reviewed on December 19, 2022
That the contest model of poetry publishing dramatically impacts the production of manuscripts themselves—or that it delimits the kind of manuscript it is possible for emerging writers to imagine—is, by this point, a truism. One can discern the signs of a contest book as readily as one reads the weather: the gestural opening poem, the bookending of the manuscript with its strongest work, the slack middle, the sectioning, the emphasis on self- or subject-formation.
No doubt there exist exceptions to this structure, prize-winning first books which nonetheless retain a freshness in both form and focus: Eduardo Corral’s Slow Lightning, Rebecca Gayle Howell’s Render: An Apocalypse, Devon Walker-Figueroa’s Philomath.
It can hardly be controversial, though, to point out that the vast majority of contest collections present readers with a conspicuous sameness.
Catherine Pond’s Fieldglass is one of the exceptions.
Winner of the open competition in the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry, Fieldglass at once fulfills the conventions of its genre and pushes beyond them, “hitting the marks” of the contest manuscript, one might say, while complicating what those marks mean and what they can achieve.
The book is indeed an examination of self, and—like many first books, including my own—a meditation on those childhood experiences most formative in the speaker’s life. In this respect, Fieldglass traverses familiar terrain, from the speaker’s evolving relationship with her father to her coming-to-terms with her own sexuality to her survival of various orders and magnitudes of trauma. “Know that whenever a force is exerted / from outside,” Pond writes of these processes of self-formation, “there is also a force being exerted from within.”
Where Fieldglass stands apart from its peers, however, is in Pond’s ease with retrospective narrative. Confident in themselves and in the force of the experiences they relate, these poems possess a clarity as impactful as it is rare, in first books at least; Fieldglass seems refreshingly immaculate, in other words, of the ludic, deliberately weird writing that characterizes many debuts, including some of the most celebrated. Detonating the idea that a poem must be admirable if it is difficult—or opaque, or reader-resistant, or private—Pond’s writing grounds itself in both situation and setting, moving in poem after poem from readily apprehensible premise to more ambitious and sustained thought.
Another way of saying this is that Fieldglass begins with place. A Sunoco in rural West Virginia, upstate New York, Mystic and Monhegan, an airport duty-free shop—all serve to ground these poems while at the same orienting them toward loftier destinations.
To call these poems “narrative” is hardly to do them justice, but neither is it to disparage them. Rather, the experiences which Fieldglass relates unfold through elegant turns of phrase, profound emotional excavations, and a Glück-like mastery of mood and tone.
And the collection as a whole is marvelously plotted so that narratives develop not only within but across poems and sections.
Perhaps the most sustained of those narrative trajectories, as I’ve suggested, is the speaker’s coming-into-sexuality through her own experimentation, an arc which reveals sexuality itself as a process of self-revision. In developing this idea, Pond expertly turns the conventions of the contest manuscript back on themselves, so that the subject par excellence of the contest model—namely, and especially in our identity-obsessed moment, self-formation—is rendered unreliable, provisional at best. “I knew you weren’t a lesbian,” a friend eventually says to the speaker, halfway through the collection. Placed, of course, where first-round readers are unlikely to encounter it, the moment offers a witty, wonderfully tactical commentary on the very institution out of which Fieldglass emerges.
Indeed, Fieldglass seems at moments an allegory of its own production, glassing the field, as it were, of contemporary poetry.
“I miss my students in summer,” Pond writes in “August in the Adirondacks,” “their sloppy, elaborate sex scenes, / poems that have nothing to do with the erotic / but with proving to an audience / that someone loves them.” Pond is not—I do not think—diagnosing the self-absorption of the present moment in American poetry, but Fieldglass does rethink what the prize-winning debut book might achieve, even as it remains insistently grounded in the self and its many revisions.