In River, a female Orpheus in her high vantage-point, the Maple Aparts, gazes over and down at the underworld of Windsor and Detroit and the intervening river of hell. Sometimes she descends there in mind, sometimes in body, seeking her lost loved ones, often male fellow wanderers or alter egos entombed and dismembered in the violence, dreary ugliness, and pointless electric sizzle of this world.
River's Eurydicean Orpheus / Ulysses is a complex character: bright, smart-alecky, wisecracking, all to compensate herself for intense sensitivity to her fractured urban world poised on the borderland: between earth and hell, between Canada and the U.S., between the most ancient human aspirations and the "postmodern" disintegration of hope, thought, and language.
In her desperate hope to gather up the disiecta membra of her race, and of herself, this figure divides into several. First, there is a watching narrator, perhaps a version of Emily Dickinson, an epigraph from whom establishes the female Orpheus theme at the opening of River's first section, "The Human Heart of Nothing": "She beckons, and the woods start — / She nods, and all begin . . ."
Then there are also the women whose tale is told fragmentarily within the poem: the "you," the "she," sometimes merging with, and sometimes separating from, the "I." These are the ones who wander the ugly streets listening to the sirens of the prowl cars and the hootings of the freighters, who meet or fail to meet the Orphean guru or other loved ones in the allegorically names streets ("Busy and Beyond," "Lonely Street," "Taxi turns left at Reckless . . .").
In part modelled upon, and filled with allusions to, Eliot's condensed urban epic, The Waste Land, River contains in its few dozen pages a comprehensive, vivid marshalling of the essential characteristics of a world reduced to morphemes, info-bits, junk, and virtuality. The mercurial tone of its narrative voice — shifting from hard observation, to plangent empathy, to bitter humour and defensive ironic self-deprecation — comes partly from reaction to the complex subject, partly from the book's struggle for an adequate form.
Tonal shifts are generally thought to express attitudes toward subject-matter and, beyond that, toward meaning (and thus to register the meaning of the meaning). Here, Fitzgerald has involved the problem of finding a valid form as part of her subject. Like the modern city, the current situation of literature and of thought about language presents the author with a wasteland of ruined hopes and a chaos of apparent possibilities, any of which may offer either true fertility or depthless, falsely seductive stimulation, the mere "glamour of the nerves" (Baudelaire).
The poet finds solidarity with the bewildered citizens not only by being one of them but by being condemned to repeat their experience yet again, on an intensified level, in the mirror-world of language and poetry. Her aspiration is always toward the poem that "makes a break / from the prison of the page."
At a crucial point near the poem's beginning, the speaker says: "You turn your back / on literature / and reinvent / the romantic standard." In its context, this is an example of Fitzgerald's complex layering. First we have an allusion to the famous Verlaine-Rimbaud attack on "literature" and on rhetoric in poetry. In the words "turn your back" and "reinvent" we have concepts and phrasings that Fitzgerald returns to often throughout River. In "romantic standard," we have a reference to the many "standards" that she quotes — from hymns and psalms to Tin Pan Alley classics to Country, Western, and Rock 'n' Roll.
But the largest allusion is of course to the romantic movement in culture, especially in poetry, and it is to this that I want to call attention. Though the words have a self-doubting irony, they represent the basic, and stubbornly pursued project of River. It indeed tries to reinvent the romantic standard.
River contains a re-envisioning of the isolation of the individual (which various poetic theories since Imagism have tried to wish away), the criminalisation of the one who protests against standardisation, the deep experience and meaning of "alienation" in the constant pressure on the nonconformist self to despise itself for not conforming. "Loneliness presses against you," she writes, "with such conviction you scarcely breathe," in a world that is an "anarchy of solitary / living tethered / to chaos / and lists / of things to doom."
The book also presents a clear grasp of the romantic position that the poet is the "representative man" (Emerson) and that in this representative quality lies his or her relation and value to society. All is, at bottom, expression (and thus the poet's specific and radical expression is the concentrated essence of human being): the effort toward a worthy form, which fulfills one's life potential and in turn makes that fulfilment visible, audible, and graspable.
It is through the "romantic standard" that Fitzgerald attacks the challenges to the self and to human hope and solidarity posed in the critical philosophies often lumped under postmodernism: briefly, that it is established that nothing can be known (except that one proposition), and that language cannot refer to anything beyond itself. She sees a world in which this philosophical situation is reflected in the physical and social culture. Or rather, a world in which junk culture, information overload, totalisation of vile artificial surroundings, the virtual elimination of nature, have fostered this philosophy, which simply reflects our suspension in a medium of tinsel and distrust.
For Fitzgerald, the human person now is unavoidably dissolved in this situation, but nonetheless possesses an inalienable "something else," a capacity for hope and fellow-feeling, and a tendency to revolt, to refusal, to sullen secretive self-removal from the remorseless empty machine:
Electric emptiness spills through cells,
sifts through torches of seditious silence,
porous with expectation.
In precise romantic fashion, the resentful self sits within itself, tortured not only by the world without but also by the "introjection" of its meretricious values, yet still retaining its capacity for sedition, still rich and open in its waiting. In romantic fashion, within the postmodern dissolution it plots escape, freedom, and a revolt not of revenge but liberation: "River run to joy on perilous course of collapsing fictional ball."
River, however, seems too much a poem whose formal totality and stylistic surface have entered the orbit of the postmodernist "language" poem, defeating its own protest by accepting much of the manner, and thus the meaning, of its adversary. Whereas the book requires a form that will subsume the postmodern elements she addresses but present a wholly different aspect, it often seems an exemplification of what it struggles to escape.
Be this as it may, River reveals Fitzgerald as involved in the most vital literary quest now going forward in Canada, the attempt to find a new embodiment of what Octavio Paz calls "the other voice": poetry's archaic and permanent perceptions, perceptions underlying and to a great extent contradicting yet correcting and enriching all particular cultural moments.
In this effort, however, it is necessary to eschew the contemporary avant-garde, which misunderstands the problem, adopting forms and styles merely symptomatic of current difficulties yet presenting them as revolutionary and corrective. Fitzgerald exhibits a healthy — but not in my view thorough and pure enough — tendency to go to the potential sources of a valid form: the avant-garde tradition as it existed before the wrong turn taken in Tel Quel, as well as romanticism, and various aspects of the Western canon and of Oriental and Native traditions.
Fitzgerald's chief source for a better tradition is the nearby one of the great modernists. For all the postmodern affiliations of her manner, it is more rooted in the semantic play and stream-of-consciousness of James Joyce, in Proust's search for the living waters of memory, and in the collage of myth and modernity, vision, and the everyday, as practised by Eliot and Pound. She herself draws attention (in an afterword) to David Jones's search for meaning in culture rather than nature, and this is an impulse she might have referred also to Eliot, Pound, Williams, Crane, Baudelaire, Mallarmé and, above all, to surrealism.
An instance of basically modernist (and essentially romantic) procedure: One axis of her poem is an allusive use of the Pentheus myth along the lines of Eliot's use of Tiresias (who also makes an appearance in River) or Pound's of Ulysses. This king of Thebes who was killed by his ecstasy-maddened mother for his refusal to accept the rites of Dionysus in the city is given a dual signification. Negatively, he is the offspring of contemporary North America devoured by its mother. Positively, his story reveals the persistence of dynamic passion in life, still discoverable even in its brutal and self-destructive aspects. (Nietzsche, too, is often alluded to in River.)
Though Fitzgerald does not say so in so many words, and perhaps has not noticed it, this myth implies the entry of Dionysus into his patrimony: the god was grandson of Cadmus, founder of Thebes, through his mother, Semele. And this implication in turn supports a movement that definitely does exist in the book: from hopelessness not to hope, but to enjoyment.
The narrator's final assertion about the North-American spectacle is "believe you / me, I can't get enough of it." The self-defensive humour of the opening has been revealed as the seed of a possible acceptance. "Ivory-grey blotch / surface mottled in this heart immune to dying," she says near the close, returning to the opening's "human heart of nothing" and associating it with the river as a female avatar of all-absorbing ongoingness: "Unpuzzled heart, / among the fragrant spectacle, / into the garden gone."
Is this transformation earned by the poem? It is hard to see where any groundwork is laid that permits it as an adequate response to the vision of confusion, ugliness, and suffering. It seems rather like a collapse into the attitude of "free play" often asserted in certain wings of postmodernism as a compensation for the loss of meaning, or at any rate as all that is now left for us.
Deriving as a theory from Derrida's notions of language, and often commented upon since, free play as a moral stance in poetry had already been well established by about 1965 or 1970 due to the influence of Frank O'Hara (who died in 1966). The poetic mood entailed was well captured in the title and theme of James Schuyler's book Freely Espousing (1969). Such poets offered a riposte to the moral earnestness and usual stylistic strenuousness of the third-generation modernists, like Berryman, Bishop, and Lowell, and returned already to the earlier modernists for precedent. (Only Whitman, Crane, and Williams are "more fun that the movies," said O'Hara.) In a sense, River revives this debate, and invites us to ask once more, as then, whether the fine-sounding determination of the lone self to espouse freely, to wed all, is in fact sufficient.
Clearly, this is a question of form and tone. In abstract terms, complete openness to contemporary experience can scarcely be faulted. In practice, one cannot accept just any assertion of a meaning discovered in gusto for even the most terrible or chaotic experience. The Whitmanian movement requires a resolution that incorporates pain within pleasure, not a movement that goes from pain to pleasure as from one place to another; and it is true that Fitzgerald always recalls "Shallows and miseries, / shadows from the corpse" within her conclusion. Each reader will have to judge which movement Fitzgerald has followed.
It is difficult to see past one's own decisions and practices; on these same issues, I have felt that the current reactions are wrong and that my own thoughts are completely different; hence, that my poetic forms must be altogether unlike the ones in which the issues are usually now approached. I am sensible of having suggested a judgement of River based perhaps unfairly on this standard.
Clearly, Fitzgerald has the right to adopt a position that is not so opposed. There is no doubt of the comprehensive, moving expression River gives to the lostness of the person in frantic cultural desuetude, to human resilience and revolt, and to the search for life-preserving sources of interest, pleasure, and joy. Also genuine is her attraction to the current cultural exploration of free play of sensibility, a sort of dispersed Dionysianism. The question is: Can any possible version of this posture be an adequate response of the person seeking to flourish spiritually in the face of overwhelming social problems? River, and poetry in general, are today bringing these unavoidable questions to us with a penetration and vitality unmatched elsewhere in culture.
"Dionysus Between Windsor and Detroit"
was originally the cover-story feature
of Books in Canada's Summer 1996 edition.
© 1996-2008 A. F. Moritz. All Rights Reserved.
(Special thanks to A. F. Moritz and Gerald Owen.)