As a child growing up in South Mississippi, I was given the chore of plucking the fascicles of pine needles that had fallen into the zigzag of the chain-link fence surrounding our family home; so, on a Saturday morning after a week of late-summer storms, I would carry a small metal bucket to the edge of our yard, I would pluck the needles fallen from forest to the wire, and, before I placed the fascicles in the bucket, I would press each sharp needle against my sun-darkened skin, blanched myself white, for a moment. For longer moments, I would rest in the pine shade, and, as I laid my head on the needles I placed around the roots of the pines, I would look back to the house, and I would rest, sometimes dream of a fence clean and rust-less, as falling needles returned to the twists of the red-orange-brown wires.
Patti White’s Chain Link Fence—vignettes presenting the experiences of a central character…“Let’s call her Lucy”—similarly works against the aftermath of the storm; this book, like myself of childhood, “walks the fence-line picking up litter,” and the results are similar to my childhood work; White has gathered a book of needle-strewn poems, poems gathered from debris, poems that—individually—remind us “we are naked because / there is something wrong with our skin,” remind us we move forward through suffering tolerance, but taken together—in this fascicle of sixty-four poems—remind us we are also “an island in the spring lake, naked / floating in wind and light,” remind us to still in the presence of falling. White’s perfect square of poems—sixty-four poems, including her bio, numbered among the poems—offer a form of comfort against the blanching pain of the evening dreams in a storm’s aftermath.
Lucy, the avatar of Chain Link Fence, experiences her world “like a sieve,” as “everyone loses everything in summer.” In poems near relentless, White’s narrative voice offers Lucy—and us—a darkened landscape: “There isn’t enough sun.” Rain is coming, the wind is sweeping tornadoes, ash is falling, and, in winter, the wind stills, the river freezes; we are left with the “barren horizon scraped by the sky. The earth, horrified,” and small hope for survival remains in the natural world. Lucy travels through landscapes urban and rural; plain, desert, and coastal; parched and frozen; and finishes exhausted, longing, with small respite.
Although Lucy travels in company of others, she often remains alone. Perhaps she—on occasion—“dreams a farmer’s wife who tells her dream / within the dream,” but her interaction with others most often stands fearful. Lucy’s uncle tells tales of foxhunts in the South, the farmer’s wife becomes a harbinger of the storm coming into a seemingly Midwestern field, a displaced taxi driver seems homicidal, voices whisper “you can pull yourself out,” and other “characters eat light bulbs in the basement.” In the locations White has grounded Lucy, her isolation is a pinning of safety. The apocalyptic world Lucy occupies presents dangers, and desperate people increase those dangers. In an atmosphere of turbulence, Lucy remains safely enclosed in White’s Chain Link Fence.
Lucy, seemingly alone, faces the challenge of pulling herself out of the enclosure of White’s dream, out of this nightmare of a storm—out of this “bleeding wound that will not close”, out of this “precursor to something that shatters,” and out of this “dark wind [that] sweeps over her.” In a space between the broken safety of inside and outside, “swaddled in images ah / sheets of fencing rolled and stored away, dreams falling / like diamonds from the sky,” she must find “a kind of awful grace.” So, too, must the reader who shares these square blocks of poems, for, ultimately, White’s collection asks her readers to join Lucy, to exist in the liminal space between inside and outside, between storm and aftermath, between dream and reality, between forest and lawn.
Chain Link Fence is suffused with an awful grace of images colliding, with an awful grace of the liminal spaces we occupy. As Lucy wakes, “tasting / summer grasses on her breath, cool ashes in her throat” in White’s postscript to apocalypse, I remember my own waking from rest beneath pines, from my white skin, and I remember the sun-darkened life born into my skin, the grace of life after the storm, and I remember the grace of my native pines. White does not fail to reward her readers with poetry’s grace. Having taken us through the storm, she provides us “the sound of a breath passing through wire.” Such a reward is sufficient.
Brent House, a contributing editor for The Tusculum Review and an editor, with Jeff Newberry, for The Gulf Stream: Poems of the Gulf Coast (Snake Nation Press, 2013), is a native of Necaise, Mississippi, where he raised cattle and watermelons on his family’s farm. His poems have appeared in Colorado Review, Cream City Review, Denver Quarterly, The Journal, Third Coast, and elsewhere.
Chain Link Fence
by Patti White
Anhinga Press, 2013
$17 paperback, ISBN: 1934695319