedby encounters with nature: joy, serenity, contemplation, danger, violence, awe, etc. Thevariety of incidents in nature and varied responses to them prevent predictability orboredom; instead, they preserve and present the possibilities of a fresh glimpse at therelationships between one’s self and one’s surroundings each time a new line is read.

In poems that serve as an extended metaphor for the trespassing upon nature by humans, andthe intrusion into wilderness by civilization, Fargnoli’s poetry reminds the reader of classicBishop poems such as “The Moose,” “The Armadillo,” or “The Fish.” “First Night at TheFrost Place” begins with the introduction of an unexpected visitor: “The bat veerederratically over us / on that first nervous night.” While the twelve writers continue to eatdinner, “pass the good food, / continued to reach tentatively, / stranger to stranger,” thespeaker is ever-conscious of the bat flying overhead, in and out of the shadows, “so dark, itseemed / snipped from the burlap of shadow / high in the rafters above our candlelight.”Throughout the poem, the “frantic silhouette” and tentative movements of nature’s intrudermirror the anxiety of the speaker among strangers, as the poem closes:

And, for all that society, Imight have missed it entirely—so far above us it fluttered. Seen/unseen. Seen/unseen.

The metaphor of natural uneasiness exhibited by the poet’s speaker reappears in “Evidence”(a terrific, if not quietly terrifying, poem that also hints at the influence of Robert Frost,another poet for whom the New England landscape mattered mightily), where the boundarybetween wilderness and civilization is kept in mind for fear of becoming lost outside one’s


I walked carefully, and as far in as I dared, trying to keep sight of the road and the field.

But the forest drew me into its vast density. I lost the road, the field, and all sense of direction.

By the final lines of this poem, the speaker is immersed in nature—the forest, the falling rain—and if not completely lost herself, at least alert to something becoming lost, leaving only evidence of its previous presence.

I turned in a full circle, and turned again, I saw nothing but I swear I heard some spirit go away brushing its sharp antlers against the trees.

In “The Village,” elements of nature serve as cautionary metaphor. Almost as if in reply to the sound of a carillon, when its “bell notes bounce against the winter sky,” a woodpecker taps its own beat on a nearby tree:

A woodpecker raps against the highest trunk, and what melted in yesterday’s rain has frozen into sheets of ice. Walking’s treacherous. The dangers represented by parts of nature—the cold, the ice, the broken limbs caught in branches overhead—echo the warnings in the society temporarily left behind by the poem’s speaker: “The country’s on high alert again.” Nevertheless, this rural natural landscape is home for the speaker: “Here is the life I know.” The poem closes with a vivid and ominous image of tension and foreboding that appears an appropriate commentary on the situation in nature and, even more suitably, in the civilization to which the narrator knows she must return: Above me, in the giant maple, one branch lies winter-snapped and ready to fall but for the way it’s cradled across two other limbs. One good wind could bring it down.

“The Undeniable Pressure of Existence” is perhaps the poem in Duties of the Spirit that most closely resembles Bishop’s poems about encounters with nature, conflicts between nature and civilization. This poem describes a fox caught out of its element and roaming among symbols of the human environment:

I saw the fox running by the side of the roadpast the turned-away brick faces of the condominiumspast the Citco gas station with its line of cars and trucksand he ran, limping, gaunt, matted dull haired

past Jim’s Pizza, past the Wash-O-Mat past the Thai Garden, his sides heaving like bellows and he kept running to where the interstate crossed the state road and he reached it and ran on. . .

The speaker reacts with frustration, helplessness, and sorrow: “I watched him / helpless to do anything to help him, certain he was beyond / any aid, any desire to save him . . ..” One is tempted to also remember the response by the narrator in William Stafford’s “Traveling through the Dark,” perhaps another influential work for Fargnoli. As in various Bishop poems or in Stafford’s poem, the speaker indicates a position of powerlessness, incapable of any action that would alter the outcome, nearly resigned to the consequences of various invasions of society on natural landscapes—the many extended highways and suburban malls or expanding housing developments (“the perfect / rows of split-levels, their identical driveways / their brookless and forestless yards”) slowly encroaching upon the habitat of nature’s creatures. The speaker characterizes the fox as “out of his element, sick, panting, starving, / his eyes fixed on some point ahead of him.” How does one interpret that gaze: what might that point of focus be? Fargnoli’s narrator suggests the animal is staring ahead, seeking “some possible salvation / in all this hopelessness, that only he could see.” Such a final line implies that the speaker cannot share the suspicion that a salvation exists anywhere ahead. Instead, Fargnoli emphasizes the far more limited vision of humans, just as she does in “Small Wisdoms”: “The stars continue as far as we know, / as far as we can see, and as far as we can’t.

As in Bishop’s works, an elegiac tone filters through much of Fargnoli’s poetry, and in this case it applies to her sadness over the steady loss of natural settings crowded out by suburban sprawl and the accompanying rapid rate of new construction of highways with roadside shopping malls. However, Bishop’s poetry also contains an ongoing concern with vulnerability and a fear of losing those closest to her. Similarly, the sense of an overall elegiac theme in Fargnoli’s poetry extends to mourning the absence of loved ones lost to death or the increasing importance of acknowledging one’s own mortality as aging occurs. Often, Fargnoli combines her considerable descriptive gift, especially in communicating the transition of seasons and the progression of changes during the natural life-to-death cycles of time, with a poignant meditative note on personal vulnerability and the aging process. In “Talking to Myself in This Late Year,” Fargnoli records:

Even in the second week of September, the sea enamels itself with a brilliance that comes from the start of cold weather.

Where did youth go? Not to mention marriage and motherhood.

She reports an awareness of death and its influence on her has been consistent for many years: “When my parents died, / the aunts pretended nothing had happened. / What could not be spoken / was held in the muscles and flesh of my body” [“If Too Much Has Happened”]. Readers discover more of Fargnoli’s meditation on the temporality of life in “The Last Day,

where an April morning is perfectly pictured (“the sun has risen / to vibrate three inches above the mountain / and light shimmies along three wires looped / from the tall trunk of the pine to the house”). Nevertheless, while “one bird sings the sweetest notes into being,Fargnoli questions and laments the fleeting passage of time: “Stalks are rising—exploding in yellow / in last year’s garden and one ladybug climbs / the screen—as if it had all the time in the world.

“Arguing Life for Life” is a remarkable poem that draws upon Fargnoli’s professional background as a psychotherapist and begins with the following startling lines: “Today in my office someone wanted to die / and I said No.” The piece transforms into a self-examination as the speaker confronts her own concern and consternation about mortality, closing with two moving stanzas:

I leaned back, let my hands fall; both of us were tired of pain and loss tallied week after week.

He didn’t know how sometimes I stand at my bedroom window looking out where the steeple lifts over the town, wondering what is left to tether me to the earth. We sat a long time in silence.

Fortunately for readers, Fargnoli’s frequent times in silence allow for moments of contemplation and writing on important issues of life and death, joy and sorrow, contributions and loss, nature and the natural flow of living a life filled with a large spirit. In the title poem of this collection, Fargnoli remarks upon Thorton Wilder’s “duties of the spirit.” According to Wilder, the first duty is “joy” and the second is “serenity.” Fargnoli suggests the third duty must be “grief,” which “comes bending on his walking stick / holding a trowel to dig where the loves have gone.

However, Fargnoli concludes the poem not with a final note of sadness, but with another small wisdom that reaffirms the value of living despite the temporality of life or happiness and the eventual stage of grief, reminding readers: “the first is slippery joy.” Consequently, Fargnoli’s poetry provides readers with another source of just such a spirit of joy in living and a small wisdom of the ages that appears to advise grasping life to the fullest extent while we can with an awareness of the natural beauty around us, and she presents readers with poems that counsel a total appreciation for the people and places we experience in the brief time we are granted.