A Better Place is Hard to Find by Aaron Fagan

A Better Place is Hard to Find. Aaron Fagan. New York: The Song Cave, 2020. 84 pages.

In a song so moving it convinced the keepers of the dead to let Eurydice return with him to life, Orpheus confesses that he tried his best to come to terms with premature loss, his new wife bitten by a fatal snake. “I longed to be able to accept it,” he sighs with accompanying lyre, but ultimately “Love won,” compelling the poet to sing his way into the underworld. Ovid reports that at the sound of his music, even the damned looked up from their toil, pausing to listen and weep: “Tantalus did not reach for the ever-retreating water: Ixion’s wheel was stilled: the vultures did not pluck at Tityus’s liver: the Belides, the daughters of Danaüs, left their water jars: and you, Sisyphus, perched there, on your rock.” Despite this success, Orpheus failed to obey the gods’ one condition, that he should swear not to look back as Eurydice followed behind him on their journey out of Tartarus. Worried that she wasn’t there, the poet could only glimpse the re-disintegration of his shadow-swallowed wife as he glanced over his shoulder, self-fulfilling his own fears. Unable to repeat his feat of rescue, Orpheus returned with broken heart to the upper world where he sat on a hill and took to singing “gentle” songs about “boys loved by the gods, and girls stricken with forbidden fires, deserving punishment for their lust.” So lovely were his tuneful words that shade formed above him as trees uprooted themselves to listen in, the world rearranging itself around his hymns of love and loss. This world, the only world that there is left, reordered by regret, the risks of retrospect.

To refuse reality is to later doubt. To doubt is to look back is to lose. To lose is to sing. To sing is to bring the world you haven’t lost around you, its nearer trees and beasts and stones. What does it sound like, that song? Where is it learned? In his new book A Better Place is Hard to Find, the poet Aaron Fagan offers an answer by suggesting that regretful retrospect distorts and ruptures time in such a way as to create resonant interstices, the doubting-searching heart filled up with echoes of what could have been from which the orphic poet learns to listen for his song. Fagan writes of the “form / Of time travel” that “doubt” is, how it bifurcates a life into the world as it could be and the world as it is, the world that Orpheus is forced to choose. Returning from that interval, that “parallax” between lives that doubt opens up, the poet’s heart

Carries artifacts
Of sound from
Another world

Where silence
And all possible
Outcomes bathe

In simultaneity
Searching for
Common repair

Like a phonographic cylinder, the heart’s faithless wax is grooved with possibilities. Playback produces a silence that seethes with sonic artifacts, pops and hisses from another world or from a multiverse of worlds co-present to each other, harmonic spheres built up to a constructive interfering amplitude. World on world in palimpsest, the recording cylinder written and rewritten into a soft decay or slurry, a wall of sound.

And so the song to which the trees and stones are drawn is, like the poet returning from a Body/Head concert, “filled with feedback.” It is a song of common repair that has fallen apart underneath its many hopeful layers, too remediated and overwritten to keep pristine its cosmic harmony. At the concert, the poet watches Robert Altman’s noir-film The Long Goodbye (1973) “playing in slow motion on a sheet” behind the performers, an experience he compares to “the violence of paradise lost and found / Being paraded around with the pure unspoken ecstasy / Of shattered innocence not unlike today,” when “a gentleman / Painter of advanced age walked across water into where / I work and showed me his work, which was breathtaking”—a surreal sequence of events to which Fagan adds, “And I’m positive he said, I’ve spent my life making / Art to please others, so now I’m exploring extra dimensions / And what I’ve discovered is all possibilities lead to the inevitable.” Like the gentleman painter, Fagan uses his book to explore alternate dimensions, returning in the end, like Orpheus, to the inevitable: the world as it is, as it must be now, a consequence of wanting something else.

In this way, the poet is like Sisyphus, too, who tirelessly tries to work out strategies, other routes or means to accomplish his eternal task, to push a boulder forever up a hill. As Fagan retells the story of his punishment, Sisyphus

    punches in, each morning,
at the mountain he must face, all day,
in hell, for eternity, and at night,
Having not reached the summit,
Again, he walks down slow, where
The rock rushed by, careful to see,
With new eyes, where it all went
South, again, and then, later,
At the bar, in town, sits cooling his
Bleeding hands against a whiskey,
On the rocks, and maps new paths,
On a napkin, inside the wet ring
His tumbler made, again and again,
The routes running on to absurd
Lengths, hands shaking, and if it
Wasn’t a map, you might think
It was the history of history,
Or parts of a nude in repose,
Patient with death and belonging.

In Fagan’s poem, the inscriptions on the napkin form an image of history as a palimpsest of possibilities, of new paths and routes that resolve by double-take into a sublimer picture, the naked body “patient with death and belonging,” at last come to rest, appropriate and in its place. A better place is hard to find in this book, but even within the narrow confines of a wet ring left by a whiskey glass, there are still the tilted corridors and hallways of minor action, the modulations afforded by a perspectival shift. Meditating on the contracted circumferences of an intimacy, Fagan reflects on the way that

We lie to each other about the way we feel,
Bend time, curve space, to discover, in tandem,
What love is only by what is left of love when
Love returns, whether by death or dismantlement,
To begin, inch by inch through suffering and song...

Witnessing to “the fact we have come so far yet just begun,” the difficult ethics of this poem belong to the same Tartarus in which Sisyphus sits at a bar with bleeding hands and puzzles out his next day’s work. It describes a process of minute adjustments, spacetime bent and curved in song, song as it begins again and again, on loop, played back until its recorded ridges blur or the patterns in the iron oxide fray on the reel.   

In 1925, Sigmund Freud wrote a short essay about a recently invented novelty called the wunderblock, a “mystic writing pad” made of a malleable material, like resin, overlaid with two strips of wax-paper and celluloid. The toy afforded Freud a perfect analogy for how memory works, specifically giving an image of its simultaneous, paradoxical capacity for “unlimited receptive capacity and a retention of permanent traces.” With the wunderblock, a user could write on its surface with a stylus, then lift one of the sheets off of the waxen slab, thereby clearing the sheet for new inscription; underneath, the resin retained an impression of what had been written previously. The mind, Freud said, works similarly. It receives impressions, stores them, then clears the receptive surface for intake. But what Freud’s analogy leaves out is that the stored traces distort and corrupt each other. Recall becomes impossible. Memory becomes a terrain riddled with penciled ditches and muddy tread—a rough new landscape made by the chaos writing leaves behind. In A Better Place is Hard to Find, Fagan grapples with these effects, the inscription of the present that obliterates the past, but in the process reshapes the surface and reorders conditions, making new life possible even though the substrate is unchanged, that bitter orphic fact. The poem “Quietus” describes a “quickeningly sublime” change of light in an otherwise quotidian situation, producing a “distinct feeling, / Radiating from the condition, / Something complete had been / Filed with the terrible library / Of dreams and experience / That are about to begin again.” Fagan registers an inscriptive moment, a recording made by a stylus of light raking across a dim room, that intervenes in the “terrible library / Of dreams and experience” that constitutes a life, logging new content that essentially resets the system. It is an agonizing portrait of what it means to live entirely in the narrow moment, the sediment of near and distant past eroded by the slipstream of the living now. In Fagan’s book, the present is constantly asserting a disruptive tyranny that the poet struggles to account for, salvaging history as it is effaced by the force of the punctum, the luminous particular, like the image of flamingoes fading

    in the front lawn
Where an oyster pail—swarming
with flies, blurring the pagoda—
Bakes someone’s rice from last
Night in this morning’s sun.
It has taken time for the scene
To get this way, one extended
Present presenting itself in time
Over time and it smells like rain.
So much so that what isn’t this
Moment is now ancient history.

Toiling to hold off this abyssal displacement of the just-past by the present, the poet dreams of eluding pursuit, only now and then resting, letting his love sleep as he keeps watch, “fighting to keep my eyes open as morning / Comes, not for fear of being caught, / But that sleep would take the way I feel, / Our futures folded in on the past, / Leaving a tangle of echoes in the present.” Fagan’s poems struggle to retain some grip on continuity, conscious of the fragility of time and memory, which are constantly collapsing under the brunt weight of “this / Moment.” And yet, it is in “the tangle of echoes in the present” that the poet finds those sonic artifacts, remnants of a multiplicity of worlds, a chaos or cosmos of common repair that has left its traces in the heart’s warm palimpsest or stylus-softened writing pad.

A Better Place is Hard to Find dwells in the liminal zone between possibility and fate, between memory and fantasy, showing how the process of trying to figure out what went wrong in a life, going back over our tracks in the mud, muddying them more, writing and overwriting, is actually the process of creating a new terrain for new life, an endlessly updated library of dreams and experience. “You walk back / through your / life,” Fagan writes

Up the disparate
Threads you laid
Down, made
From anything
You could find—
Floss, bark, hair—
And fastened
Them together
With whatever
You could find—
Spit, shit, wax…

This ad hoc effort to string-together, to weave a patient nest of death and belonging, culminates in a moment of murky clarity: “You can see for / Miles in every / Direction and / Grow happy / You can’t be sure / This is happening.” Though we may be unsure, Fagan’s enjambment assures us that this is happening, life is happening, the present keeps arrowing in, the poet keeps threading lines together out of floss and bark and hair and shit and wax, so many “artifacts” that he says he is “ready / To carry over...to what / I have seen of the new battlefield, / A prior paradise beyond imagination.” In this book, the manipulable, malleable, rewritable past is both prior paradise and new battlefield in the struggle to create a livable future, a future in which the lost is still lost, but where the song of loss goes on, the world shifting around it, shady and shimmering, recombining, restless flies around an oyster pail or wound.  

Works Cited

Freud, Sigmund. “A Note Upon the ‘Mystic Writing Pad.’” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud: The Ego and the Id and Other Works v. 19. The Hogarth Press, 1961.

Ovid. Metamorphoses, tr. Anthony S. Kline. University of Virginia Library: The Ovid Collection, 2000.

Kylan Rice lives in North Carolina. His writing has been published in a variety of literary journals, including Kenyon Review, Tupelo Quarterly, and West Branch, among others. He has studied poetry at Colorado State University and UNC-Chapel Hill, where he currently serves as editor-in-chief for The Carolina Quarterly. His first book, Incryptions (Spuyten Duyvil 2021), is a collection of essays.