rev. of Full Moon Boat by Fred Marchantby
Full Moon Boat
Poems by Fred Marchant. Graywolf Press, $12.95 paper. Reviewed by H. L. Hix.
Its title and first poem proclaim Fred Marchant's fine
Full Moon Boat an odyssey inverted, defining an alternative to the ideal of the heroic return from war. Pressure from the family to adopt the martial model comes early, an aunt "pleading that / I not leave the service as a conscientious / objector," and declaring that "Jesus could not approve." Marchant, though, does what his aunt warns him against: "how good it would feel / to take a helmet off, set the weapon down."
The theme of the pacific -- rather than heroic -- return continues through
Full Moon Boat, as can be seen by looking at the first poem in each of the book's five sections, all of which are among the volume's eight or ten best poems. "The Return" (quoted above) begins the first section; the second starts with "Screen Porch," a short poem of observation declaring the poet's affection for a porch where "First light had to be inferred from shadows / / slipping off locusts, and tall wild sumacs, / from wet sparkles in the mesh." Certainly Marchant associates the porch with Thoreau's cabin by Walden Pond and Yeats's imagined cabin on Innisfree, sanctuaries in the broad sense of the word, but he also identifies it as a sanctuary in the narrower sense, a place in which one is protected from armed conflict, the screened porch a peaceful counterpart to the soldier's screened tent.
Opposition to war stays much nearer the surface in "Archives," the first poem in the third section, where the narrator reflects on two photographs, one of "a field hospital where a medic / tends to a civilian woman's wounded hip," and the other of "a corpse in a hammering sun" with a boy "squatting beside him" smoking. "Delphi" opens the fourth section with a student's account of his dialogue with a professor over a paper on
Agamemnon, concluding with the professor's desire for "poetry of the day / after the peace has begun," that hears "whispered / kindnesses pass among those who survive, / who lie curled in the trunk of a hollow tree." Even when "Estuaries" begins the final section without explicit reference to war, it remains connected to the inverted odyssey theme by making William Stafford, another publicly pacifist poet, the addressee and the dedicatee of the poem.
Its first poem introduces
Full Moon Boat as an odyssey, but also establishes a second way of seeing the book, summoning Blake as a presiding spirit, pronouncing these poems songs of experience. That characteristic asserts itself strongly in "Letter," a translation from a Vietnamese original, in the voice of a soldier writing to his mother, telling her that even though "I may well fall in this war," his death will not be wholly meaningless, since he will fall "just like straw for the village thatch." The son asks her to "leave the door ajar" so that he can return, having "found his way / home on airs that wander the earth." Similarly, Marchant's "A Reading During Time of War" claims status as a song of experience, by moving from "the moment just before" a reading to the image of a waterlogged corpse "just below" the surface of a river, recalling us to our own position, always simultaneously before death and after it.
Arrayed against the ideal of return that is represented in the opening poem, the themes and images and attitudes in
Full Moon Boat sum to the alternative ideal with which the book closes: "the dream / of each of us all over again."
H. L. Hix's most recent books are a poetry collection, Rational Numbers,
and a translation of Eugenijus Ali×sanka's City of Ash.
His next poetry collection, Surely as Birds Fly,
will be published by Truman State University Press in 2002.