The ostensible occasion for this review is the paperback release of B.H. Fairchild’s The Blue Buick: New and Selected Poems, a compendium of 30 years of work, but the real reason is that I was simply moved to write about this book and moreover this poet, this B.H. Fairchild, whose name had previously existed in my peripheral vision but who became for three days of rapid but somehow still assiduous reading the only portal through which I viewed the world, as rivet by rivet the machinery of Fairchild’s frank verse contorted me through its circuitous veins.
Pardon my lousy lyricism there. It’s just that after reading The Blue Buick in large gulps, Fairchild — not his style so much as his spirit — wore off on me. He’s one of those writers whose rhythm you fade into, smoothly, and when you emerge, the undulations still pulse in you, and it’s hard not to mimic the mechanics.
I was doing it again a bit, sorry. The point is that Fairchild’s a hell of a poet, an artist of real power, and though this career-covering collection does contain enough misfires as to become a dependable fault, the majority are really good, and a quite a few are great. It is a testament to Fairchild’s considerable skills — as a poet, yes, but also as a storyteller — that the 300-plus pages of The Blue Buick go down as effortlessly as a beer with friends, creating a tender, yet necessarily critical, mythology of Middle American life.
B.H. Fairchild is actually Bertram Henry Fairchild, III, though he mostly goes by Pete, the name his father wanted to call him, but who was fighting in WWII at the time of the birth and couldn’t object to the traditional christening. Bertram, Sr. called his son Pete anyway. Fairchild spent his childhood in Texas (where he was born in 1942), Kansas, and Oklahoma, and for a portion of that time he watched his father work as a lathe machinist. Young Fairchild clearly absorbed the sumptuous details of his native region, as well as the mechanic rhythm of the machines that powered it. His first three collections, The Arrival of the Future (1985), Local Knowledge (1991), and especially the multiple award-winning The Art of the Lathe (1998), established Fairchild as a master on both subjects.
Any “New and Selected” collection offers the reader an opportunity to view the progress of a writer’s themes and forms. In The Blue Buick’s early pages, we see Fairchild painting portraits of moments, like “Hair,” which depicts the men at “the 23rd Street Barber Shop” who act “like well-behaved children”: “silent, sleepy—sheets / tucked neatly beneath their chins, / legs too short to touch the floor.” In “Angels,” Fairchild presents his first recurring character from his childhood, something he’ll do more and more (and to various effects) throughout his career. We also glimpse, in The Arrival of the Future, a tension that will dominate his verse: Fairchild’s developing identity set against his environment. Initially this tension exists in juxtapositions of diction, as in “Groceries,” when “A woman waits in line and reads / from a book of poems to kill time,” or in “Angels,” when Elliot Ray Neiderland “[hauls] a load of Herefords / from Hogtown to Guymon with a pint of / Ezra Brooks and a copy of Rilke’s Duineser / Elegien on the seat beside him.”
In his second book, Local Knowledge, Fairchild continues his small town portraits but also leaps forward, perhaps too much sometimes, to incorporate more of the philosophical side of the tension. The narratives now include scenes in Czechoslovakia, an Edgar Degas painting, and a college classroom, and instead of only juxtaposing high and low registers within poems Fairchild now divides them between poems. So “Language, Nonsense, Desire” and “L’Attente” sit next to “Kansas” and “Toban’s Precision Machine Shop,” though even in this last setting “Mahler / drifts from Toban’s office in the back,” the undercurrent of art still undulating among the sweat and the oil (two of Fairchild’s favorite words), the whirrs and hums, of mechanized work.
It is as if, in Local Knowledge (a finely phrased paradox when applied to content of the work), Fairchild were trying to disavow his background while also unable to escape its grasp — as if he didn’t want to spend his life writing about Kansas and machinists. The young man with a clear interest in classical music, philosophy, poetry, and art didn’t yet see in the people he knew growing up the material to make art as grand and important as Mahler, say, or Rilke. Fairchild himself is, of course, in these poems, but tenuously, torn between the venturing intellectual poet and the young machinist’s apprentice.
The marriage of these two identities occurs to wondrous effect in The Art of the Lathe, Fairchild’s best collection. He embraces his homeland and imbues it with contemplative energy, finding the philosophical vibrancy he had previously only glimpsed. To exemplify and extol the success of The Art of the Lathe, I’ll focus on two poems that I love so much. The first is “Beauty,” a long poem in which Fairchild thinks about how “no male member of my family has ever used / this word in my hearing or anyone else’s except / in reference, perhaps, to a new pickup or a dead deer.” Fairchild’s earlier portraits inadvertently mythologize and, through powerfully descriptive language and the absence of direct commentary, even glorify the men of his upbringing. Here, the poet confronts whom these men are, and whom he was in their proximity. After describing a chance encounter on the radio “with a discussion of beauty between Robert Penn Warren / and Paul Weiss at Yale College” and how he “felt transported, stunned,” at how they treated the subject “with dignity as if they and the topic / were as normal as normal topics of discussion / between men such as soybean prices or why / the commodities market was a sucker’s game,” Fairchild remembers, by way of contrast, a family incident:
One time my Uncle Ross from California called my mom’s
Sunday dinner centerpiece “lovely,” and my father
left the room, clearly troubled by the word lovely
coupled probably with the very idea of California
and the fact that my Uncle Ross liked to tap-dance.
“Lovely” and “Beauty” — both in italics, like foreign words — are not in the vocabulary of Men (read: straight men), but of course they are integral to the lexicon of art, the language young Fairchild hoped to one day speak. But Fairchild’s friends don’t have such lofty ideas of beauty: when they hear that President Kennedy was shot, they refer to Lee Harvey Oswald’s shot from the Book Depository a “beauty.” When two men (also from California) take a job at his father’s shop and one day strip naked as if “they had forgotten somehow where they were, / that this was not the locker room after the game,” Bobby Sudduth goes after them with an iron file with “not just anger but a kind / of terror on his face,” until he’s stopped my Fairchild’s father, who tells the new employees, “in a voice almost terrible in its gentleness…you boys will have to leave now.” Later, he hears from his father the details of Bobby Sudduth’s suicide: “a single shot / from a twelve-gauge which he held against his chest.” He is reminded, then, of what “someone said of the death of Hart Crane,” “the death of the heart, I suppose, a kind of terrible beauty.”
Notice the repetition of the “terror” on Bobby’s face as he lunges at the offending nudity and the “terrible…gentleness” of his father’s parting words and the “terribly beauty” of his self-inflicted death — these false and homophobic and misogynistic notions of “manhood” and “masculinity” thread themselves through this community, a terribleness that can haunt and even kill the very men who enforce and perpetuate it. Using both the philosophical construct of beauty and the men’s moratorium on its usage, Fairchild pursues high-level profundity with low-brow mechanics.
The second poem, which is maybe my favorite of the book, is “Body and Soul,” in which the father of one of Fairchild’s friends tells a story “about sandlot baseball in Commerce, Oklahoma, decades ago.” Fairchild’s father is there, too, and both the elder men are “half-numb, guzzling bourbon and Coke from coffee mugs” and are “in love with their own stories.” This one’s about a Sunday ballgame between two teams of grown men, only one team is a player short. “Can we use this boy?” they asked. “He’s only fifteen years old, and at least he’ll make a game.” The opposing team agrees (“oh, hell, sure, / let’s play ball”), and the boy with “angelic blond hair” steps up to bat and hits a deep home run. On his second at-bat, the boy nails a curve ball out of the park. “As if this isn’t enough,” the poem continues, “the next time up he bats left-handed,” and even the pitcher’s tricky throw (“something / out of the dark, green hell of forbidden fastballs”) doesn’t stop him. He hits five home runs all told, and “It is something to see.”
This boy, this impossibly gifted ballplayer, turns out to be Mickey Mantle. Fairchild, listening, waits “for the obvious question to be asked: why, oh / why in hell didn’t they just throw around the kid, walk him, / after he hit the third homer?” Fairchild believes he knows the answer:
…they did not because they were men, and this was a boy.
And they did not because sometimes after making love,
after smoking their Chesterfields in the cool silence and
listening to the big bands on the radio that sounded so glamorous,
so distant, they glanced over at their wives and noticed the lines
growing heavier around the eyes and mouth, felt what their wives
felt: that Les Brown and Glenn Miller and all those dancing couples
and in fact all possibility of human gaiety and light-heartedness
were as far away and unreachable as Times Square or the Avalon
Ballroom. They did not because of the gray linoleum lying there
in the half-dark, the free calendar from the local mortuary
that said one day was pretty much like another, the work gloves
looped over the doorknob like dead squirrels. And they did not
because they had gone through a depression and a war that had left
them with the idea that being a man in the eyes of their fathers
and everyone else had cost them just too goddamned much to lay it
at the feet of a fifteen-year-old boy. And so they did not walk him,
and lost, but at least had some ragged remnant of themselves
to take back home.
Mantle showed these men “the vast gap between talent and genius” and “will not be easily forgiven” for it. This is peak Fairchild: contemplative but not obvious, critical but not malicious, and melancholy but not sentimental.
There are also, of course, acrostic verses (including one based not on a single painting but on “All the People in Hopper’s Paintings”) and riffs on machinery. In the title poem, Fairchild introduces the two most important figures — other than his father — of his poetic oeuvre, Roy and Maria Garcia, who feature prominently in his next two collections. In Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest, Fairchild’s longest poem, the beautifully elegiac “The Blue Buick,” is an ode to the well-traveled, artistic couple from Fairchild’s youth. And later, Fairchild writes prose poems in Roy’s voice; Usher, his next book, contains five more. Through figures like Roy and Maria, and through in general Fairchild’s vivid rendering of the small towns of his past, The Blue Buick, and Fairchild’s career, reads like a complexly plotted story. When “The Memory Palace” arrives at the end of Early Occult Memory Systems and many of the previous subjects and people (Roy, O.T., the word beauty, Uncle Harry, et al) reappear, there is a sense of wistfulness in it, as if we, too, have come to know these people and this region.
His last book, Usher, and the “New Poems” featured here are by far The Blue Buick’s weakest. Usher has better moments, like the multi-part “The Beauty of Abandoned Towns,” which speaks both to Fairchild’s past and the inalterable changes that have occurred since he left. At an abandoned school, Fairchild notes: “Nothing is everywhere: doorless doorways, / dirt-filled foundations, and weed-pocked / sidewalks leading to a sky that blued / the eyes of bored students stupefied / by geometry and Caesar’s Latin.” But the voice poems here — from the point of view of Maria Rasputin, Hart Crane, Frieda Pushnik, and others — don’t work nearly as well as Fairchild’s natural tone. And the philosophical investigations, once so finely integrated into the fold of reality, now stand directly in the reader’s face.
And there seems to be a dearth of interesting subjects in the “New Poems,” and worse, nothing interesting is added to them. “The Story” is a tired, unoriginal poem on artistic inspiration (ending with the lines, “This is where the story ends. And now you know, / this is also where it begins, and you lean / into the light, put the pen to paper, and write”). A poem dedicated to his college professors, “Leaving,” is so amateurish I can’t believe it was written by the same person. As he drives off to college, Fairchild uses the car’s rearview mirror to depict the past he’s leaving, “while ahead wait Plato, Aristotle, Dante, / Shakespeare, Keats, Melville, Dostoyevsky, / Fitzgerald, the blue lawn, the green light, / and a New World called the life of the mind.” No doubt this is how many of us felt as we emerged from youth into the tantalizing threshold of adulthood, and if asked many might articulate their excitement in similar terms, but this is no commercial for the poem. It sounds more like a poorly written memoir.
The poems that work best are the ones that grapple with Fairchild’s identity set against his familial and regional legacies. He was a quiet kid who liked beauty in towns riddled with homophobia, misogyny, and strict yet unspoken notions of masculinity. Fairchild, as a poet, fights against these ideas, yet how many of the people he knew and loved will go with them? The era is bound to pass, and does, as represented by the introduction of the diamond drill bit, which basically eliminated his father’s vocation. When told of their inevitable doom, Fairchild recalls his reaction:
…I looked at the face
of my father staring into the future, at the shop
he had built, the lathes lined up along the north side,
their iron song almost unbroken through twenty years,
the never-washed, grease-laden windows, gutted drawworks,
gears, bushings, tools spilled across the now scarred
cement floor where I had worked every summer
since I was ten. And then a feather grazed my ear,
the ruffle of wings, and a vision rose in my head:
I was free.
The old gears of Fairchild’s youth — and the town and people who operated them — have finally stopped, freeing Fairchild to pursue art, yes, but also allowing him to define himself without allegiance to his father or his shop. He can now read Molière or say beauty as much as he wants, a burden lifted, and the beliefs instilled in him by Kansas and Texas and Oklahoma can finally be disavowed. But the machinery isn’t gone from the world completely — it was merely replaced by a better and more effective tool — just from Fairchild’s heart. Prejudice and privilege still exist and are as insidious and as damaging as ever, but there is still a sliver of solace to be taken from Fairchild’s experience, if only to hope for its proliferating recurrence: to better and enrich the world, one heart at a time.