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Kink or Worship or Both: Megan Fernandes’ “I Do Everything I’m Told”

Bianca Berg

“In invoking (and sometimes tweaking) cherished predecessors, this gently impious collection also helps refurbish form.”

Megan Fernandes is a highly literate poet who wears her erudition lightly. When she references other poets, one senses she has read them with attention and is not just name-dropping. Brooks, Rilke, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Carson, Eliot, Pound, Brodsky, O’Hara, Ginsberg show up in her epigraphs and poems, like former neighbors, wittily pranked, held hostage for homage. Whether she venerates or disrespects in the manner of a stand-up comic, there is a sense of tradition lurking in poems that often deliberately stage themselves as loosey-goosey improvisations out of her “neurotic,” smart-aleck, ultimately self-effacing psyche. She is Sarah Silverman if she were a poet, her confidence, nay, bravado, directly preceding a self-putdown, from which she always miraculously and instantaneously recovers.

In his seminal 1973 work The Anxiety of Influence, about how poets break through the stranglehold of their predecessors to be able to focus on their own invention, Harold Bloom writes:

“The great pastoral elegies, indeed, all major elegies for poets, do not express grief but center upon their compositions’ creative anxieties. They offer therefore as consolation their own ambitions.”

And ambitious this writer is. Yet when the persona of Fernandes’ poems gets anxious enough to invoke a predecessor, the purpose seems more related to immediate consolation than future glory. In the winsomely melancholy “I’m Smarter Than This Feeling, But Am I?” the Fernandes-equivalent speaker goes down low, as she often does in one way or another, courting the vulgar, which has a way of becoming a portal to the sublime.

“I watch your film about fisting: orifice as a cave

as grave, as starlit wormhole dug in space.”

Before we have time to be put off, we are trapped in an elegy foretold, where the source of life is paradoxically figured as the physical site where the dead go—not without an incongruent stellar mystery. As the two partygoers discuss the film’s personal implications, Frank O’Hara, that wastrel wizard of the word, is invoked.

“You want what O’Hara wanted, I think, which is a kind of boundlessness

That won’t kill anyone. Edging. You don’t believe in bodies.

Everyone is dust, condensed by circumstances.

You see what I was before I was a was. An am.

What’s your thing with smut? I ask.

You say it’s not smut, it’s a love story.

To be taken apart is as important as being put together.

Near-annihilation reminds you of a limit

And ask yourself, who do you trust at your limit?”

Fernandes is not competing with O’Hara. He is not an obstacle to her self-creation. He is a representative case of the parallel she is looking for in order to understand her friend’s fascination with fisting, which she parlays into a metaphysical reflection on the nature of death and how one gets “condensed by circumstances.” Her own writing, here and elsewhere, resembles O’Hara’s, with its casual diction, its conversational style, its “throwaway” phrases that explode in a corner of the room, causing collateral damage. (viz O’Hara: “Curiosity, the passionate hand of desire. Dead,/or sleeping? Is there speed enough?”) Heavy end-stops make sense here, mirroring the duo’s intimate talk while an inconsequential party is going on around them. They are Orpheus and Eurydice, or maybe Rick Blaine and Ilsa Lund at the bar in Casablanca, knowing they are self-dramatizing as they bat around the Big Questions, but not caring. Thus, O’Hara is a reference well played, an influence who fits Fernandes’ staged anxiety.

“Pound and Brodsky in Venice” continues this controlled flirtation with the anxiety and consolation of influence, this time in an actual cemetery. It commences thus:

“I don’t even dig Pound. But in a sunk cemetery in a sinking city

poets stick together. Brodsky is buried two feet way and for him

 

I leave an MTA card and a wild daisy, mutter about the metaphors

of transit, tell him how last night, with my feet dangling off the shoreline,

 

I watched a boat bob an emerald wave.”

Less seems at stake here, and when the poet-speaker refers to herself as a “checklist of risk,” it sounds a bit like lazy bragging while in a comfortable spot. The “I don’t dig” is a negligible diss, a shrug, neither strongly for nor against. The putative payoff comes rather when she decides to spray the insecticide she brought on both graves, to kill weeds and leave the headstones visible.

“There have been no visitors

for a long while so I spray for bugs and the poisoned mist carries

 

over the dead. It is improper and a little funny and I say to myself,

‘Stop spraying shit all over the poets.’ Even this fascist one.”

In this poem, a lesser effort that feels as if scribbled in a notebook, Fernandes nevertheless completes the elegiac gesture, albeit comically and by means of self-rebuke. Her poet-predecessors feel like dead uncles, one she was fond of, one not so much, albeit neither left a mark on her writing. Nevertheless, Fernandes strives for uplift and closure.

“Above, gulls chat and the cattle stars graze the sky. And at my eyeline,

Insects stumble downwards, graceless, like unpardoned angels.”

One wishes there were a less slender frame on which to hang this somewhat empty gesture of sudden apotheosis. The lack of an external point of reference (for Brodsky, it might be Russian culture in its historical dimension, e.g., “… and when ‘the future’ is uttered, swarms of mice/rush out of the Russian language and gnaw a piece/of ripened memory which is twice/as hole ridden as real cheese”) creates a rhapsodic fallacy, in which the suddenness and speed of isolated personal ecstasy leaves us bereft of genuine insight. In this case, the “unpardoned angels” are only a melodramatic gesture deracinated from any larger understanding of why the poet is “less of a coward/than I was a year ago. Now, I am a checklist of risk.” These phrases offer the empty bravado of cemetery self-confession, without any real disclosure or elegiac grandeur to dignify the moment or redeem the closing image of dying mosquitos as “unpardoned angels.”

As is doubtless true in some measure of all poets, this one’s strength is her weakness: in her case, keeping things small, personal, borderline autobiographical. Her relentless self-obsession is softened by her playfulness, her wit, and her overworked talent for self-effacement. At times like this, I found myself wishing she really could, in form and style, draw less mercurially from more of the mentioned poets, perhaps assuming different personae within the nexus of her half-candid “I” and connecting us to some larger scene, whether historical, political, or metaphysical. That is the endemic danger and limitation of verse having gone free and personal over the past 70 years, a legacy that despite much experimentation, modern poets have not yet resolved.

Yet Fernandes offers hope in another quarter. The centerpiece of this accomplished volume, a crown of sonnets, shows a poet interested not only in rubbing metaphorical elbows with deceased poets, but engaging in a reconsideration of historical form. The sonnet has been under constant renovation since its popularization by Petrarch in the 14th century. It has proved durable as well as adaptable to different cultural traditions, as evidenced in the recent release of the landmark anthology The American Sonnet, which puts a special emphasis on the development of an African-American sonnet tradition beginning in the 19th century. Fernandes is at her best in the cycle “Sonnets of the False Beloveds with One Exception OR Repetition Compulsion.” The usual moues are turned to theater masks. Each of the nine sonnets is set in a different world location—Lisbon, Brooklyn, Los Angeles—until we arrive at the final two: “Wandering Sonnet” and “Diaspora Sonnet.”

The strategy is facing page, the left page written in the traditional 14 lines, albeit without rhyme or conventional meter. It could be described as marshaled free verse, a choice which in various ways is reflected in a given poem’s content, e.g., “Los Angeles Sonnet,” about sexual role playing, beginning with the line “In love, the rules are meant to be broken.” The off-kilter sonnet continues to reflect the awkwardness of the situation between the pretend babysitter and the pretend dad who works at a geophysical mining plant: “Your struggle to be convincing/as a fake engineer, which has nothing/to do with our script or this dumb city.”

On the right-hand page, selected words from the sonnet are exploded in the bottom right corner in a visual bomb or constellation: “and/character/and/things/I’m coy/ask/to be convincing,” etc. using the technique of poetic erasure. This method sets up a counter-poem for each sonnet, partly indeterminate, partly a meta-text or gloss on the original, offering an interpretive tease. Experimentation can be tedious when it is executed in too arid or cerebral a manner. But Fernandes consistently displays the puckish playfulness of the best of the historical avant-garde, which took itself seriously by not taking itself too seriously. I found myself lingering over these exploded secondary poems as if working a crossword puzzle at my favorite diner while waiting for the food to arrive. The answer mattered less than the enjoyment of problem solving.

The wandering sonnet gathers lines from the previous seven to produce an uber-sonnet:

“The crudest person we love is the first.

Bad weather is a gift. Rain gathers in.

Nobody tells you how to raise a dark child.

What is worse than an actress no one believed?”

Its polyvalence is fecund, feels pleasingly suggestive even in its disjunction, inviting us to put the pieces together into a unified meaning, hearkening back to the themes of each of the seven geographical sonnets, making the cycle into a crown. The diaspora sonnet pushes the proposition further in its final leap, taking language from the entire cycle, gathering it at will into 14 final long lines, with a devil-may-care attitude about this seemingly reckless semiosis, which nevertheless arrives at a strange apotheosis, not only of the crown, but of the book as such. It sends us back to such lines as “To be taken apart is as important as being put together.” The sensation is like walking past a wooden fence in a bad neighborhood with narrow gaps between the slats, trying to descry the full picture of a vacated children’s park on the other side.

“I cast mostly, don’t take it blue, it could be a drag twilight,

Everyone forgets when a sky rains and you neglect, neglect and nothing

Is sacred, ready your feet smile like a pink other, more bridges, chicken,

All that fast time, did you know like I know, who breaks and character.”

That is followed by two pages of two-word “floating” verb phrases, e.g., “I love,” “we drag,” “you smile,” which constitute a spot summary of a series of love affairs in various cities. The poet is stripping down the theme of love, and the hallowed genre of love poetry itself, to its essentials.

This heady experiment ends halfway through the book. Not coincidentally, the book as a whole ends with a composition simply titled “Love Poem.” (“Sometimes I wonder if I would know a beautiful thing/If I saw it.”) And it concludes with this line:

“Yes. It was joy, wasn’t it? Even if it was ugly, it was joy.”

The subtle architecture of the innocuously, deliberately disingenuously titled I Do Everything I’m Told (which as easily could have been titled I Do Everything I Want) is to be lauded. In invoking (and sometimes tweaking) cherished predecessors, this gently impious collection also helps refurbish form. In the title poem, which comes near the book’s end, the final couplet provides a fitting gloss on the dual nature of love and desire explored on every page.

I do everything I’m told, and can’t tell

What is kink or worship or both.

Johnny Payne is the arts editor at Merion West. Johnny is a poet, novelist, playwright, and essayist. He has worked extensively in Latin American Studies, especially literature under dictatorship and Quechua oral tradition. He directs the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Mount Saint Mary’s University, Los Angeles. He earned his doctorate from Stanford University.

Johnny Payne is the arts editor at Merion West. Johnny is a poet, novelist, playwright, and essayist. He has worked extensively in Latin American Studies, especially literature under dictatorship and Quechua oral tradition. He directs the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Mount Saint Mary’s University, Los Angeles. He earned his doctorate from Stanford University. Contact Johnny at johnny@merionwest.com.

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