There are enough apt images in this magazine to build a new world whole. In three of its quarterly issues, The Fiddlehead publishes short fiction: not here. Here you’ll find reviews of Canadian literature, as is usual in the journal, but then in addition, purely poetry—enough to populate your mind with figures and tropes and patterns of sound until winter comes to call. The Fiddlehead (a reference to a fern unfolding) is, according to its website, “a veritable institution of literary culture in Canada.” Published in New Brunswick for over 65 years, it is “a regional magazine with a national and international reputation.” Especially if contemporary poetry interests you, it’s easy, in this issue, to see why.
The poems are arranged in five sections. The first is a retrospective of Eleanor Wilner, American “war poet,” or, as Editor Ross Leckie puts it, “epistemologist of war.” Two poems about parachutists’ missions gone wrong strike (wound, awaken) us with images to account for how we learn about war. In “Landing,” the narrators (townspeople, we assume) observe “. . . a pure white cloud that hung there / in the blue, or a jellyfish on a waveless / sea, suspended high above us.” The poem continues:
we saw it had a man attached, suspended
from the center of the flower, a kind of human
stamen or stem . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
So you can guess
the way we might have felt
when it landed in our field
with the hard thud of solid flesh
and the terrible flutter of the collapsing
lung of silk . . .
Juxtaposed next to it, “Bailing Out—A Poem for the 1970s” gives voice to a whole squadron of parachutists who drift in unwanted air currents into a grove of trees (“Whose woods these are I think I know,” reads the epigraph to the poem) that hangs them all up, dangling without help, without ground under their feet. These images batter us: perhaps at first there’s beauty in the method of escape, the props of warriors’ work, but they are soon seen as mirages; the narrators are “searching in the aimless way / of unmoored things / for whatever human ballast gave / direction to their endless drift.”
Wilner’s “History as Crescent Moon” is a shape poem, itself a crescent moon, or rather the horns “of a bull / who was placed / before a mirror at the beginning / of human time” (the shape is the same), “beside it, red / asterisk of / Mars / *”—a mythological interrogation of what war is if I ever saw one. The sardonic lament of “Leda’s Handmaiden” echoes that interrogation:
Though everything can be forgotten
(or so sunk in memory’s swamp
that the shape to which emotion clings
is lost), consequence goes on,
Later in the poem, it continues:
. . . Our daughters,
practiced in the arts of grief, are
widows all. Cold beds, moth-eaten coats
hung on history’s hook, a name
that flutters like a sleeve.
These layered images of history and war, grief and irreplaceability, reverberate like shock waves to remind us how violence (dissatisfaction, conflict, war) overtakes us. If you didn’t know Wilner’s work before, you want to know more of it now.
Other images are equally arresting. Anne Compton’s “Signs” gives us a male “fall” (autumn), with a “lick of frost in his gorgeous mouth,” relieving the languishing female “August,” who says “a woman’s / life is a diminishing thing: Crest and slump, the same.” I may never think of August in quite the same way.
Charles Wright’s “Fortune Cookie” deconstructs our perception of stars, “not too cold, not too hot, / Time in its peregrinations a stop here and stop there”. In newcomer David Riebetanz’s almost-sonnet “The Open Night,” “Happiness is a black mug drunk down low, / Or a glimpse of a proud woman drawing red hair / Back behind her ears with both hands, slow.”
A section of the journal called “The more precisely we gauge the presence the less we do the future” contains Craig Poile’s “Fertility.” This poem traces a gay couple’s journey from a support group for couples who can’t conceive, to triumphant parenthood itself. The resonant images here include a heterosexual woman struggling out of her grief to sympathize with the narrator and end with him holding the hands of his two daughters, “never free of knowing / How life would be without them.”
Here there are ninety-nine poems, thirty-seven poets, Canadian favorites and newcomers, a thousand images to transport our small perceptions in all dimensions. If I leave you with any image it should be of yourself, buying this issue and re-forming your world as you devour and inhale it page by page—a delicious drowning.