Book Review: Instant Winner
By Beth Eakman
I teach college writing. A little-known associated liability is that a lot of people feel compelled to show you their work. A significant number have performed poetry aloud on the spot. As a consequence of the last two decades in this profession, my default setting is to brace myself for some serious discomfort. This is especially trying when the writer is a colleague.
So, imagine my relief, when several years ago, I went to hear my colleague Carrie Fountain read poetry from her first collection Burn Lake the 2009 National Poetry Series winner. Clearly, Fountain’s work had been pretty thoroughly vetted and had received the stamp of approval from luminaries of the American poetry world. In the past year, in fact, Garrison Keillor has discovered her poems and has read three on his NPR program The Writer’s Almanac. Still, as the result of many years of reading and hearing less-than-lovely writing, the good stuff surprises and delights me every time. This time I felt physically moved, swept away.
And with her new poetry collection, Instant Winner, Fountain has surprised me, again. In the years since Burn Lake, Fountain has become a mother. Like Burn Lake, which critics often lauded for its strong sense of place (Fountain’s home state of New Mexico), Instant Winner gives readers a strong sense of a very different place: motherhood.
In his review for The New Yorker, June 2, 2014 Dan Chiasson, reviewing Rachel Zucker’s latest poetry collection, wrote: “Motherhood isn’t war, madness, or addiction, but for a writer it can be an adverse condition, undermining the very work it inspires.” Chiasson notes that Zucker, like other contemporary poets writing about motherhood (Louise Gluck, Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich), grapples with the fragmentation of time caused by constant interruption.
With Instant Winner, Carrie Fountain’s poems join this conversation. But her poems are less fragments than fever dreams, prayers murmured through the din of chaos. Take: “Giant dumpsters” make “insane thuds… tossed back to the pavement by the trash truck” and wake the baby.
In “Poem without Sleep,” a poem that feels deeply personal to me as a mother and writer, she inhabits the space between the hyper-attentiveness of new motherhood and the inability to focus. If other poets present the unquiet mind of motherhood as collage, Fountain offers a roiling kaleidoscope. “All the things that could happen to the baby came to me last night as I was falling asleep,” it begins. More and more “children of mine….push through” the space between wakefulness and sleep, ending only with the arrival of daylight.
And now, here’s the morning.
Here’s the tree flickering
behind the shade, dumb tree
with its one arm raised to the sky.
Here’s the silent tipping into another day.
And now, finally, finally, the baby, blowing
her famous raspberries down the dark
static hallway of the baby monitor. And now
she begins to whimper. And now she cries out.
And here I go to her, thank God.
Here I go to help her little life.
Fountain’s poems reach through the mundane experience of the physical world in search of the sense of transcendent divinity that comes with motherhood. “I want to describe/ the baby for many hours to anyone/ who wishes to hear me. My feelings for her/take me so far inside myself I can see the pure/ holiness in motherhood….”
While taking the time to read poetry might seem like an extravagance for exhausted mothers, I would argue that its ability to capture the transcendent in the sensory experience of the physical world is in fact economical. Some poems are playful and downright funny (“All I want to do is go home and take off these pants….),” others solemn and profound, prayers and chaos and beauty. (The ominous whine of dying batteries in a child’s toy invokes “…the sound/ of a planet falling/ through one universe/ and into the next….”) Each poem can be read in a few stolen minutes alone, but digested and savored for a long time after even while among offspring.
Whether she’s writing about the desert southwest of Mesilla, New Mexico, or the strange new landscape of motherhood, Fountain’s celebrated sense of place challenges us as readers to truly experience where we are right now as home, to stop the clock and appreciate the only reality that we have, with our eyes and hearts open and our senses engaged. The poems of Instant Winner capture the complexities of motherhood and life and present them with reverence, as gifts.
Beth Eakman teaches writing at St. Edward’s University and lives in Austin Texas with her husband and two teenagers who provide her simultaneously with inspiration and interruptions. Visit Beth at www.betheakman.com, or on Twitter @BethEakman.