by Jackie Ott
In a short poem entitled “Endurance,” Elyse Fenton writes: “I used to stand in doorways and know / there was no human way to go on or through” (46). This poem, along with so many others reverently bound in Clamor, captures a deep human emotion not easily put into words. Fenton’s poetry engages with something intrinsically human, deeply emotional, easy to connect to but not easy to articulate. Because Clamor was written during her husband’s deployment in Iraq, Fenton describes it as something that just happened:
I say “it happened” because that’s how the writing felt. It was happening, whether I liked it or not (and often, admittedly, I did not). It was happening on the blank computer screen when I wrote in the mornings before teaching or running or dithering around in my garden or going to class. And it was happening in the occasional phone calls I had with my husband, in the instant messages, in all the communication we had or failed to have across that year.
Like life, like emotion, this was a book of poetry that seemed to demand to be written, and for the reader, it just as importantly demands to be felt.
I was given the chance to interview Fenton before her upcoming talk on the 17th of this month. Reading from Clamor, a winner of the University of Wales Dylan Thomas Prize, Fenton gives students and others the golden opportunity to hear the poems through the poet’s voice. I asked Fenton for a description of her book, and her response, full of beauty, captured the book in the way only the author could:
“Clamor” is one of those words that means its own opposite. It means both noise and silence, and it means protest. I was the wife of a soldier living in the most homogeneously liberal pacifist echo chamber I’ve ever lived in (and that’s saying something). It was a fraught and anxious and squirmy and sometimes terrible and highly productive time. The book that came of it, I think, enacts that tension: there’s a speaker bashing up against the limits of language, and finding some kind of solace in that failure. Which might be another way of saying, the book’s full of elegies.
As a reader, I saw this tension most prominently in the ever changing of format of the poems in the book. Separated into three sections, the first and third sections follow a more traditional poem format, while section two is full of prose poems. When asked about this changing format, Fenton responded:
As the poet, as the one instigating the bashing I tried a lot of different approaches. The prose poems in the middle, the more exploded lyrics, the couplets, the tercets, there’s a broken sonnet or two in there… When I first put the book together, I wasn’t sure what to do with all that variety, but then I understood it for what it was: clamor, all of it.
And clamor it is, protesting the traditional while giving voice to the unspoken, giving the reader a chance for the peaceful silence that comes in the wake of the articulation of pure feeling. This book of poetry has depth and beauty and so many layers that with each new layer you un-earth, the greater your appreciation for Fenton and her poetry grows. She makes music with the noise of emotion. She describes the writing of this book as throwing
[A] lot at the page to see what would stick, what would wound, what would edge me closer to or farther away from…I want to say ‘understanding’ here, but it was more like relief. What would edge me closer to relief, to the discovery that what was music was also just noise. And of course, the other way around.
Simultaneously a wound and a bandage, relief and distraction, hope and despair, music and noise, Clamor offers a look into the life of a wife of a soldier, but also a look into emotions that each human, regardless of station and location, struggles to find the words for. If you have the opportunity, take an hour out of your day and come listen to Fenton on November17th: the evening’s reading offers more than just the chance to listen to wonderful poetry.