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Sensing the Unseen in Thalia Field's Incarnate: Story Material

Dec. 16, 2004

The title Thalia Field has given her new book, Incarnate: Story Material, seems especially poignant, considering that those who have come to admire her work have been anxiously awaiting this publication. The name suggests the incipient nature of story material, of what takes place during prewriting, of what materializes before the story. For Field fans, the title suggests the reincarnation of Field’s writing. This book shares many themes with her first book, Point and Line (2000): the knowledge of self, the private self vs. the public self, the fear of the self, the fear of the abundance of life, the fear of strangers, the interconnectedness among the living and the dead, the burden of history and of personal history, and the desire to tame and map all of these within the self.

Incarnate: Story Material by Thalia Field

New Directions Publishing, October 2004

Formally, this book is easily recognized as a Field book; it crosses genres and, just when you think it is taming itself, refuses to behave. The book reveals a myriad of forms: poetry that leaves gaps between words, words that spill out like loose beads, blocks of prose, dramatic forms and even, as is the case with “Seven Veils” in Point and Line, a poem that is printed sideways on the page.

The book opens with “Autocartography,” which, as the title suggests, is a yearning to map the physical and metaphysical selves. The stanzas begin with the directive “make”: “Make A Laundry List of This,” “a Wake of This,” “Make a Point of This,” “Make a Video Game,” “Make a Time Line of This,” “Make a Rhetorical Flourish” and so on. The poem—grafting elements of the lyric, of history, of technological and scientific progress and of geography—identifies “Thalia Field” as a point that too must be found, mapped and probed:

Make a Drive-In Movie the result of autobiographical plateau abundant and empty Thalia field devastated by tornado for many seasons an economic overevent _____resigned to remain fallow _____until Thalia field nationally ___________rebounds as a major helium reserve in the 1950’s Make a Delayed Reaction to This

This poem playfully suggests the use of Internet search engines to find information, slyly poking a humorous finger toward the search phenomenon: “enter / woolly mammoth or / in quotations / ‘thalia field’.” In other lines, we read “return” and “space,” suggesting that in our new world the keyboard and Internet have replaced traditional instruments of cartography. What the poem arrives at is “an overabundance of existence,” and this overabundance spills across the remainder of the book: everything presents itself as story material; everything begins to become incarnate.

In “Sweat,” Field continues her journey into landscapes, presenting the reader with some clues of where she locates herself in the poem: a house, hills, a road, a meadow, mountains. These we can recognize, but then we are quickly transferred to a landscape of the unexpected, where “the fever in the moon swells the last frogs.” Many of the other lines in this poem are equally lovely. Again, there are suggestions of the incipient nature of one’s surroundings: “And somewhere on the horizon a Man-of-action cut out puppeted from where actions are sewn nearly together.” The Man-of-action is a strange, mysterious character who is “[a]ll lines, all motivation, all movie”—an embodiment of Field’s cinematic landscapes and her love of action and dialogue. In this poem, I am grateful that the journey includes “an attic of quotations,” “the bad word she looks virgin upon,” “meadows” that “firm up the fallen mountain doorway” and “mist” that “enters the frenzy of firewood and ignites the changing.”

The title poem, “Incarnate,” also concerns itself with the dizzying “overabundance of existence”: “to overcome / saying 44,435,556 names.” This is a poem with Demons, devils and a possessed “sparkling teenage girl.” (This combination alone should motivate anyone to read the book.) It is a scary, dark poem, and one wonders just how Field could face “44,435,556 different devils” and return with the story material with which to incarnate them.

Following “Incarnate” is the other half of the title poem, “Story Material,” which is printed sideways. “Story Material” challenges epic journeys, in particular The Odyssey, in inventive language that sends the reader to islands of sensory dream moments:

As a word homes in,__blocking passage__smooth as wet glass, licked the tongue that greets__the traveler__or membranes, the mouth goblet biting the lips, or sucking death from corpses:__dirt-tinged liquids, ___minerals

A single drop falls_Spreads inflection_Soaks the neutral sand with colors
Appearing folding in__concealing, my army eaten__as Dawn, once called
“rosy fingered”_fucks them _nameless “one for all”;_A dream Nobody ___came?

These lines return to the themes of the fear of self, the fear of loneliness and naming. To journey through Field’s universe is to enter surprising poetic and lyric terrain. For example, “Feeling Into Motion” is a beautiful and unexpected lyric essay on Alaska that leaves the reader on the moon.

The well-versed “Zoologic,” the book’s final piece, beautifully demonstrates Field’s mastery of playwriting. Here we get a blackout just after “lights up”; however, the reader should note that the “BLACKOUT” is “(well lit).” In this piece, as in others, there is the fear of the self, of individual lives pitted against the infinite well of life and death: “at the end of individuals: (individuals!).” The characters, as well as the scenes, are surprising, so I won’t spoil the story for the reader. Despite the colourful and circuslike cast and scenery, the poem is dark and haunting:

_____Tessella! I am this character you can love___or kill _____for exactly what I do and say___my totality _____coarsely, an insight___that you are captive _____and untame___for how close I can come without

_____touching________________(she thinks)
_____________________how dangerous it all can feel unfamiliar
_____and you recoil across yourself
as though distrustful that in this rendition I am possessed of
sympathetic understanding___and other useless skills

Throughout this play, the reader encounters actions that aren’t displayed, but “sensed,” as if to suggest that life too contains sensed presences and actions that, although invisible, affect our living space. So too is Field’s poetry the miraculous sensing of things unseen: her work seems to witness and report on those hidden landscapes, those unexpected passages that present themselves. By the very act of writing, by taking the “overabundance of existence” and placing it into her writing, Field gives life to story and furnishes an existence that didn’t previously exist in our living terrain.

Jenny Boully is a renowned young poet and critic based in New York. Moveable Type appears every other Sunday.