B. H. Fairchild is not a well-know poet, even though he’s published seven books of poetry and has been a finalist for a fistful of prestigious prizes. He is a poet without a Twitter, Instagram, or even Facebook account. No social media presence at all. Instead, he creates a world in measured free verse—mostly longer poems about welding, or his father, or small-town Texas or Kansas, or perhaps my very favorite of his long poems, “Beauty.” This poem starts as a meditation on how out of place that word, beauty, was in the poet’s blue-collar youth, and his complex relationship to that exquisitely evoked world. You don’t have to be a poet to love Fairchild’s poems, and perhaps even his father, furious about his fancy, flowery-assed language, might be able to see something in them, something about a hard-won love of the Kansas wind, the flatlands of Texas, the arc of a welder’s torch, or the deep sorrow life brings to all of us who love other humans. His descriptions carry a little of James Wright’s small towns but are uniquely his own.
It’s rare that a poet creates a vivid, consistent, consistently intriguing world, a world anyone can enter to experience its automobiles and slang, its prejudices and peculiarities. But from the first poem in his latest book, An Ordinary Life, I was seduced to leave my comfortable chair overlooking the slate-colored bay and its bridges and head to the plains, the flyover world I’d never known, where killing a man costs $500, and no one except the poet thinks poetry has any place in a life that is a serious business.
Fairchild brings this world to the reader as lived experience. He is of it, but has left it, from a blue-collar background he has traveled, made a life of writing and teaching poetry, but has returned to it in memory and imagination, so that its hard lessons sing even in a poem set in the Punk Rock aisle of Rhino Records. And what he has brought back for us to experience, to marvel at, is not just the rusted two-toned Ford Falcon, the fox-fur stoles, the alchemy of the welding torch, but the humanity and grace often missing from contemporary poetry—real people, their naked sorrow, their imperfect love, “the innocence and kindness / of the hopeful before the world disappoints them.”
Fairchild’s poems transform the particular into the universal in a way few contemporary poems manage. His mastery of pacing, of the poetic line, are what make these seem so easy, easy in the way any accomplished magician makes their work look easy. The accuracy and specificity of his imagery build line after line to an implacable intensity of feeling that keeps me reading and reading as I would for a superbly written thriller. What’s next?
Because most poems in the book are longish, a full page or two, and their pacing is important to their effect, it’s hard to extract a quote that does the work justice. But the following is a good chunk of “Home,” a poem that starts with a baseball game in which a boy is hitting in the bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, and the boy delivers the winning hit. Read aloud even with the omissions, you’ll feel how Fairchild’s lines manipulate the breath:
(...) I look into the stands
and there is my mother hugging my sister,
who has somehow escaped the coma that was
her home for so many years, and my father holding
back the tears, and Aunt Vinna, home from the asylum
she never came home from, and even Uncle Bob
sober and sharp in a tailored suit and silk tie and
Florsheim shoes, flush with money...
And Jesus, there, look, stepping from the stands,
my brilliant, beautiful son, in his Green Lantern shirt,
so happy, and this time he will always be happy,
for I am coming home and they are all running
toward me—my family, the fans, my teammates, too.
They are lifting me up, high up, toward heaven,
and so I wave my cap just as I did as a boy at my Lord
Jesus Christ and his mother Mary and all the angels
with their pathetic Budweiser beers and mustard-
leaking hotdogs sitting in the outer seats, for we have won,
WE HAVE WON, and they all love me now, love me
for the fine and noble thing that I have done.
With this mix of the poet as a boy and a man, the past and present swirl together in a kind of aria. We, too, are lifted. The language embraces us, let’s us experience any moment of victory we have ever experienced, and then the master brings us back to earth:
Well, the season of dreams is over, Boston finally won,
and the Cubs, and my son’s hatred of a world
where the only story is that somebody wins and
somebody loses has dimmed with the stadium lights.
I walk through the crowded streets, listening to car horns
in the distance, a lone shout somewhere nearby,
people forever lost in the great puzzle of their lives,
going home, or wanting to go home, or perhaps walking
to the nearest bar, as I am, for it is for many a kind of home,
where the voice of Patsy Cline rises from the jukebox
and kind faces emerge slowly from the dark,
and I say, hi mom, hello father, hello my excellent
sister, hello my doomed and incurably sad son.
This is the kind of writing that fills the first third of this slim volume, writing that you will find in abundance in The Blue Buick, his new and selected poems. I can’t think of any other poet writing in this way at this time, and as David Orr wrote recently about A. E. Stallings, this is “the sort of poetry that evokes the word ‘good,’ rather than, for instance, ‘brave’ or ‘disorienting’.” It is not experimental, not filled with hashtags, spaces, or dashes. There is a short prose poem section, based on the musings of a fictional character Fairchild has invoked before, and some shorter poems, some in form, as a final section. But it is the first section of long poems drawing on both past and present that seem to me the most representative of Fairchild’s particular genius. So straight-forward at first, so narrative, like sitting down with a friend for a beer and a chat, they are anything but simple, as any poet who studies meter and word choice soon realizes. If you haven’t experienced Fairchild’s work, this is a great place to start.
Meryl Natchez’ fourth book, CATWALK received an Indie Best Book 2020 Award from Kirkus Reviews. Her work has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, LA Review of Books, Hudson Review, Poetry Northwest, ZYZZYVA, Terrain, Literary Matters, American Journal of Poetry, and many other publications. She blogs at www.merylnatchez.com and has served as chair of the Marin Poetry Center.