Fearn by Linda Dove
Cooper Dillon Books, 2019
37 pages / CDB
A quick search on the title of Fearn tells me we are going into a land of letters, and trees. The references also point to the need for heart protection. A scan of the contents (the unvarying repetition of “Fear Is…” followed by unexpected metaphors) warns that we’re going deep. These signs at the beginning of Dove’s collection prove true; what we may not appreciate at the start, however, is how fascinating, unsettling, and utterly absorbing this exploration will be.
The collection is a container, for (“It/is safer to look at fear in a box”), and each poem promises in its title to keep us well supplied along each possible path with a goal and a series of “short object(ive)s” so we don’t get too lost, or burned. We are advised from the beginning “to pull fox-/gloves over [our] hands like suits of petals,” to mind the holes and keep our feet out of the empty buckets that “beg for meaning.” There are lots of maps, and machines, for guidance.
Keeping cover is important, as is staying in motion, relying on bespoke verbs as needed (frankensteins, lilacking), to make staircases as we go. There are explicit threats (“this poem could turn… at any moment”), as well as frequent implications of imminent loss. Knowing Dove’s other work well, I was not surprised to find gripping allusions to Elizabeth Bishop and especially to “The Fish,” as we descend into “tricks of the eyes” through multiplicities of looking selves, many I’s pointing at fear. The speaker of each poem is discrete yet also connected through time and space to every other speaker in the collection. We are encouraged to see poets as bees “inventing their lives from scratch/making a home with their mouths,” sometimes as wolves, “standing on the edge of everything,” or turning ponied words into camels at a fair, into sacred signifiers of difference that can see above ordinary everythings. Dove’s Dickinsonian dashes remind us to keep meanings in suspension. But always, utilizing her “own accusative tense,” she keeps us pointed at direct objects.
Guided well, we do learn as readers to start filling in the gaps. In “Fear Is a Bird-Verb like to Parrot,” we supply the missing letters, so that owl becomes howl, and egret regret. We gain confidence that we will be piloted, despite agoraphobia among the adjacent panes of glass as the poems progressively emerge, “offering… a grid,/tiny muntins/that mean your eye/will not fall/unbound/into that largeness,” for “at any time, it may unzip…open/to the place/inside the place/where we live.” Fear floats on many reflective surfaces throughout Fearn, never fully grounded, and never easy to locate. Perhaps this disorientation is deliberate: one of the implicit fears seems to be being re(a)d, but there are so many mouths, beaks, and tongues in the poems, and speaking out is framed as imperative: “words that you must say out loud – or die –“. We are reminded that our ordinary and usual ways of reading do not always apply and are urged to find new eyes (“green…does not stand for envy in this poem”). Fear merely “appears new” but is always replicating itself, and a desolate pre-occupation with reproduction and derivation always seems just below the surface.
It is only when we have navigated the first half of the collection and shown we can gauge what lies between the “fake bears” do we earn the knowing of Fearn’s speaker(s) more personally, and move from the aching aesthetic pleasures of lines like “skinny and liable to snap/in two like matches that line up/for their chance to burn” to the more intimate and devastating compromises built up by the enforcements of time. The same age as Dove, I find her takes on love and aging hit hard, not because she is cynical but because her skilled hands expose deep roots of stubborn hope growing right beside habitual mistrust: “Trust may be a green chain/ready to give, a late spring, a season we thought we knew.” The relationship poems are disturbing in their deceptive lightness and grim honesty: “You are not a love letter, either,/or a dance…” and “You were probably the one.” Never has “probably” sounded so poignant and so resigned all at once. “This world is not made to be an orchard,” she deadpans, “to pay as you pick.” Even when the poems seem more personal, it remains a literally elemental journey of wood, water, earth, and metal; like fearn, its references stay ancient. The one stark reference to cyber life (“We’re all Facebook friends”) crashes us deliberately down to earth in a late poem about the fragility of light in interstellar space, at a moment when the speaker “lose[s] sight of the sky, the mountains and their far side,/covered in conifers and rain.”
As we approach the end, with losses accrued, we hear how the speaker feels she has KonMaried her life too assiduously; she “didn’t trust accumulation,” and in “Fear Is the Creep of Body away from You,” likens the “calcifications” of time to a cancer, and even while keeping too many carefully packed boxes for no one to look through, she also indulges her desire to “cut it all out.” Such culling
…felt like contrition but also
like tossing beads at Mardi Gras, over
and over, as fast as you can, away, away
to all those grabbing hands. I couldn’t
get rid of it quick enough, and now
it haunts me.
It does not shock us, then, that the last poem is full of empty corners and cut lines, and the fear of large spaces is faced; like it or not, we “Swirl” through questions. At the beginning of Fearn, fear is the key, a definite comparison. By the last poem, we understand fear to have metastasized, to have become indefinite and everywhere, and we have taken several of many possible paths to arrive at an envoi that is only one of several possible haunting conclusions.
We know that with enough time, we will experience all kinds of weather. Fearn takes us into the inherently uncertain climate of our own selves, at a time when storms have already past, and the sun shines, or not, meaning something only when it comes, not from God in the sky but appositely, in a dog’s mouth. We end up on the hook for knowing (if not for the first time then certainly in an intensely intimate new way) our fears, and how and whether, or not, we live with them.
Tara Hart, Ph.D., was awarded a Pushcart Prize for Poetry in 2011 for “Patronized” (Little Patuxent Review). She has a chapbook entitled “The Colors of Absence” and several poems in to linger on hot coals: collected poetic works from grieving women writers. Other poems have appeared in TriQuarterly, Welter, and The Muse. She is a Professor of English, Department Chair of Humanities, and Coordinator of Creative Writing at Howard Community College in Maryland, and is Co-Chair of the Board of Directors of HoCoPoLitSo (the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society). She has served as a host of HoCoPoLitSo’s TV show The Writing Life in “A Literary Gathering of Women: The Craft of Writing” and “A Literary Gathering of Women: Exploring Themes in Literature.” Her chapter, “Still Points: Mary Austin’s Compositions and Explanations” is published in Exploring Lost Borders: Critical Essays on Mary Austin, University of Nevada Press.