NEIL LEADBEATER Reviews
Reading Apollinaire by Valerie Fox
(Bibliotheca Universalis, Bucharest, Romania, 2015)
Originally from Pennsylvania, Fox has travelled and lived in many different parts of the world. She holds a BA in English and History from Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania (1984), an MA in English from Temple University (1986) and a PhD in English from Binghampton University (1990). Since then, she has taught writing and literature at numerous colleges and universities including Sophia University (Tokyo), Senzoku Gakuen Junior College (Kawasaki) and Pierce College (Philadelphia). She currently teaches First-Year Writing, Creative Writing and Readings in Poetry at Drexel University and is particularly interested in experimental poetics, intersections between visual arts and poetry, and on-line teaching / e-learning. Her publications include The Glass Book (Texture Press) and The Rorschach Factory (Straw Gate Books) and Bundles of Letters, Including A, V and Epsilon (Texture Press) which is a compilation co-written with Arlene Ang. Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets, a craft-book co-authored with Lynn Levin, was a finalist for the 2014 Next Generation Indie Book Awards. In her editorial capacity, Fox was a founding co-editor of 6ix magazine (1990-2000) and Press 1 (2007-2013).
Reading Apollinaire contains poems from her previous publications as well as new ones. The book is a bilingual (English / Romanian) edition published in the Bibliotheca Universalis series devoted to publishing the work of honorary contributors to Orizont Literar Contemporan (Contemporary Literary Horizon) – a multi-lingual journal of literature and the arts, published in Bucharest, Romania.
The title of this collection gives us an insight into its content. Apollinaire was regarded as the forefather of Surrealism. He coined the word, albeit initially in relation to music rather than literature, three years before it emerged as an art movement in Paris. An attractive calligram by Apollinaire adorns the front cover.
In this collection, Fox disengages us from what I term as the curse of predictable narrative so that we are left spellbound with the thrill of exploration – the joy of having to work things out for ourselves. Unusual juxtapositions can disorientate us but that is all a part of the Fox experience. Sometimes her poems are humorous and sometimes they are disturbing. Often they are both which is a testament to their richness. What is certain is that there is a beauty in every turn of the corner and a surprise in what awaits us there.
In the title poem, Fox is on a runaway train exploring her rebellious youth in an alternate reality. It is fast-paced, but with the maturity of hindsight, modestly described as just a story somewhere…
In the ominously titled How the river invited her down for a serious talk Fox leaves it up to the reader to piece together the details:
We never see her anymore
It’s a shock because you think a person’s image cannot fade
The face of someone twice removed
gets replaced by someone else’s face
The mind’s eye always seemed to grow keener,
it’s not doing that anymore.
Did she drown? All we know is that
It was a natural disaster.
This comes close to a symbolist poem – it evokes rather than describes what has happened. It depicts the effect of what has occurred rather than telling us directly what did actually occur.
In Intruder, Fox writes humorously, even flippantly, in a poem whose subject matter is both edgy and disturbing. It may (or may not) begin with a nod to William Carlos Williams and those plums that were in the icebox:
I didn’t eat the food in your refrigerator or turn on the spigot,
or track mud through the hallway. I wouldn’t do that.
but goes on to say:
I went through your art books and attached paper clothes to
photographs of naked ladies. Sometimes also I covered their eyes.
To one I gave mittens – she looked cold. The cracker-box girl
had a shadowy face. She looks back to the 19th century. I put
her in a boxy suit jacket with concealed buttons.
After continuing a little bit longer in this vein, Fox comes up with the statement:
…………………Surrealists can be
This idea of prying into things is exactly what the intruder is doing. The statement itself is an intrusion. It interrupts the narrative. There is a delicious irony that runs through this poem and it is something to do with the desire to expose things (to peep through the keyhole) and the desire to cover things up. It is also about Fox herself dressing up language in her own inimitable fashion to put her stamp of personality on it. In the same way, the surrealist perceives the hidden side of things within the realm of another reality.
In the poem called Arrange in an Order Fox re-arranges the mundane into another order altogether. The effect is rather like throwing up a pack of cards and then examining the end result of the scattered sequence that has fallen to the ground. This removes us from the safety of logical progression and challenges us with a new order. Halfway through the poem Fox slips in this gem:
X wrote the Academy that I didn’t have the knack for narrative
Much of the first half is to do with leaving things behind or, more specifically, losing them. It is a poem that is full of surprises because the most important thing that she abandons is her children, but she doesn’t begin with that statement. The poem begins with the loss of a thrift shop raincoat instead. Priorities are muddled up. In the second half, which is sometimes about rediscovery as well as finding new things, she refers to her identity confusion and prepares the ground for surprising the reader once more by suggesting that she is not, or maybe not always Have been, the persona in the poem after all when she says My wife asserted her literary last will. The random nature of these statements, together with their sometimes tenuous connections, ends with letters of introduction thereby bringing the reader full-circle.
These flirtations with the reader are ever present in a poem like The Temple which begins ordinarily enough:
I’ve been around.
Once in a temple full of monkeys I had a good laugh.
You can take my word on that.
Temples are meant to be places of worship and so the second line surprises us. It prepares us, in a way, for the whole theme of the poem which seems to revolve around the shallowness of egotists who enjoy the praise of others. After these opening lines, she writes of travelling with a sophisticate….a man who could speak on the upper class. Later, Fox starts springing surprises when she writes not of the middle or lower class but of the slow class…as if this should be the antithesis of the upper class and follows this up with Molasses in January…an American idiom for something that is painfully slow. She pulls the rug from under our feet when it later becomes apparent that the man she refers to earlier is (probably) not with her at all in a physical sense, but a voice from an essay that she is reading. She meets him in small print. Whatever this encounter is about, and again the reader is left to speculate, Fox gains the upper hand at the end.
Given Fox’s propensity for turning logic on its head, it is not surprising that she should choose to write a poem about seahorses because the seahorse is the only creature where the male has a true reversed pregnancy. The female transfers her eggs to the male which he self-fertilises in his pouch. In Two Important Questions Concerning Seahorses, Fox takes up this theme in a playful manner:
If I were a seahorse, I’d be really into motherhood,
what the hell, and meeting my own assorted needs
higher and lower, and sometimes the needs of others.
Like its companion piece, Two Important Questions About Pornography, there is a moral sense in which Fox works out her response to the questions posed at the beginning of each poem.
There are poems here about taboos and totems, about perception and the different ways in which we can look at things, about reality and unreality, about listening and thinking and forgetting. They thrive off discontinuity, randomness and unpredictability and yet somehow we can still follow their thread. Living in the moments of the places they take us to is far more exciting than trying to tie them down to any one theme.
This collection succeeds in altering the way in which we read and perceive things. It challenges us to see things differently, and we are all the richer for it.
Neil Leadbeater is an editor, author, essayist and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His most recent books are Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, Scotland, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus Press, England, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, England, 2014) and The Fragility of Moths (Bibliotheca Universalis, Romania, 2014).