On April 3, 2017, I reviewed The Mind (2011, Salmon Poetry) by John FitzGerald – a dual citizen of Ireland and the United States – poet, editor and attorney for the disabled, practising in Los Angeles. That book was a dense and demanding meditation on human consciousness and its relationship to the metaphysical place from which we attribute value, there simply and rather mysteriously referred to as “the Center”. FitzGerald’s Favorite Bedtime Stories (2014, Salmon Poetry) is even richer in metaphorical wordplay and wider in thematic scope. It is a collection of verses I have gone through multiple times over the past few weeks, and I still feel I could glean a lot more.
Favorite Bedtime Stories (which was a Finalist for the Julie Suk Award) begins with a couple of experimental Title-At-The-Bottom poems and soon announces the arrival and pronounces the identity of “Everyman”. The poet is a human being, the poet is any human being. He writes in a tone that is simultaneously humble and sweeping:
Sapiens number seven billion. / And it’s the same with me as with every other human. / I formed immersed in a dark sac of fluid / and bore through a tunnel into the light.
He is an “orator for the planet”, bearing the heavy testament of the earth, the saga of his race. He will make an attempt to articulate its origins and destinies, its messiest tendencies and its loftiest imaginings.
The voice of Everyman changes into that of a character who has had to wait 13 billion years. The first flower spat 114 million years ago, Greece and Rome rose and have gone into recent history, now nation states with borders have emerged all over the globe. “I have become one of these humans”, we hear the statement. It leads to the following assertion:
I come down from above your lights, / on a redeye over metropolises, aglow with electricity, / from Atlanta to far stretching City of Angels.
Atlanteans, Angelinos, I pod unto thee, over waves / and basic cables, fiber optically, eye-glassed and fire worked. / It has been so very long.
The evolutionary terminology continues. Everyman is aware of the ape-blood in him. He loves fruit and branch and leaf; his attentions are on The Tree (of Paradise?). Here we get a hint of his capacity to tell stories, to make myths and legends, to impress meaning upon existence, to institute entire cultures, to console and entertain himself and his fellow Sapiens.
Everyman enchants himself with an adventurous romance:
Once, there were four brothers. / One owned all the water. / One owned all the fire, / one owned all the food, / and one owned all the air. / We stuffed these leeches in a hole / and ate and drank and breathed.
He comes up with another tale – on “Tooth Fairies”. “All I really need has been revealed to me in fairy tales”, he says. Adding, in a sentiment that mixes wonderment with morbidity:
They fashion piano keys from our teeth / to produce that twinkling sound in flight / It’s a thriving trade, so they have charts / much as butchers do for meat.
Canine, molar, bicuspid / each fetches its particular price
FitzGerald then moves to “The Charter of Effects”, a 15-part play of sorts, with odd and varied dramatis personae – Counsel is a lawyer driven by money, The Likeness of the Universe is a poet addicted to life-changing lines, there are Various Muses (including Summer, Orpheus, Presence, Polyhymnia).
Counsel, we learn – greedy, interested in immediate gain – plots against the muses. He prefers dealers, killers, houses as pawns, passwords that swipe. And Likeness remains till the end without inspiration, his creativity having been stifled, deemed worthless. He is a drunken loser, splurging on cornflakes and milk.
In this little parable on the difficult relationship between commerce and art, we encounter two strange lines that talk of how humans ambitiously build societies but ruin them by reducing all life to cold transactions and subjecting all resources to mechanical mercantilism. FitzGerald writes:
Where once we dreamt of paradise, / between the rivers, shock and awe.
In the empire of a thousand crimes per martyr / lies the water for which all humans are willing to trade.
Later in the book we come upon a game of “Chess”, and the poet leaves us in a dizzying discussion on the nature of beginnings and the quality of timelessness. He observes:
I am not as good at chess as I dream. / More a poet at it. / But the pre-beginning creates itself right after the beginning. / It’s ironic, because the beginning has to happen first, / the former being timeless.
Soon, using the black and white squares as a case in point, he comments on wholes and parts, on the unity of all things:
What happens to one cell affects the whole. / The body affects the place in which it dwells, / and the place affects the earth, the stars, and so on, / back to the equivalent of before the game began.
Here is law in action: / What happens above happens below. / When I say whole, I mean everything, evolved together with its place.
FitzGerald subsequently speaks of the Big Bang, the ever expanding universe, newer molecular levels of space:
So no matter how random the point / something begins from seems to be, / there becomes, that moment and thereafter, the pre-beginning, / like a chessboard set for the very first move.
And suddenly in the middle of these rules and attributes of the cosmos and the chessboard, the poet includes an unexpected, almost hilarious, narrative:
Meanwhile, a small orange fish / oblivious to evaporation blows rings
throughout a bowl it thinks the ocean, / soon to wriggle in a puddle / against a suffocation all its own. / How ignorant.
Finally, Favorite Bedtime Stories, capacious and effervescent, ends in a pithy poem that will stun the reader and cause them to think hard long after they have closed the volume. The poet only recites the law. What law? Which law? Whose law? We don’t really know. He writes:
Every action of nature is perfect. Every action of nature is perfect. Every action of nature is perfect.
Perhaps it means that Everyman has finally tasted of the Tree of Life in Paradise and arrived at absolute peace.
John FitzGerald is a poet, writer, editor, and attorney for the disabled in Los Angeles. A dual citizen of the U.S. and Ireland, he attended the University of West Los Angeles School of Law, where he was editor of the Law Review.
He is the author of four books, more recently Favorite Bedtime Stories (Salmon Poetry, 2014), Finalist for the Julie Suk Book Award, and The Mind (Salmon Poetry, 2011) semifinalist for the Alice James Book Award.
Other works include Primate, a novel & screenplay, and the non-fiction For All I Know.
He has contributed to many anthologies, notably The Plume Anthology of Poetry 5 (MadHat/Plume Editions, 2017), Even the Daybreak: 35 Years of Salmon Poetry (Salmon Poetry, 2016), Human and Inhuman Monstrous Poems (Everyman, 2015), Rubicon: Words and Art inspired by Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis (Sybaritic Press, 2015), From the Four-Chambered Heart: In Tribute to Anais Nin (Sybaritic Press, 2013), Dogs Singing: A Tribute Anthology (Salmon Poetry, 2011), and Poetry: Reading it, Writing it, Publishing it (Salmon Poetry, 2009).
Other publications include The Warwick Review, World Literature Today, The Taos Journal of Poetry and Art, December Magazine, From the Fishouse, Mad Hatters’ Review, Barnwood Mag, and The American Journal of Poetry.