The Crossing by Joseph Fasano
Cider Press Review, November 2018. 119 pp.
Reviewed by Ralph Hamilton
Late in Joseph Fasano’s new book, The Crossing, are the lines: “he knows / you cannot live in two worlds / forever.” In some sense, that is the challenge explored throughout: How does one continue in the face of great loss without denial, or despair, or consoling heavens? Yet, how still to acknowledge a palpable sense of the sacred, the beautiful, and the numinous in a world such as ours? Further, how to accept, if not reconcile, the pull of those two spheres? It is a paradox that persists: “Our one / task is to be ready, ready / for immensity, and our immensity is that we are // never.”
The first and longest poem, “The Crossing,” (from which the book takes its title), a threnody in words, sets the elegiac themes and tone of all that follows as it mulls grief and its dense repercussions. The poem weaves together images and stories of a marionette’s daughter, an alchemist, the narrator’s ailing wife, an injured doe, a pianist, a Vietnam War veteran, a roan horse, nightingales, Job, and more. Alternately describing, questioning, evaluating, directing, and ruminating, the poet’s narrative wends in and out—braiding, knotting, fraying—each story with its own music, each adding to the overall polyphony.
Which is what the music must have sounded like
to my wife, in her fever, that winter when she weighed eighty-five pounds
and tried, like an instrument,
to give herself over, wholly, to the wind, to the way, to the winter
of what she’d been, whatever it promised it would sing to her.
Among repeated avowals of “I don’t know,” the poet concedes: “What we have is music and its fading. / What we have is the hymn in us, and no player.” Offering neither bromides nor answers, it is as if the narrator is trying to ground himself, slow down his mind, clear his thoughts, in order to accept and perhaps witness to the mysterious, plangent complexity of life as he has found it. Again and again, the poet calls on us simply to “Listen.”
These are religious poems in the way that Rilke’s poems are religious: meaning they are not concerned with specific creeds or rituals, but rather with engaging in the less fixed but more fundamental questions about our place in the world, about meaning and loss, guilt and forgiveness, about the body and the soul, the enigma of desire and love, about the tantalizing distance between ordinary reality and the transcendent, and yet the persistent claims of each upon us.
In the book’s later poems, beset by conflicting impulses to escape his pain, what sustains the narrator is his attachment to the broken incarnate world, particularly as it shows itself in the cycles of nature and daily life on a farm. It is there, in the ordinary and unexceptional, that the possibility of some consolation may be found, there that the infinite and beautiful may be manifest:
What I want still
is this world only: not the pyres, not the rising light
at evening, but the way down
through briar in the briar.
Not bitterness, not the lifting,
but the weight.
The troubled dust
where the saint knelt down
and his prayer was so immaculately broken
that it sang to him
that ruin, too, will sing you.
In the book’s penultimate poem, Fasano stands, finally, with the archetypal wind-borne wanderer, Odysseus, beset and lost, a seeming plaything of the gods, yet resourceful nonetheless, as he struggles to live on, to find his way home.
Think of him hearing your voice again,
hiding his face in his hands
as he listened, hearing a music
of losses and joys, pestilence and bounty,
a beauty that had prepared
a place for him. And whether you would have him
be changed by that, or return
to what he was, or become
what he had come this way to become.
Amid a landscape of “ashes, oblivion, fire,” Fasano concludes not with grace—
though ample blessings, even joy, appears throughout—but with the need to choose.
Ralph Hamilton is editor of RHINO. With an MFA in Poetry from Bennington, his poems have appeared in Court Green, CutBank, Pirene’s Fountain, Blackbird, The Ilanot Review, and elsewhere. He judged Fifth WednesdayJournal’s (FWJ) poetry prize in Fall 2013, and served as FWJ’s guest poetry editor in 2014. He also co-edited the debut volume of Glass Lyre Press’s Aeolian Harp Anthology in 2016. His first book of poems, Teaching a Man to Unstick His Tail (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2015) was listed among the top 10 poetry books of 2015 by a committee of the American Library Association, and was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award. In 2015 Ralph was also nominated for Best New Poets and a Pushcart Prize. Ralph is currently working on his second book, Faster, Daddy!