A look back at Molly Fisk's The More Difficult Beauty
By Jane C. Miller
Hip Pocket Press (2010)
Molly Fisk’s poetry collection is an intimate reckoning with abuse, and a call to embrace The More Difficult Beauty needed to survive as we age. Abuse is a language of silence. Fisk fills it with words tender and brutal, that warm us as they warn us of power’s ability to corrupt one and all. Here, memories, nature and war enact abuse and the hunger it breeds for safety, acceptance and love. Her poems in eight sections, click together like beads on an abacus, stunning us with her craftsmanship, compassion, and clarity.
Settings diverse as New York, Joe’s Taco Lounge and the Mekong Delta give the book a generous geography and time span. But it is through close observation that Fisk makes the small large and the large small. Epiphanies lie in the details, where the “swooping A” on a place card in “Forced Narcissus” gives us the opulent chill of a family dining room, where “if anyone spoke: the lace/veil of conversation.” Antoinette, for whom the book is dedicated, is her mother. When Fisk also declares, “what we name/belongs to us,” she invites her readers and the burdens they carry to the table.
Multiple points of view enable Fisk to speak for many as she keeps us distant or pull us close. “Women at Forty” facing a world’s indifference see “the spaces/between things…widening inside their bodies.” But in “Little Songs for Antoinette,” as she holds her tumor-ridden mother over the toilet, Fisk contemplates the man she will dine and sleep with later, knowing “my tongue against his throat spells her name.” Even with sex as a diversion, she cannot escape her mother’s pain or her own. Later, in “What to Wear,” that pain gives way to frank appraisal. Standing naked before a mirror, a recurring motif, “You look at yourself boldly, the way he would/from all angles.” This is new territory and you are in it.
But unveiling requires concealment. Fisk layers lists and description in service to revelation and metaphor. In “First Winter,” a young couple scrapes “calico/layers of wallpaper off a kitchen ceiling.” Fisk warns us “They don’t know how hard it will be”:
until their shoulders ache, through decades
of paper, past all the college blue books, diaphragms
and operettas, past the damp palms of high school dances,
the caught frogs and molding petri dishes of third grade
to the smiles of their exhausted mothers...
She startles us with turns that force us to reconsider what we know. Benign objects take on heft. “Eulogy for Junior Mints” reflects the emptiness from abuse a mother and daughter hunger to fill. In “Daughters,” as a child focuses “to block/sensation out: smell of his skin, deep voice/humming, the thump of his body against me,” an open door frames her mother watching a grandfather’s abuse and walking away. In “Candy Bar Tutorial,” the repetition of “Baby Ruth, Mounds, Big Hunk, Milky Way, Bit O’Honey” establish the frequency of bribery and abuse that she takes.
Fisk responds with rage controlled as it precise. In “Pantoum Without Hope of Rescue,” she uses this form’s repetition to draw us into a metaphor of familial abuse and keep us there. She begins, “This time, it’s both of them,” and by the fourth line, she states, “If this upsets you, by all means turn away.” But we can no more turn away than the child in this tableau, pinioned by language so coldly matter-of-fact, it could be a pantoum written by the ceiling. Is it a coincidence that this poem contains three people and just three multi-syllable words: abstraction, expensive and invisible? So skilled is Fisk that these intangibles allow us respite to proceed through this horror that repeats across generations.
Learning to speak up and forgive takes time. “Because the Past Is Just Another Neighborhood,” launches from a thirty-year-old photo and ends with her in a ’53 Chevy rattling off to college, “Teach Your Children,” blaring on the radio. There is a breezy affect to this one-sentence prose poem, but for the refrain we don’t hear: “their father’s hell will slowly go by.”
But as healing begins, and “Casual Sex” becomes something more, narrative and color shift from a bloody show to lyric bounty. In “The Color of Apricots,” Monarch wings applaud nature’s bounty as “Missing him, suddenly” makes the leap where roadside flowers that bloom in a “two-week window” exactly match “the insistent yellow” of the centerline.”
Here beauty inhabits language made vulnerable by the striving for love. Fisk cries for the man she met by chance who survived a catastrophic fall in “Kindness.” The poem begins in media res and contains two sentences, one in the first two couplets, the other a spillway in seven couplets to a singleton that describe him, his resurrection, and hers through love. This coupling of dependent and independent clauses gives a satisfying propulsion as it expands what a poem can contain. Anaphora has the opposite effect in The October Garden where a lover wants to stall time even as she recognizes its drift. It begins, “If you were a zinnia, still bright/in the October garden and I the last/orange cosmos.” These conditionals that continue for 21 more lines, subverted by nature’s decline when the speaker mourns, “oh, if only I were sometimes/you and you were me.”
In “Poem for the Rest of Us,” beauty is more evident in the everyday, “lifting a stack of dessert plates/to the top shelf…cocking a hip/ to stop… a screen door.” Yet beyond the mundane lies beauty’s gorgeous urgency: “In the angle of wrist when you palm his chin and lean/in for the kiss. In the softness of lip against hungry lip.” Fisk’s hard work enables us to celebrate with her the sensual as she learns to give and forgive.
We can celebrate because this journey to reconciliation is not just hers, but ours. Conveyed as commandments, Fisk tells us near the book’s end that How to Be Lonely is to accept the dark:
Appreciate the more difficult beauty:
underside of the leaf, back of the fabric.
Her book is our roadmap to understanding truth’s unvarnished beauty, so when she declares in “It’s All Poetic” that “There’s a loveliness in every ruined thing,” we believe her. As her book cover shows, flowers find a way to bloom through broken tiles. How fortunate that she has shared this beauty with us.