Wolf and Pilot, by Farrah Field (Four Way Books, 2012)
A recent op-ed by Alissa Quart in the New York Times claimed that the popularity of today’s “epic” TV series like Downton Abbey and Boardwalk Empire is attributable to the “sense of narrative order, however fleeting” they provide as a “refuge from our fragmented lives.” Quart distinguishes between “narrative” and “database” logic—the latter presenting “a collection of individual items in which ‘every item has the same significance as any other’ ” and “Information is gathered without a fixed order”—to argue that “stories, not algorithms, give order to our hectic world.” Books of poetry are, of course, not random databases of information, yet it’s an open question whether poetry (even in its nebulous, arcing way) is inherently narrative. I believe it is. Or, to put it another way, I find the poetic inseparable from the narrative, in the sense that the more “willfully thematic” the arc of the writing, the more I demand from narrative in a book of poems. It’s our nature to look for overt meaning in art, but it can be a grave error to apply formulations such as Quark’s—in which narrative equals order equals meaning—to all art forms in all contexts. Stories do occur in poetry, but who’s telling them and how they’re told, are not fixed values.
Poets are often intoxicated by their own “characters” (think of John Berryman’s inability to escape The Dream Songs), yet this intoxication speaks to how deeply complex an element of our craft is the narrative task. The voice put on the page, the “speaker” of the poem, how we transfer information, how we choose to linger on a word or detail—these are all inescapably narrative in that they tell the reader or listener a story about the poem. Just as our methods or obsessions or aesthetics all distinguish us as writers, it is the strength of those voices that are the lifeblood of our progeny.
When I first encountered Farrah Field’s Wolf and Pilot, I had the overwhelming sense that its narrative was inextricable from its surrealism. The glaring distinction was that when I flipped randomly through the book, the poems did less for me than when I read them cover to cover. Sequence-poems often develop an emotional force through sheer accumulation—they’re like a complicated store of energy in a single superhero, a “turbo finishing move” in Street Fighter, slowly building up as you both deal and take damage—yet from the beginning Wolf and Pilot feels like a book brought forth from a powerful, unearthly place. The strong voice of the poems engages you fully, even as the narrative remains uncertain. The poems drop you at the outset into a specific landscape (from which you never stray too far), within which four sisters grope to exist. Though a terrifying book, Wolf and Pilot welcomes the reader in generously.
This is narrative poetry that does not enforce narrative. While the book plays in the space between the literal and imaginative, the poems miraculously funnel us through a series of what seem to be actual events, via the unreliable (but very wise) voices of the four sisters: Elsianne, Matilda, Emaline, and Aubrie. I believe the uncertainty of the narrative stems from the fact that the events themselves are so psychologically devastating, the speakers cannot directly address them.
So what is the narrative, and does it matter? I think it does very much. As it does to read this book (the first time at least) beginning to end. To ignore the sequential movement of the poems would be a disservice to the revelations Field encodes along the way. The world of Wolf & Pilot revolves around the four girls, yet other characters, names, and voices arise, primarily those of the mother, the teacher, and the detective, each of them at once an archetype and a very real person. “The four girls belong to themselves,” but the fact that “[a] daughter isn’t one for long” are recurring motifs throughout. The mother, who (spoiler alert) is literally a witch, is both absent and omnipotent, a figure of incredible emotional complexity. She is abusive, even sadistic, isolating the girls from the outside world. While the poems mostly follow the sisters, it’s clear that they exist in the mother’s world and are controlled by it. The girls hate and love the mother fiercely, and her feelings toward them are just as inconsistent. Field’s writing, more exploration than judgment, bears out these tensions beautifully. In the poem “Mother Talks To Herself Before Hunting Her Children” (a chilling enough title on its own), she snarls to herself:
[. . .] When they ran away, you realized
they were what you wanted all along. You had perfect people,
but you were biting the heads off, well, it doesn’t matter.
Your daughters never needed you even when you forced them
And in the poem “Wanting To Train Pigmy Goats,” the girls muse:
Our mother makes nightmares for us
with a lamp and a bunny.
She says you can electrocute someone
from any place on the body.
She threw one of her feet at us and never lost her balance.
The sentiment in the first two lines could almost be sweet, innocent: a mother putting her children to bed, telling a story with shadow puppets. But the reference to “nightmares” and the sharpness of the line break makes us tense. And then the third line—“She says you can electrocute someone / from any place on the body”—has confirmed the real nightmare that is teetering on threat-of-torture. The final line of the poem places the reader at the center of the girls’ fear and awe. The mother is strong, unwavering, which they respect (they know better) and fear. That she “throws” one of her feet is an absurdly final, but not last, betrayal. When she’s actually present, she’s unpredictable and destructive, yet the brilliance is that we’re shown this through the flat and practical eyes of children, who know nothing else but this. This is the way things are.
The detective and the teacher seem to play the roles of foil to the mother. Rather than given real names, like the mother, both are called by the titles of their very normal societal positions, figures designed to protect and cultivate. The girls view them with curiosity, strange sympathy, and admiration, though at times they want to avoid them all together. The teacher and the detective together create phantom parents for the four girls. But the sisters “belong to themselves” ultimately. They seem to move in a magical troop, through a rich, pastoral world, something like stepping into like a Henry Darger painting. It is their growing knowledge of their fate, and their attentiveness to one another, that’s so touching about Wolf and Pilot. They are survivors of what seems like impossible, dark circumstances, and yet they find everything stimulating. Each girl has distinct personality traits and clearly defined sensitivities, one of the many reasons why it’s so devastating when one of them dies. This comes like a shock, concrete and massive. After that, the third section of the book takes a turn, tonally. With long, thin lines, shifting into the middle of the page, the poem “Matilda Stays Up Late With No Questions To Ask” gently, subtly shows us the unimaginable:
A head that doesn’t turn toward on-leaf footsteps isn’t alive.
You don’t have to touch it to know.
Even when we saw the blood in the yard.
The holes all over her body came next.
All you had to do was look at her hand.
That this poem is followed by a blank page, giving us a second to take it in, is indicative of one of the book’s many strengths: its sense of pacing and space. No quotes clogging everything up, no numbers; the poems all have titles that feel like poems in their own right. Field skillfully lets the music expand and contract as the story demands, until the shift in sound in the final poems is palpable: death changes everything. The first poem in the final section, “Elsianne Walks Between Quiet Rooms” (as we seem to do in these pages), begins with an almost self-conscious address to the reader: “This is not a dream kind of dream.” The line rankles with grief. It is reality slipping into an unreal landscape.
The whimsical surfaces and playful language of Wolf and Pilot cloak complex themes of childhood, family, sexuality, and grief. The last two poems, rather than end in despair, look boldly ahead as Elsianne goes off to college. “We open the grassy door / of the future.” the girls say. “We’ll crave / tall drinks that taste / like the future, we’ll want / on our laps its softness.” The mystery at the heart of these poems remains in perfect balance with our sense of understanding (what has happened to these girls and what will become of them), suspending us at the edge of knowing and not knowing. It’s rare to find a poetry collection you’d love to see a sequel to—and this is one that will not (thankfully) stop haunting me any time soon.