The Pain Trader and Other Poems. By James Fowler. (Golden Antelope Press, 2020, Pp. 77)
Reviewed by Terrell Tebbetts
James Fowler writes poems about his state and region, the little postage stamp of a world that he knows well. He succeeds when he offers apt descriptive and narrative portraits of characters and settings and then leads readers into new understandings of them.
Sometimes Fowler uses historical events as settings for his narratives. In “Revelation,” for example, he follows a wandering hunter, a man without ties, free to keep moving through the world as he pleases. But then he finds the world itself moving as the New Madrid earthquake shakes up his world. Having seen and felt the instability of the world, this character ends up “set / on gaining himself a wife and child,” settling down in an unsettling world.
In “Aftermath,” Fowler uses the 1865 explosion of the Sultana riverboat as his setting. The first-person narrator, a Southerner seemingly fresh from the just-ended Civil War, spots the blue-clad bodies of Union soldiers killed in the explosion as they float past on the Mississippi River. Acknowledging that during the Civil War he and his buddies “might of whooped and seed / the hand of Providence” in such a death-dealing accident, he comes to realize that “a floatin’ charnel house / like this don’t count for good.” He is as changed by this event as is the character in “Revelation,” ready after years of war for death to be “draint out of the works” of man and nature.
Fowler gives readers another Civil War poem in “Brown Study in Blue and Gray,” set as the battle of Shiloh looms. He is less successful here, for instead of focusing on a central character changed by historical events, he creates an omniscient narrator who looks with askance at the boys ready for battle, their sights set “on incomparable feats / Of staunch derring-do-or-die.” He thus stays too close to the well-worn observation that untried soldiers are frightfully naïve.
He does better in “Elaine,” one of his metrical poems. Here Fowler comments on the 1919 Elaine Massacre in which hundreds of African Americans were killed by whites determined to maintain white supremacy in the face of union organizing among black sharecroppers. Fowler gives the piece power not by providing a changed central character but by tying the massacre to the blues emanating from the African American community of the region, specifically that of B. B. King. This poem is one of the truest to the title of the volume, as a bluesman, like a writer, can indeed be a pain trader, creating great art out of great pain.
Moving away from historical settings, Fowler also gives readers a more intimate world in which he depicts characters in their ordinary lives, often seeking new understanding of the lives he depicts.
Sometimes he paints broadly. In “Mountain Airs” his first-person narrator is an 80-something Ozark widow who summarizes the ups and downs of her married life. In “Gayne Preller Takes Stock,” the title character does the same. These poems try to cover too much to be detailed enough to put readers inside these lives. Thus they may lack power.
When he paints more narrowly, however, Fowler hits home, excelling in observing and describing specific behaviors of men and women at work or leisure in specific settings and then pondering their significance.
In “The Striper,” for instance, Fowler depicts a man repainting stripes in an empty asphalt parking lot and then imagines a life that might have led the man to such an occupation. In this case, he imagines a misspent youth lived outside the lines accumulating a “slate of misdemeanors” and “a mess of low-wage jobs” and ending in a Dantean twist, a punishment, it seems, in which he is sentenced to “spend whole days / toeing, walking, hell, laying down the line.”
In “Goat” Fowler gives readers not a man beat down by life but a boy experiencing its sorrow. The first to find himself unseated in a game of musical chairs in his church’s Fellowship Hall, too young to put this defeat into perspective, the boy cannot see beyond “the present catastrophe” and so “chokes on the pain / as on something / too large to swallow, / impossible to stomach.”
In poems like these, Fowler puts readers right into his subjects’ experiences and draws out sympathy for our fellow human beings.In other poems on daily life, Fowler elicits not sympathy but understanding. One of the best of these is “Threads.” Fowler describes a quilting bee, a circle of women “arranging scraps” and “piecing patterns” as they chat about “husbands, children, / household tasks, and prizes at the county fair.” Having put readers into that circle, Fowler goes on to picture the bee as much more than a stitching together of pieces of cloth:
This is how time gets stitched, the fabric
adorned with scarcely traceable designs
encompassing the most disparate swatches of life.
Here, as in many other poems, Fowler measures up to Robert Frost’s observation that it takes a true poet to get out of a poem well.
In a few of his poems on ordinary lives and ordinary places, Fowler goes for humor. In his treatment of Hot Springs’ one-time attraction, he imagines “I. Q. Zoo” animals being trained not just to put on shows for tourists but to carry out covert operations. What if, he asks, the invasion of “the Bay of Pigs had included a couple of / our porkers?” And wouldn’t Mr. Gorbachev be surprised to learn that when he “was being exhorted to tear down that wall, / our moles were already on the job.” What a fine play on words to exit that poem on!
In “Original Sin” Fowler has fun depicting a boy in Sunday School deciding that merely eating a forbidden apple couldn’t possibly be bad enough to condemn the whole human race. He wants to find out what Adam and Eve really did, maybe by doing the same thing himself, whatever it was. He yearns to tear off his “clip-on tie / and stiff dress shoes” and “scuff up his soul” a little. Alas, there’s “no chance in heck” for that.
As deft as Fowler is at such observations and insights, as apt as he is in exiting poem after poem, some readers will want a little more from him by way of prosody and language. Though he uses rhyme and blank verse occasionally, some of the poetry in this volume lacks the rhythms and fresh language many expect from poetry. Some of the imagery seems stale: a road is “snaking through” a neighborhood. A boat is packed “stem to stern.” A town needs “relief from suburban malaise.” A man lives in a “ranch house in suburban hell.” The language here, in short, is not as consistently fresh as the depictions of characters and settings.
On the whole, Fowler gives readers a well-realized, insightful tour through his native country. Though no character speaks from the grave, the volume reminds me of Edgar Lee Masters’ tour through Spoon River country. Though it’s a volume of poems, not short stories, it also reminds me of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. Readers who enjoy those works will surely enjoy this volume.
James Fowler teaches literature at the University of Central Arkansas. His poems have recently appeared in such journals as Futures Trading Magazine, Sheila-Na-Gig, Cave Region Review, Elder Mountain, Valley Voices, Aji Magazine, Malevolent Soap, Seems, Angry Old Man Magazine, Dash, and Common Ground Review. His poetry collection, The Pain Trader and Other Poems was published by Golden Antelope press in spring of 2020.
Terrell Tebbetts holds the Martha Heasley Cox Chair in American Literature at Lyon College. He has published over three dozen articles on American literature in several books and in journals such as Philological Review, Southern Literary Journal, The F. Scott Fitzgerald Review, The Steinbeck Review, and The Faulkner Journal. He regularly co-leads the Teaching Faulkner sessions at Ole Miss’s annual Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference.