Fiends Fell by Tom Pickard
Flood Editions, 2017. 224 pages.
Reviewed by Brendan White
In 2010, Poetry published Tom Pickard’s “Lark & Merlin,” a 110-line poem, in three parts, filled with autobiographical reflection, aphorism, handsy phonemes, and metaphysical conceits. It takes Basil Bunting’s modernist idea of poetry as condensed language to its logical endpoint by offering a condensed version of Basil Bunting’s long poem Briggflatts. Bunting’s “words are too light / take a chisel to write” becomes in Pickard’s hands a smaller and more delicate tool:
perched on a hawthorn
low enough to skip
the scalping winds,
sang a scalpel song
Bunting and Pickard can come off as hostile to Latinate diction, but Pickard neatly lets the Middle English “scalp” assimilate “scalpel,” which etymologically is a diminutive version of “chisel,” in Latin. “Lark and Merlin,” revised down to 103 lines and a generous helping of white space, concludes Fiends Fell. The book is worth getting just to have that poem handy, and the first part of the book, Fiends Fell Journals, is a haibun-like mix of prose and poetry that clears a long runway for “Lark and Merlin” and lavishes the longer poem with context.
Fiends Fell is the real name of a place near the English/Scottish border that Pickard moved to after his marriage ended, and it sounds like a nice, brutal place to do some brooding. But if you want overtly divorce-themed poems, this book does not oblige. Pickard’s, Dark Months of May, from 2004, was written near the start of his time in Fiends Fell, and while a few lines from that collection reappear here in altered forms, there is nothing in this book that goes for the breakup tone of lines like, “someone said get her out of your system / but you can’t flush love away / and I won’t.”
The Journals move between shorter poems and personal diary entries and digressive paragraphs about local items of interest like lead-mining or border bandits. They expand upon places and things in “Lark and Merlin,” like the wrens that nestle into ridges below the winds. It helps to know that the “cafe without customers” in which Pickard ruminates while listening to the wind is called the Cardboard Cafe by its biker clientele because it was once blown away entirely.
An undated introduction provides a sampling of local lore about this scenery-chewing wind that, “rips turnips out of the ground, and an old woman claims that it blows the beaks off geese...even the minor winds feel fierce enough to rip the holes from your socks and they make my bed shake.” A friend duly asks Pickard, “what's it like to live in a metaphor?” and you see in “Lark and Merlin” that he in fact relishes the pun life (“I fell to fell thinking”). Many of the poems that break up the prose have one or more obliquely relevant aphorisms potted in syllables who all seem to know one another and love landscapes.
The individual entries of the Journals provide a month and a date, but no year. As in Walden, there is both a sense of the metaphoric richness of the place and a plausibly real timeline of mundane events and intrigues that is nevertheless compressed and finessed. (Thoreau claims his stay at Walden began on Independence Day, and his two-year residency was folded into one for the book.) The Journals are something like 10 years jellied into one nine-month span during which “Lark and Merlin” gestates while Pickard goes for walks, files for bankruptcy, works a little at the cafe takeout window, fulfills bullshit work-seek requirements for dole money, reminisces, conducts etymological research, takes pictures, does amyl nitrate with lovers who text him things like “I have missed sex and I have needs...I am not drunk,” gets stoned, writes poems, grumbles about the Iraq War, and tries vainly to avoid bad weather.
The poet here is recognizably the young narrator Tom Pickard presented his early novella Guttersnipe, “unemployable from the tender age of fourteen,” who is obedient only to Buntings’s dictum from Briggflatts: “poet appointed dare not decline / to walk among the bogus.”
Brendan White is a poet and local government employee who lives in Chicago.