There’s no ignoring the body, whether in the form of “a cough that was odd,” “a callus ripped open,” or “a peach pit wet and red as the cancer they’ve removed.” Fred Marchant records these physical moments in his latest book, Said Not Said, illuminating the ways in which they mark time and accumulate into a narrative at once highly personal and shared. Ever a realist, Marchant provides no simple equation of cause and resolution, instead charting the jagged incursions of past into present and the distant into the intimate with imagery as worldly familiar as the “wet gravel paths we turn and face each other on.” In poems that peer closely at the myelin that sheathes our nerves and gaze far across continents to the aftermath of an assassination on a street in Jenin or a war memorial in Vietnam, the poet begins with his own body and moves outward, confronting loss, yes, but also inviting forgiveness, “a listening as deep and real as breathing.”
The book opens with what might be for Marchant an original loss, that of his sister, who for forty years until her death was institutionalized, due to schizophrenia, at the Howard State Hospital in Rhode Island (“her own red brick How and her wherefore Ward”). In “The Unacceptable,” a four-part poem detailing his sister’s life and illness, Marchant tells of first hearing the strange “cough” that presaged her decline during their grandfather’s funeral: “I think now it was the sound of what was eating away my sister’s mind.” Even in memory, the body and mind intertwine, but Marchant’s admission in the following line reveals the true source of the sting: “I was seven and thought she should just quit it, stop bothering me, and everyone.” Grief and self-recrimination are clear here, but also sympathy for that young child who chooses to be annoyed—a more familiar, and perhaps therefore comforting, emotion—rather than afraid for his big sister, who is, after all, committing the “unacceptable” act of interrupting not only their grandfather’s ceremony, but all of their lives.
Notice how we let ourselves look away, Marchant seems to be saying, even as he scrutinizes his own past self—the once annual Christmas visits with his father to Howard to bring his sister “some CVS shampoo” and chocolates, and the paltry hour spent with her in the hospital parking lot, “engine idling, the heat on.” “I helped her board the windows, / spit in the dresser, shut the gate,” he admits in “Cement Mixer,” a poem that juxtaposes the false gaiety of the Howard patients singing along to a jazz tune from the 1930s (“Cement mixer, put-ti, put-ti”) with the very idea of “Asylum, refuge, sanctuary / red brick palace of peeling paint.”
But perhaps in looking away, we sometimes see more clearly. In “The Name of the Painting,” we find Marchant listening to a museum docent’s studious exposition of Titian’s “Europa.” The docent carefully notes the painting’s “tornado / of unfinished diagonals,” crediting the painter with “inventing the modern,” disregarding Europa’s “face…filled with palpable fear” and “her nakedness” to blandly observe that her swirling red scarf “hints at ambivalence.” The painting’s full name is, of course, “The Rape of Europa,” and Marchant suddenly recognizes the stolen girl, “her eyes turning into dots of terror” as the bull carries her away:
I am seeing my sister again, how her madness descended
or rose up beneath her, took her beyond known islands,
washed her up in a geri-chair, delivered her to the shore
of a bright-lit dayroom where the whiteboard waited for
a nurse with a thick magic marker to fill in the blank
Sharp as “a fishbone lodged in your throat,” these revelations will continue, Marchant promises, but he is not interested in the impulse to “discern meaning” when faced with such calamitous knowledge, asking instead “Now what do you do?” What do we do when we open our laptops to news of a Jewish-Arab theater director shot dead in his car in Jenin? How do we look “below the fold” of our morning paper to a picture of “someone in Benghazi” using a hose to “wipe down a corpse” and continue with daily life? But even this question implies choice, a concept about which the poet remains dubious. More plausible seem the words of Marwan, an Arab translator Marchant meets in Israel, who advises “the only work left / is to read the olive trees.” In lines that indent and wind down the page, Marchant provides a visual echo of the trunks of these trees, capturing the fragmentary yet intertwined nature of human knowledge and communication, ending with the untranslatable name of “a wind that scorches the air / makes it impossible to breathe.”
Perhaps some griefs are untranslatable, existing beyond language. “I am pretty sure that I would have died here,” Marchant states in “Quang Tri Elegy,” and then “I’m pretty sure that I would have killed here.” After volunteering as an officer for the Vietnam War and then leaving the war as a conscientious objector before seeing combat, he is standing, nearly fifty years later, in a military graveyard in what was once the northernmost province of South Vietnam. It is unclear which of these two actions, death or murder, would have been the greater tragedy—Marchant’s parallel syntax suggests neither and the bluntness of his diction undercuts any possibility of romanticization—but again his body leads the way to recognition: “all my pliable / inner organs bowing with a sorrow I barely / know I have.”
Marchant, who has long been affiliated with the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, has been here before, both in person (he is in Quang Tri with a group of fellow Vietnam vets from both sides of the conflict to promote reconciliation and friendship) and on the page. But the memories and images he unearths never feel flattened into useful anecdote; if anything, they are sharpened by the context in which Marchant re-encounters them. Witness the aforementioned ripped callus—“the palm a mess of blood, skin, rope-hair”—which Marchant recalls, in “Quitter’s Rose,” after catching a glimpse of the military obstacle course at the San Diego recruit depot from the window of his plane as it taxis down a nearby runway. He is immediately brought back to the decades-before day on which, as a young man beginning a very different journey, he attempted such a course:
how much this was a failure of character,
but when I landed unhurt in the sawdust
I felt giddy with relief, as if I’d come
back alive, maybe even won a medal.
your inspected and
guaranteed to be
turns you into an
infant who is glad
the mother from
whose stomach he
sprang is no longer
among the living
and cannot witness
or ease his shame.
The unzippered form of the poem both prolongs the excruciating moment and demonstrates the dual consciousness one must enact in order to endure this type of arbitrary, institutionalized humiliation. Marchant’s use of pronouns is canny here—the repeated “you” and “your” implicating any and all of us at any and every border before devolving into that final, lonely “his.” Likewise, his mention of “the mother” recalls his sister back at Howard (an institution designed, as those operating the above “checkpoint” would surely claim, to protect us), where Marchant watched her dehumanization as “the nurses tied her / wrists to the bedrail” on “her last day on the planet.”
Where and who are we here? The oppressor or the oppressed? The immoral or the just? The healthy or the infirm? And how quickly the tables may turn. Marchant’s ability and willingness to inhabit all of these possibilities and, crucially, to invite us to join him without judgment is the great strength of this collection, allowing us to follow and trust the voice recounting, in the book’s title poem, “our flimsy white truths, what I believed in.”
Ultimately, the ailing body Marchant must confront is his own, “growing aged, wrinkled, hard” like the chestnuts with which he and his friends waged childhood battles. This is a lesson in the poet’s characteristic humility and wit: “In my opened, bare-assed johnny I am meeting up again / with you my aging trunk, wayward traveling companion, / old trading buddy, fat winter sleeping bag I carry with me.” But it is also, in Whitmanian fashion, an exercise in devotion: “years since we met, when I first cut in, and asked for a kiss.” Such investigations into mortality lead, perhaps inevitably, to elegy, as in the poem “Fennel,” dedicated to the late Seamus Heaney, also a poet of strife and memory. Marchant speculates that “At the end maybe you were thinking / of Whitman and his claim that dying / was luckier than we had supposed.” But he quickly and forcibly rejects such panaceas—“Or not. Or not.” Marchant has seen, and offered us, too many examples of the brutality of loss to accept easy consolation.
This is not the first mention of fennel in the book; a few pages earlier, in “The Migrants,” we met Prometheus carrying his stolen fire, according to Hesiod, “in a tall hollow stalk” of the plant, as he walks alongside a group of contemporary refugees carrying “backpacks, black plastic garbage bags, food sacks” through an unnamed mountain range:
a mother who held her infant before her the same way
he held the stalk that carried the embers he had stolen.
He noted dry myrtle along the side of the road,
and saw a ground that seemed soft enough for them to sleep on.
Here, perhaps, is a more practical means of contemplating the quotidian devastation Marchant recounts, one that offers no grand solutions but instead a vision of a comfort shared—like that “chocolate interlude” with his sister in the Howard parking lot or the “children playing in a corner of the yard” on the road back from the graveyard in Quang Tri—as a means of keeping going despite, or because of, what we know: “There would be at least this much tonight, twigs for a fire, perhaps / water for tea, some warmth in the morning.”