Barely Composed
Alice Fulton
W.W. Norton, $25.95 (cloth)

How do you compose yourself if your mother is dying, dead? This question moves Alice Fulton’s Barely Composed doubly, as Fulton probes both her biological mother’s death and Mother Earth’s destruction around us, “the inmates of this late-stage civilization.” This double loss is reinforced in the opening unrhymed tercet of “Wow Moment”: “From the guts of the house, I hear my mother crying / for her mother.” In “Still World Nocturne” the “far cry” returns—“our mother crying Mother!”—but in that broken villanelle’s final line, the poetic voice, bereft and in silence, faces “a world unhere, unyours.” This absence is amplified in the next poem’s opening: “Then emptiness grew more empty” and “I fingered it like an incision, fondled it / like a rosary of thorns.” Tracking loss across life and language, Fulton’s question becomes: How do you compose yourself without “words to conjure with”? A mother tongue is as necessary an instrument as “the four-chambered / bilge pump,” “periscope,” and “control // moment gyroscope” Fulton finds herself “trusting”—and as imperfect. Only “anguish / is the universal language,” we learn in “Claustrophilia,” thirty whooshing lines of “romance as usual, us times us.” The poem works as a double sonnet with an extra couplet for excess, the perfect pairing for the apocalypse. What do we learn in the final turn? That love, “the retaliation of light,” “is so profligate, you know, / so rich with rush.”