Jennifer H. Fortin, Mined Muzzle Velocity, Lowbrow Press, 2011
Review by Adam Pellegrini
In an illuminating interview for Ploughshares in 1983 (Vol. 9, No. 1), Frank Bidart reflects on the development of his unique style of punctuating and lineating poems such as "The War of Vaslav Nijinsky" and "Ellen West" to translate precisely the mental voice he heard. He says:
[Pound's Cantos] were incredibly liberating in the way that they say that anything can be gotten into a poem, that it doesn't have to change its essential identity to enter the poem—if you can create a structure that is large enough or strong enough, anything can retain its own identity and find its place there.
Jennifer H. Fortin's first of book of poems Mined Muzzle Velocity follows this dictum to a certain extent. Fortin finds a form open enough to allow her to follow quickly shifting impulses of thought and style without much adjustment. The book maintains a fidgety voice between lines, sentences, and poems—from lovely alliterative moments to fragments and wrenched syntax to conversational speech—and yet it all somehow coheres to develop a clear and unique central speaker. It's an ambitious and ultimately honest first book that's as frustrating as it is gratifying.
Tyehimba Jess's Leadbelly, Patricia Smith's Blood Dazzler, and Maurice Manning's Bucolics all come to mind as recent book-length attempts to tell a story through voice-driven poems, each of which also uses its extensive structure to fit a lot into a single work. Fortin's book, however, is distinct in its approach: the book is written in a series of 67 letter-poems, each framed within a simple rendering of a postcard—a 3x5 rectangle divided with a line down the center and blank address lines to the right. Each poem begins simply by stating "Dear" and listing the month, and closes simply with "Yrs." The poems together form a series of love letters presented in order on a timeline between October and March—the basic plot being that as the speaker continues to travel, describing different people, landscapes, and landmarks (such as "the amphitheatre previously used for blood/sports"), she continues to write to an ambiguous addressee whom she alternately makes romantic advances towards, asks to reminisce with her, and castigates for not responding. Part of what makes the insularity of this correspondence believable is the personal relationship we trust the speaker and addressee share, allowing her to reference memories without explanation or include inside jokes, and to write in a comfortable shorthand, clipping sentences and ideas. However, it's this ambiguity that also continues to create tension throughout the book.
Unlike Leadbelly, for instance, which relies on poem titles to expressly name the character speaking and often give context, Fortin leaves many details open-ended. Some poems do explicitly address the unnamed recipient with certain loneliness and longing that could be love ("By Myself, Yrs/P.S. You are home, I think, but I continue/going"); and the speaker even comments on the postcard form at points ("I think of the postcard as a sideways/call to action"). However, Fortin leaves out more context than she includes, prompting the reader to constantly try to complete the story as it progresses without them. Without titles and sections, the best exposition the reader has to draw from is often the advancing months and the sequence of the poems, amidst the at times chaotic movement of the speaker's thoughts. For instance, the poem on page 12, which ends:
We need context to plait.
Brakes lower the headlights if pressed.
True or not: to occur is to note
a pre-existing situation. Were you ever
into assembly? What if you join together
multiple stiff fibers? I'm not certain
roads are always a good way out.
Each new sentence here seemingly brings on a radically new thought for the speaker, and yet each of these lines does add to a single idea—headlights (and car) precede the breaks, the fibers exist separately before they're joined (or plaited), etc. Fortin's style in this book is not just to follow impulses, but to balance them—granting access to thought patterns that might better characterize her speaker, working within a coherent form (postcard) and pattern (series of correspondence), fracturing the reader's expectations of poem and genre, and communicating a reason for the distortion. Fortin seems to want it all—a book that engages the reader with a context, that distorts its context, and that comments on why it does so. As much as this book follows other extensive, character-driven works with its focus on developing a sophisticated voice, it also maintains a self-awareness and insularity that can be read as the poet showing through.
Ultimately, Fortin is unique as a poet of the mind working within an expressly narrative structure. Her biggest difficulty may be avoiding those moments where the balance leans too far in one direction—where we clearly hear Fortin's comments rather than her speaker's: "We are forced to use intermediaries to / communicate due to our imperfect state." Fortin seems to want to create a coherent message through disjunction by translating the roundness of the inconsistency felt living in postmodernity. The danger is whether or not the poem's structure is large enough to accommodate all of her registers, including the more explicit comments on poetry—which it is. The consistent ambiguity of the narrative and the turbulence of sound, rhythm, and idea throughout Fortin's book are always enough to force the reader to forge ahead, just as the speaker does.
Mined Muzzle Velocity hinges on a lack of response, inviting the reader to follow as a potential addressee. With no one else named, the reader begins to claim the place of "Dear." Fortin highlights the paradox found throughout contemporary poetry—though none of the postcards are definitely received, the speaker continues to write and beg reply from a static recipient as the letters chart the speaker's constant journey. In the final poem, she asks this Dear to "please surrender [her]dislocated procession"—and so continues to fail at/seek correspondence, contact, and dislocation.