“The History of Your Private Life”: On Peter Mishler’s “Fludde”
MARCH 14, 2019
EARLY IN Peter Mishler’s debut poetry collection, Fludde, selected by Dean Young for the 2016 Kathryn A. Morton Prize in Poetry (Sarabande), the speaker of “Workhorse” remembers: “When I was young they scored me / and buried their straw in me / and let whatever gold clot in me / invested in me and scared my old life / out of me the way they said / it was meant.” This strange statement — part confession, part cry for help — introduces us to one of Fludde’s central concerns: the psychological repercussions of emotional abuse, both for children and for the adults those children become. As in “Workhorse,” Mishler rarely addresses these problems in the language of realism. Instead, he prefers to explore his subjects by creating playful, surrealist set-pieces and imaginative landscapes. The poems of Fludde tend to resemble James Tate’s early and mid-career poems, albeit with less goofiness and more gravitas. Still, as in Tate’s best work, whimsical play and occasional moments of absurdist humor add texture to Mishler’s poems without deflecting our attention from the pain that is housed in the heart of the collection.
Many of these poems are populated by vulnerable, hurt children who must seek to make sense of their experiences with little help from adults, most of whom behave inconsistently at best. In Fludde, the natural curiosity and imaginativeness of children are repeatedly met not with adult encouragement, but with harsh reprimands. In “Overall Message,” “a nurse-in-training scolds a child / on the curb in front of us. / ‘Don’t let me catch you in the cabinet again!’” Elsewhere, one of Mishler’s speakers rebukes a child for exercising his independence: “What did I tell you // about playing with visions / by the water / when I’m not watching?” Even when Mishler’s adult figures do attempt to provide children with a sense of security, they further contribute to the children’s overwhelming confusion: “We were told God was winnowing us / into fascinating lutes. / While the flood ranged southward.”
Mishler’s decision to come at the problem of abuse from the perspectives of both child and adult prevents Fludde from ever feeling like an extended lament or easy critique. Instead, he forces himself to examine the emotional complexities of human relationships, even when that requires that he assume the personae of the sources of abuse. The emotional resonance of these poems is in large part a result of Mishler’s refusal to provide his readers with the cheap comfort of simple moral judgment. He seems to be utterly uninterested in calling attention to himself or asserting his moral superiority. On the contrary, he renders these psychological crises with a matter-of-fact humility, in a voice that is at once terse and tender:
I was first on the ward
to see the sunlight fall
on the lighthouse stairs.
It kept me, emboldened,
alive for some time,
I moved more humanely,
troubling no one,
as if all distance
had been removed
as far back as childhood,
closing a gap between
boy and his overpass,
boy and his flowers beneath it.
Why is this speaker in the hospital ward? Where is the lighthouse, and why does it possess such significance? These are not the most instructive types of questions to ask Mishler’s poems, which place more value on imaginative play than they do on pristine clarity of narrative context.
For Mishler, as for his child speakers, the imagination is not a frivolous accessory or a source of escapism. It is an invaluable tool that makes possible a kind of metaphysical rebellion, even when artificial laws and boundaries in the “real world” seem to limit what is possible. In “Boy Rowing Asleep,” a child repeatedly, deliberately dreams of escaping the confines of “this tall citadel” in which he is imprisoned:
nightly asleep in my unswept space
I rescued myself, sent a braid of my hair
through the keyhole and followed it
down to the banks and into the seat
of my waiting skiff.
Elsewhere, the adult speaker of “Tenor” acknowledges the connection between the imaginative life of the mind and a child’s self-actualization: “Little silver thought, / you changeling, protector of the snowscape / walking the wet retaining wall to your house at dusk, // the history of your private life has begun.”
For all its power, however, the imagination cannot revise the past, and many of Mishler’s adult speakers find themselves struggling to cope with the guilt and shame that often remain in the wake of a painful childhood. “I’m embarrassed,” one speaker asserts without explanation, “I’m shaving in my car / which doesn’t matter.” “To a Feverish Child” even hints at the possibility of self-harm as a consequence of childhood trauma. With a tinge of envy, the adult speaker imagines confessing to the eponymous character, “You can’t conceive that at dusk I drove my car / alongside the water to get my thoughts right, / and leaned my body over the reservoir’s lip.” This is, to say the least, not something an adult should ever tell a child, much less one’s own.
Mishler’s poems rarely contain explicit autobiographical information. However, as I read these poems I was struck by how much they resemble shadow plays, suggesting more specific concerns to which we are not privy and refracting the poet’s own pain and joy through the lenses of fairy tale and fantasy. In particular, readers may sense the underlying anxiety of a soon-to-be father who is, himself, still coming to terms with his past. Is it prudent to take on the burden of raising a child when one at times feels like a wounded child, himself? What is to become of these “children’s children”? In “A Vision,” a nightmare reveals a father’s terror at recognizing he cannot guarantee the protection of his child: “[W]e dreamt in the mountains / we heard our child / down every mineshaft […] In the basket, / the pale, young bodies. / None were ours.” Elsewhere, “Paternity Test” ends with the tonally ambiguous “It’s yours,” the antecedent of which is not a child but rather that child’s vulnerability, signified by a “cough […] crystallized / and sweet.”
As in the work of most poets who delight in the illogic of surrealism, the wild imaginativeness of Mishler’s poems occasionally risks leaving the reader behind in a state of unproductive disorientation. More often, however, Mishler mediates the unpredictability of his content with an impressive formal dexterity. Some of these poems, like the exceptional “Head in the Orchard,” demonstrate the poet’s talent for writing relaxed, unassuming lines of pentameter:
Why the boatsman spared me I do not know.
He stood above me on the overpass
without a word, his eyes downcast and clear,
his wreath of sawgrass hung around his neck.
The majority of Fludde’s poems, however, demonstrate Mishler’s proclivity for relatively short lines of two or three stresses, which help organize poems overflowing with imagery into manageable parts. I generally find that short lines increase the speed at which I move through a poem, but Mishler’s carefully sculpted lines — which tend to resolve at the end of syntactic units — often have the opposite effect, slowing the reader’s movement and breaking a unified sequence of events into snapshots.
In poems like “A Romance” and “Landscape,” Mishler creates a productive tension between our natural desire for forward progress and the halting effects of the form in which narratives are cast:
And snow falls
onto the face of a child
who stands beside
about to open his mouth.
Out comes the rattle
washed in a sink:
music you heard
from a window
you stood beneath
in a courtyard
when you were small.
Each of these lines deliberately revises or recontextualizes the information that precedes it, and this deliberateness contributes much to our sense of Mishler’s authority. These short lines also result in a reader’s enhanced awareness of the page’s white space. At times, one senses that these poems consist in text engraved on marble tablets, discovered relics from an ancient civilization. This sensation is intensified by a recurring mythological dramatis personae that includes centaurs, a parental but vaguely threatening Boatsman, and William Blake’s child hero, Little Tom Dacre, who speaks directly to the reader in the remarkable closing poem.
Fludde repeatedly exhibits an active engagement with the art of the past: these poems allude to or draw upon, among others, Blake, Picasso, Hanshan, 19th-century fiction, and Benjamin Britten’s short opera Noye’s Fludde, from which Mishler’s collection takes its name. Given this concern with tradition, it is interesting to consider the relationship between Fludde and the political concerns of the present. In Young’s foreword to Fludde, the older poet praises Mishler’s poems for “permitting the reader to see beyond the life of a single poet, and outside our current moment. The poems are not cut-up essays. They are not political diatribes.” Young is correct that Fludde is more quietly political than much contemporary poetry. (The fact that “toxic masculinity” is emphasized more than “children” in Fludde’s marketing copy would be puzzling were one not aware of the contemporary market’s demand that new poetry collections, especially those by young poets, respond to at least one of a narrow set of topical concerns.)
On the other hand, Mishler, like Young, possesses a Romantic sensibility, and his poems reveal serious anxieties about consumerism, cultural superficiality, and the effects of technology on the natural world. In “Haruspex,” a bemused office worker witnesses the 21st-century miracle of “Xeroxes spilled / from a seam of light. / They handed me / a memory of warmth / from distant fires.” The patently absurd “Surf City” is the site from which “a new fleet of Innisfrees takes to the sky / over the heads of the city planners, / over the balustrade to the pier, / over the infants flipped onto their backs / reading the style guide, taking its quiz,” and we cannot help but laugh even as we cringe at this technological appropriation of the idyllic subject of Yeats’s longing. Moments like these abound in Fludde and possess a delightful whimsy, even if the general content of Mishler’s critiques is not unfamiliar. But the heart of Fludde is its sensitivity to the experiences of children, and Mishler’s awareness that developing the courage to confront the complexities of our childhoods is essential if we are ever to know who and what we truly are.
Matt Morton’s poetry has appeared in AGNI, Gettysburg Review, Harvard Review, Tin House Online, and elsewhere. His work has received support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars, and the University of North Texas, where he is a Robert B. Toulouse Doctoral Fellow in English.