A poet’s first book is uniquely exciting. It can not really be disappointing; unless the author has established an unlikely reputation in journals (think Amy Clampitt), the first book comes with no strings attached. It stands or falls not in comparison to the author’s previous work but only—only!—in comparison to all previous poetry. Presumably, first books present material written over a long time, the best work culled from what might be the equivalent of several later books. For this reason alone, it is foolish, despite retrospective evidence, to predict the course of a poet’s career from his first book. For every Harmonium, Satan Says, or Some Trees, there are countless overstuffed volumes languishing in the libraries’ out-of-circulation depositories. On the other hand, first books serve as gauges of the condition of poetry and inevitably speak to the immediate future of the art and, for this reason, deserve special consideration.
So what are we to make of We Are Pharaoh, Robert Fernandez’s first book? Fernandez takes us on a tour of a world where the “vowels wear dark halos, of which they are ashamed” and the “passage of cups does not limit / the range of potential outcomes.” In other words: where conventional syntax and the hope that a shared grammar signifies a shared reality are quickly whittled away, and we step sideways through language limited mainly by the temporal act of reading itself. Take, for example, the title poem:
I should have said the iris
In its network of evictions
I should have spoken
We no longer fear,
We are no longer—
Are inadequately sexual
. . .
We who eat at the table,
Speak at the table, see
At the table,
Dilations and constrictions. . .
This evocative poem strikes me as representative of the "exploratory" style that defines poetry in the early twenty-first century. This sort of poetry displays a fierce intelligence and a heightened transnational awareness, exploring the relationship between syntax and semantics, and challenging the putative bargain the author makes with his reader to delight and possibly to instruct. The poet covers his tracks in writing, erasing, and revisioning the poem, so that it becomes difficult for even an attentive reader to trace the history of thought or to find a stable emotional position. What remains on the page is the slightly surreal map of a factitious terrain: effect without cause: a melodrama of the imagination. Whatever this poetic experience provides for the author, it can be exhilarating for the reader—or downright irritating, if one does not feel moved to wander through the boundless garden of the author’s imagination.
Fortunately, Fernandez writes smart poems with great care. He has a superior ear (a rare treat worth reading for), as in this delicate passage from “Polyhedron”:
The eye is present if the rain is out,
threatens to bend not only reeds
but pitch, guitar, eggs of the macaw.
Not just the river but the shadow of the river travels.
The way Fernandez throughout We Are Pharaoh echoes Stevens (“bacchanals of vision,” “vocables are stones entire,” “the drawing of a duration like a fan of water”) lends his work a rich lyricism much lacking in the recent past and, like Stevens, redeems an impulse to solipsism. Fernandez’s work promises that in its essential music poetry can reconnect us, who find the essential in nothing, despite an abused and fractured language.