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Book Review Francis Raven
Incarnate: Story Material
Thalia Field
New Directions Press, 2004 ($15.95)

Readers and writers of prose poetry should lend Thalia Field’s 14 prose-poetic works that compose her new book, Incarnate: Story Material, their eyes, because her discreet experimental forms offer a beneficial direction for contemporary prose poets to develop. The fact that each piece is a singular experiment exploring a particular set of questions is of great benefit to the reader and allows more ground to be covered with each poem. Field demonstrates that prose poets should more often ask particular and peculiar questions so that their works continue to be singular. Field is a master of such forms; they are, to be sure, abstract and amorphous forms, but forms nonetheless. She invents these puzzles and subsequently fills them with solutions. Therefore, one of Thalia Field’s reader’s jobs is to solve the puzzle of her forms. That is, to work back through the ‘filling’ to the structure.

These structures all respond to the twin nodes of (1) the body and (2) stories, hence the title of the book: Incarnate: Story Material. To follow this logic, the book unusually possesses two title poems, or more accurately, one title poem, “Incarnate,” and one subtitle poem, “Story Material.” “Incarnate” connects prison, hell, and disease, and in so doing, implicitly relates the number of demons in hell (6666*6666=44,435,556) to the number of people currently incarcerated (around 2.1 million in the U.S and 8 million worldwide). In one sense, in this poem, the reader is asked to consider the possibility that the reason she shouldn’t commit crimes is because she has a body, because she can be punished. In “Story Material,” Field retells (and cuts up and shuffles) the story of the Odyssey and gives it a visceral, animalistic, and bodily texture. The central concern of both title poems is how having a body relates to experience.

Field has often been praised for her work at the border of poetry and theater. That is, she has taken the demands of each form equally, in each other. And, in Incarnate, she pushes these demands further by asking questions of the human form. After all, the body is the location where the demands of poetry and of theater might come together. As a result of this, the most satisfying poems in this volume address the question (and the demands) of the body. To investigate theater poetically requires an examination of voice and the multitude of relationships existing between other peoples’ voices and your own. This, in turn, entails an investigation of how we experience being as bodies. Incarnate takes both of these steps seriously.

However, Field’s investigations could benefit from the addition of architecture as Field’s third node in the discourse she has created between poetry and theater. Currently, she is working with two balls: the body (poetry) and society (theater). But alone, these two forms aren’t quite formal enough, at least not in their postmodern guises. As a result of this, her work becomes a little unwieldy at times. Architecture could provide a balance to Field’s flowing, seemingly boundless, works. The best way to push architecture between poetry and theater is through Martin Heidegger’s concept of dwelling. Dwelling, in this sense, is the poetic concept that prosaic architecture later attempts to represent.

In Heidegger’s essay, “...poetically man dwells...,” the philosopher shows that poetic dwelling is a proto element of actual dwelling. Or, as the philosopher Karsten Harries writes in a similar context, “To make their home in the world, that is, to build, human beings must gain more than physical control; they must establish spiritual control.” Of course, a person’s first dwelling place is her body and thus, a person’s first sense of spiritual control begins in her skin. Incarnate already investigates how we poetically dwell in our own bodies. But, as I have suggested, Field might consider incorporating architecture into her poetry, as it would give her work an added and, perhaps, necessary formalism.

While reading Incarnate, there is no way of escaping the thought of Susan Howe’s poetry, if only because she too is published by New Directions and uses strange arrangements to make both political and poetic points. But whereas Howe focuses on history (and more specifically, on the Puritan tradition, especially in her book, My Emily Dickinson), Field focuses on theater (and in Incarnate, the body). Nevertheless, Field actually invokes history quite often. For example, she uses the story of the captive Cynthia Ann Parker in “Autocartography,” and in “Feeling into Motion,” one of the most explicitly theatrical pieces, Field examines the history of rail, road, and air routes through Alaska (where Field once lived and taught). In addition, Field now teaches at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, a puritan stronghold.

On account of these connections, I thought it would be interesting for Field and Howe to collaborate on a book. A collaboration between the two would instantly add value to both of their works. Both writers enjoy word games (puns, coincidences, etc.); they are both obviously strong women; and they both have wonderfully idiosyncratic styles. Here’s what they could offer each other: Howe could add form to Field’s work and Field could add warmth and range to Howe’s. Field could also alter Howe’s form so that it might take on more of human experience. This collaboration is, of course, merely a theoretical suggestion, but one that I would be interested in seeing. To my knowledge, the poets have not collaborated but have appeared in the same issue of the same journal (Conjunctions: 35, American Poetry: States of the Art). There is also some precedent for Field working in Howe’s direction. Field’s poem, “Deep Ears,” published in How2, uses Howe’s technique of using making histories and professions speak to each other through cut-up, angled lines.

Whether or not this collaboration takes place, Field’s newest offering should be of great interest to prose-poets and their audiences. It points freshly to an area of discreet experimentation that has not yet been sufficiently tapped. Field has already begun to secure a place as the foremost poet working at the boundary of poetry and theater today. Incarnate is a remarkable, challenging and worthwhile book that makes this place seem more secure than ever.