by

Monday’s Poem: ‘After the Angelectomy,’ by Alice Fulton

 

 

And where my organ of veneration should be—
wormwood and gall. Grudge sliver.

Wailbone, iron, bitters. I mean to say the miniature
waterfalls have all dried up in this miniature

place where day is duty cubed, time is time on task
and every mind optimized for compliance.

Time to delint my black denim traveling stuff.
The florescent major highlighter has dimmed

to minor. I’m so dying I wrote
when I meant to write so tired.

And when I sleep I dream only that
I’m sleeping. Please see my black stuff’s

dusted off. Night has no dilution anxieties,
but only the infinites are happy:

Math. Time. Everything happy goes
to many decimal places

while flesh passes through
gradations of glory. I visualized it,

the nurse said of the bedsore. Everything exists
at the courtesy of everything else.

Please see that my grave is kept clean.
Beloveds, temporal things

in which the infinite endangered itself,
excarnate to memory and the divine substance

has limited liability. You’re kind,
I tell the infinite. Too kind.

 

© Alice Fulton.  Printed by permission of the author.

 

Alice Fulton received a 2011 American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature. Her eight books include The Nightingales of Troy: Connected Stories; Cascade Experiment: Selected Poems; and Felt, which received the Bobbitt Prize for Poetry from the Library of Congress.

The Chronicle’s poetry blogger, Lisa Russ Spaar, notes:  What would it mean to have permanently excised from oneself the capacity to bear and receive messages?  And not just any messages, either, such as “LOL!” or “R U OK” or an automated, computerized voice-mail reminder of your root-canal appointment, but the real news—terrible or amazing, of change and imagination, of redemption, of oracle and prophecy—that is so “difficult” to get from the divine, from poems. How would it feel, Alice Fulton asks, in her fierce and unsettling poem, to exist “After the Angelectomy”?

The word “angel” derives from the Greek angelos, “messenger,” and was one of the earliest Germanic adoptions from the Latin. Culturally and over time, angels have been associated with supernatural beings (for good or ill), God-sent harbingers, servants, and intermediaries, protective or guiding spirits, and the innocent and benevolent among us (“you’re an angel”).  Angels have been sentimentalized, militarized, and appropriated by New Age and orthodox communities, Latter Day Saints and theosophists, greeting card companies and songwriters, filmmakers and sports teams alike.  Nor is belief in angels a phenomenon relegated primarily to ancient, mythical, or Biblical realms. According to a 2008 article in Time magazine, citing a survey conducted by the Baylor University Institute for Studies of Religion, “more than half of all Americans believe they have been helped by a guardian angel in the course of their lives. … In a poll of 1,700 respondents, 55 percent answered affirmatively to the statement, ‘I was protected from harm by a guardian angel.’ The responses defied standard class and denominational assumptions about religious belief; the majority held up regardless of denomination, region, or education—though the figure was a little lower (37 percent) among respondents earning more than $150,000 a year.” People who admit to having been attended by angels describe the experience, among other things, as involving a radiant light, a perfume, or a sense of being touched.

The making and reading of poems would seem almost to require some sort of angelic visitation or “translation,” some extra-human inspiration—the muse, the sublime, the accident, the beautiful intrusion of one world into another.  One thinks of Yeats’s séance-fueled dictations, Merrill’s Ouija board inspirations, the radio media of Jack Spicer and or of Cocteau’s Orphee.  “Caedmon’s Hymn,” the first known English poem, was in part the gift to an illiterate lay brother by an oneiric angel urging him to “Sing the beginning of the creatures!”

Fulton’s poem seems to imply that some angelic, gracious force, once intrinsic or accessible to the speaker, has been removed.  The extraction does not seem to have been the sublime experience Michelangelo describes regarding the making of his statue of David (“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free”) but rather a procedure far more insidious, dire, and diminishing.  To feel emptied of the capacity to be more or other than oneself is cause for despair; as Fulton puts it,

 

And where my organ of veneration should be—
wormwood and gall. Grudge sliver.

Wailbone, iron, bitters. I mean to say the miniature
waterfalls have all dried up in this miniature

place where day is duty cubed, time is time on task
and every mind optimized for compliance.

The world Fulton describes, après angelectomy, is sterile, bereft, and characterized by the anomie and hopelessness we associate not only with dehumanizing, futuristic scenarios, but also with jobs, political arenas, personal relationships—any circumstance in which life itself has gone flat and meaningless.  It is a world in which even “the florescent major highlighter has dimmed / to minor” and the speaker is so exhausted (“I’m so dying I wrote / when I meant to write so tired”) that even when she sleeps she dreams “only that that / I am sleeping.”

Fulton is an adept at tonal shifts, which is one of the ways in which she marries lyricism with fearless social commentary in her work.  In this poem, her narrator’s fragile balancing act of terror and panicked control, for example, comes through powerfully in the asides, directed as much to the self as to some vague lackey or listener,  interjected amidst the bitterness. These phrases are part knee-jerk imperatives that appear to belong to a lost world (“Please see my black stuff’s // dusted off”) and part abject surrender and supplication (“Please see that my grave is kept clean”). That these verbal registers—by turns rote, dissociated, catatonic, terrified, ironic, pathetic, bitter, discerning—mix in among Fulton’s Blakean vision of a world dominated by soul-less contingencies only contributes to the poem’s power:

Night has no dilution anxieties,
but only the infinites are happy:

Math. Time. Everything happy goes
to many decimal places

while flesh passes through
gradations of glory. I visualized it,

the nurse said of the bedsore. Everything exists
at the courtesy of everything else.

 

In the first of his oracular “Duino Elegies,” Rainer Maria Rilke asks, “Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’ / Hierarchies?”  Fulton shares Rilke’s sense that “Every angel is terrifying.”  “Whom can we ever turn to / in our need?” Rilke asks, “Not angels, not humans, / and already the knowing animals are aware / that we are not really at home in / our interpreted world.”  Fulton extends this vision, which has at least one origin in Caedmon’s angelic interpretation among the stabled animals, and brings it into our post-modern, post-romantic realm (in which even a bedsore can only be “visualized” and in which “Beloveds” are “temporal things // in which the infinite endanger[s] itself”) with fresh fear, tenderness, and scathing irony.

In a recent seminar discussion about Emily Dickinson, my students were speculating about faith.  Its opposite, they decided, is not doubt. Doubt depends on faith, and vice versa.  The opposite of faith is indifference. “After the Angelectomy” is testimony not only to the dangers of indifference, of failing to host, nurture, and preserve our capacity for wonder and “divine substance,” our trust in the unseen, but also to poetry, which helps us to articulate and recoup the soul’s imaginative, personal, spiritual, and social imperatives.

 

(Illustration by A.C.K.)

 

 

 

Return to Top