12 March 2006

Private revelations

Christopher Bakken examines the work of B.H. Fairchild:
Fairchild is a surprising painter, one obviously indebted to Edward Hopper, whose paintings always seem darker than they are, with their parallel lines of light-catching windows and bricks extending beyond the frame into invisible potential. Fairchild’s senses are not subdued by an apparent lack of material opulence; they are electrified and entirely satisfied:
Everything is here. Linoleum
in alternating squares of red
and gray. Bare wall on the west
rising under an afternoon sun.
Couch in brown vinyl,
empty bottle of Miller High Life,
crucifix over the dinner table.
An odor of sleep and sauerkraut,
fresh laundry and ammonia.
                              (“In the Homes of the Working Class”)

Never has a humble Midwestern beer, with its perfectly ironic name, appeared so sacramental. But the poet’s recurring discovery—the fact that he exists, in spite of his surroundings, in a world teeming with such significance—is rarely shared by others. We are not surprised to find, in the very next stanza, that “No one is here” to observe these objects and the holy pattern the poet sees. When, “later, the occupants return,” they will merely be “assuming the burden of possession, / feeling the heaviness of the day’s / last light.” Such totems will inevitably resume being mundane props in their owners’ underwhelming lives.

More often than not, when the poet investigates “the hard round faces” of his fellow citizens, they reveal “something like loneliness / but deeper.” So he turns instead, like every isolated poet must, to the only other community available to him, the one to be found in his local bookstore. According to the prose “Afterword” printed in Local Knowledge, what he discovered there was crucial:
     Growing up in that little town in the heart of the dust bowl, I do not know how I could have survived without the words of the printed page, of books. I wish that I could rhapsodize about the natural beauties of the place, the rich and varied landscape, but I cannot. It was rather bleak, surrounded by wheat and maize fields, with few trees. I recall being out on oil rigs on various jobs, looking out across the barren country treeless from horizon to horizon, listening to the chains beating against the derrick in the ceaseless wind, and waiting, waiting for life to come to some kind of point. But it only seemed to come to a point on the printed page, and so I lived, when I could, among books, and words filled the empty horizon and made for me a necessary world.
So it falls to the speakers of Fairchild’s poems to experience revelations that are primarily private, if the revelations arrive at all, and the difficulty of his project involves revealing what is beautiful without over-inscribing his praise. The sadness (there isn’t a better word for it) that emanates from his first two books stems, I think, from the poet’s constant wish to offer imaginative salvation to things and to people who cannot be saved, or who do not even think to desire salvation.

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