Fragile Acts, by Allan Peterson
a review

Allan Peterson’s Fragile Acts is a page-turner in the truest sense. Some books, of poetry especially, are given over to the process of mulling, putting down and picking back up, and reconsidering. Over the years I’ve bought many collections of poetry that still sit on my shelf half- or a quarter-read. That I read Fragile Acts in one night is telling. Peterson has done some things right, and one or two wrong, but overwhelmingly Fragile Acts succeeds.

Published by McSweeney’s, who haven’t turned out too many books of poetry (Peterson’s is poetry book #2 for them, not including collaborations), Fragile Acts is part of the Rumpus Poetry Club. It’s the book that got me to join finally after going back and forth for a few months. It was a blurb by John Ashbery that pulled me in:

"Like 'Brazil’s undiscovered caverns of amethyst', Allan Peterson's Fragile Acts is a major find."

I like finds. I wondered what I would find in this attractive little volume with its sensual cover showing a human back exposed and blooming - or exploding - with what vaguely looks like flora and sort of looks like guts.

Sure enough, as I progressed through its pages I gained speed, and started tripping over the clotted roots of Peterson’s gift of burying tricky truths in tidy, sometimes convoluted, almost mystic, syntax.

No wonder nothing comes to us // but what’s afraid to be eaten if it refuses.

There will be the shy way // the sundew hides its stems in our own yard, news // from the western fires on email, // blazing spiders housekeeping in the heart.

Look at the inquisitive miles fingers have put on pianos, // knocking softly through nothing opened.

What does he mean by that - oh!, I found myself thinking, and yes, he’s right. If you want a theme, the one here is the repeated discovery of inner tendency and need through the slow and careful contemplation of the natural world. There are conclusions drawn and discoveries made about the constance of nature and of species, about the prodigal arc our society is making toward a mangled new singularity between beast and man and machine, and mercifully they have been made carefully and after lengthy deliberation. One has the sense of a decades-long bath, the bather sitting up to shout “Eureka!” quite calmly, taking the time to towel off and dress, to walk through the streets instead of run. Every poem is a catacomb, and every sentence has its own neat brilliance.

Heaviness threatens to settle in as the second half of the book winds down into ornithology, chemistry, and botany; where they composed a gentle, illuminating backdrop in the first half, they take center stage at times towards the end and eclipse the greater good - Peterson’s considerable insight. But it never quite gets heavy enough to carry you down. This book has hollow bones.

Well-recommended. McSweeney’s San Francisco; Poetry Series #2. 978-1-936365-80-7

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