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SEED WHEEL
APRICOTS OF DONBAS
Masquerade
ECCENTRIC DAYS OF HOPE AND SORROW
POST & RAIL  
|
  Erica Funkhouser

ISBN 978-0-9981963-8-1     $18.00  /  $21.00 (Canada)     6.5 x 7.5       

70 pp      
PUB DATE: March 2018       Book Release Poetry





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The formal deftness of these couplets—three per page of almost exactly the same length which are, yes, a set of fence rails. Some might find that sort of strategy suspect: the idea that a formal or structural device could shape a collection in a meaningful way, but in this case, it is so very well done. The collection’s personal, at least historically personal—family history, in which we get to know an evermore silent coal miner father and a eerily silent-but-communicative mother, as well as the fences, literal and figurative, that keep them separate and together. The family is the fence and the fence is the family; we’re on one side, and we’re on the other side of those rails. Add to this certain aspects of astronomical physics (black holes, the big bang, the sound of the universe speaking), and the book is both modest and immensely ambitious.

—Robert Wrigley, Final Judge of The Idaho Prize for Poetry 2017

About the Author

Erica Funkhouser

ERICA FUNKHOUSER’S previous collections of poems—Earthly (2008), Pursuit (2002), The Actual World (1997), Sure Shot and Other Poems (1992), and Natural Affinities (1983)—were published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Alice James Books. Included in Sure Shot and Other Poems are three dramatic monologues in the voices of 19th century women: Sacagawea, Louisa May Alcott, and Annie Oakley. The Oakley poem was adapted for the stage by the Helicon Theatre Company in Los Angeles. Funkhouser’s work on Sacagawea led her to become involved with the production of Ken Burns’ PBS documentary on the Lewis and Clark Expedition; her essay on Sacagawea appears in Ken Burns’ and Dayton Duncan’s Lewis and Clark (Knopf, 1997). Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Paris Review, Poetry, Agni, and other magazines. One of her poems has been sand-blasted into the Davis Square MBTA Station in Somerville, Massachusetts. A 2007 recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, Funkhouser lives in Essex, Massachusetts and teaches writing at MIT.

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Awards

AWARDS & REVIEWS

 

ON THE SEAWALL


16 June 2020 • reviewed by Lisa Russ Spaar

Post & Rail, Erica Funkhouser’s sixth collection of poems, is a non-linear, autobiographical book-length journey across time, place, and becoming. As a formal trellis for her sojourn into the temporal, Funkhouser lays three fully justified couplets of equal length across each page, spaced to look like the horizontal rails in post-and-rail fencing, thereby evoking the fences of her childhood, borders that would help define and separate the self and other, the wild and the tamed, but also providing portals of porosity between one world and another—human and animal, house and field, earth and sky, time and space. The “threes” help the speaker travel across three generations of family: from grandparents migrating from Ireland (“their parishes old names / for nightmares, their empty stomachs unaccounted for in any tally book”) to the coal mines of Pennsylvania, where “the ferns once blithely free [are] now compacted into filthy coal.” She traces her own parents’ hard inheritances in the world of worker exploitation, and then brings us richly into the at times difficult but also magical ambages of the woods and pastures of the speaker’s own childhood.

Like Moffett’s Nervous System, Post & Rail is concerned with silences, to lacunae in archival history caused by whether or not one’s person was worthy to be noted in a ledger, to hard lives spent in an underground that could cause black lung disease and turn song to exhaustion, and particularly to maternal silence, which the poet comes to recognize over time as due more to temperament than to indifference:

Words. Minutes. Answers. A lap. A kiss. To be made much
To be remarkable. To be remarked upon. These are some of what

we wanted, we noisy chicks. But she did not like words, did not trust or
enjoy them. If they had a purpose, fine, but otherwise they were suspect.

A lover of opera, she never listened to the ones in English. If she listened
to us, it was one at a time . . .

In “#18,” Funkhouser writes of her mother:

When she wasn’t speaking, we heard the phoebe splash, one season
turn its back upon the next, the pink lady slippers slip into extinction.

She didn’t point or name; she might have blinked or waved her hand.
She liked to move, she couldn’t keep from moving; silence was a way

of being still. The stillness lay inside her like an anvil. We could hear
the words being hammered into sparks and her relief as they died out.

Throughout her long poem, Funkhouser returns again and again to the fences, observing the way they weather, the insects that thrive in their seams and tunnels, watching the atmosphere change behind them (“Between the rails, the afternoon trembles, a mirage of promises and // promises delivered. Cavalcade of white steeds, plumed riders. Wild / singletons all, none complicit in the day in day out fretwork of family” (#19). Poems 14 – 16 take us into an almost pre-Lapsarian world of childhood lived among animals and creatured woods. Poem 15 turns a mining family’s brutal poverty into a kind of fairy tale:

One night he stepped out of the mantrap portal, wiped his hands on the tail
of a comet, then waded in Paint Creek till the water had run over his boots

and the fish had licked his toes clean. When he got home, before he opened the door,
he took off his head and shook the coal dust onto the street. When his wife gave

him bread and tea, he gave her salmon with lemons. They kissed before the fire.
When his children showed him their red feet, he cobbled shoes from butterscotch.

Later in the book, however, Funkhouser doesn’t shy away from offering an unflinching indictment of the violence done to workers “owned” by the magnates of the coal mining industry. As Funkhouser navigates the systems of silence in her family’s legacy, she brings into the conversation a discussion of the gravitational waves of black holes, now detectable across the solar system. “I read,” she writes in “#17,” “that a sense / of place is the torque between temperament and terrain. A personal chirp in / one’s universe. It helps me to understand my mother if I think of her / as an event that took place in distant space and, because its waves / could travel unimpeded by matter, has finally brought its birdsong / to earth.”Post & Rail comes to listen in silence and gesture for meaning transmitted without speech: the way a fern plays with light or a child’s forehead, pressed against a cow’s head’s “galaxies of coal-black fur,” feels warmth [pour] into us from another world. Like these phenomena of the natural world, the speaker’s mother “had a way of alerting / us to the fact that we were loved; we had to supply the words ourselves.”

And in this way the reader comes to see that Post & Rail is a narrative of one poet’s becoming, a humble and generous act from a poet at this point in her illustrious career:

Vertical questions emanate from the posts in front of me and the posts all the way
down to the lower pasture, the kinds of questions posed by something buried up

to its ankles and kept in place as much by the rails driven through its three orifices
as by its own footing. Really it is all one question: How are you connected to the

grass beneath your feet, the air circling your elbows, the clouds circumnavigating
your thoughts? With the shift of one letter bright as a new nail, post becomes poet.

These two ambitious and stirring collections show us that, faced with silence, uncertainty, and unfathomability, poets are often born—in part from the need, in Funkhouser’s words, “to supply the words themselves.” Or, as Moffett puts it, in an act of “filling in / what isn’t there,” or revealing what is there but is unable or not willing to speak for itself.

Post & Rail by Erica Funkhouser, published by Lost Horse Press on 15 March, 2018, 76 pages, $18.00 paperback

Reviewer

Lisa Russ Spaar’s

most recent poetry collection is Orexia (2017, Persea). She is the editor of a forthcoming anthology, More Truly and More Strange: 100 Contemporary Self-Portrait Poems (Persea). Lisa is the director of the creative writing program at The University of Virginia, and a contributing editor of On the Seawall.

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The post is lowly. One may be a pillar of the community; who’s a post?,
With more elevation, it becomes a pole; with less, a stump. Some girth

is required. Plumpness of the sedentary. No figure to speak of. Minus
a few inches it’s a stake. Column implies a surrounding edifice. None.

Humming with resin when fresh: confidence of the newly sunk. Come,
lend me your elbows. Soon it goes gray and softens, softens into time.

—Erica Funkhouser