by Loisa Fenichell | Contributing Writer
I was nineteen when I lived for a summer in Vermont. I worked on a farm, harvesting vegetables and feeding chickens. Several years later, immediately post-college, I found myself living in and negotiating the streets of Brooklyn. The differences between these two locales—Vermont and Brooklyn—are stark and numerous. These are also the locales, Vermont in particular, that figure most significantly into Alexandria Hall’s Field Music, winner of the 2019 National Poetry Series, selected by Rosanna Warren, and published by Ecco Press (HarperCollins 2020). Via her observations of Vermont, Hall falls into a long line of poets associated with the particular region (Robert Frost and Louise Glück immediately come to mind). This pastoral tradition is not a new one; it can be traced back to 750 BCE, to Greek poet Hesiod. But Hall’s collection puts a contemporary spin on the ancient convention. Her collection creates a dizzying effect and seems to occupy a liminal space. This is the effect that prowling through the concavities of memory can create. Renowned Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung writes of “the shadow,” those parts of ourselves that feel so elusive. But these are the parts—this is the shadow—that Hall, through lush, beguiling, and direct language, taps into so well. In order to do this, she must first tap into the archives of memory.
In an interview conducted for Literary North, Hall tells the interviewer—Rena J. Mosteirin, also a poet—that she did not intend for setting to figure so prominently into Field Music. “Place plays an important role in the book,” she articulates, “but the setting of each poem was a result of the memory . . . belonging to a given place.” This feels true in such poems as “Cowbird,” the collection’s initiating poem:
Nothing ever stays
Where it ought: runoff dragged into the river
By summer rains from shit-covered fields –
My thickly perfumed Vermont.
Hall does not begin this poem, however, with Vermont. She starts instead with the words, “All of this damage . . . ”; that is, she opens with memory. Even the jaggedness of the lines in “Cowbird”—some more left-aligned than others—feels like a visual representation of what the recalling of memory so often feels like. Later in the poem, when speaking of “the shafts of the garden / vegetables,” she writes,
Sometimes we can’t see
the dangers we feed, that we nurture
Lines like this, “we can’t see / the dangers we feed”—as is the case with later poems, like the titular poem “Field Music,” in which it is written, “I lied at my first confession” and “I know about sex. It’s not a cardinal / flying into the wrong window”—seem to tap directly into those elusive realms. In the final stanza we have,
I’m not invited. I want
to love something.
Perhaps through this archival process and through the writing of this collection, Hall is also searching for “something” to “love.”
In the very next poem, “Travel Narrative,” the first poem of Section I (the collection is divided into two segments), Hall travels from Middlebury, Vermont, where “There was too much moon over the night in Middlebury,” to Germany, where “There were too many monuments // pouring water over their copper busts, a verdigris rain / on the fountain of the Hamburger Rathaus.” The poem concludes with,
there were too many shadows and they changed too often.
Remember I wanted to go home,
which was a shadow, so I didn’t.
“Travel Narrative” feels like the perfect introduction for this first section of a collection that is, ultimately, an act of remembrance. In the poem “My Love,” as with “Travel Narrative,” the reader is taken again on a trip, though this time the voyage is made from Brooklyn—“That thing that happened once again. / In a kitchen in Brooklyn. / At a rooftop screening”—to, yes, Vermont, “Under the table in Middlebury.”
Hall writes on more than just memory, though; she calls forth the beauty of the earth. Such is the case in “On Beauty,” which concludes with, “what’s beautiful is as easy as spotting the light. Spotting the deer in the field.” The poem takes on the form of four prose stanzas, bringing to mind poet Robert Hass’s observation in his book A Little Book on Form, “there is a tension in the form between prose as the medium of realist representation and poetry as the medium of the transformation of the world through imagination” (38). “On Beauty,” fittingly, occupies that liminal space between “realist representation” and “transformation of the world through imagination.”
But the world isn’t always directly or explicitly verdant. There can be a quieter and eerier quality to some of Hall’s work. Take, for example, “Return,” a poem placed towards the end of the collection (and a poem that also, as with “Travel Narrative” makes reference to Germany—“returning / to Reuterstrabe”). Hall writes,
I watched the lurid sky
over the bay with its tight jaw unhinged, as the butter-blond light
Words like “lurid” or descriptions such as “tight jaw unhinged” don’t exactly call to mind decadent beauty. Instead, a reader might feel a particular sort of anxiety thinking of a “bay with its tight jaw unhinged.” It must be noted, however, that these observations of the “lurid sky” and “the bay” are juxtaposed with the lovely and alliterative “butter-blond light / poured out.” Indeed, the poem continues,
To this and that I pointed and said, Look,
The poem too is heavily saturated in nostalgia, as is the case with much of the collection—fitting when discussing memory—
My undue nostalgia, sour
in an empty mouth
I missed someone. No,
I missed myself in certain time and location.
I saw what I had missed and I was never coming back.
The poem ends powerfully with,
Left a strange moisture there. Icky balm of having wanted.
Hall, as is evident via “strange moisture” and “icky balm,” is not afraid of using what might be considered to be cruder images. Simultaneously, there is a universality encompassed in “having wanted” and this universality renders even the “cruder bits” beautiful.
It would be remiss of me not to acknowledge the musicality readily apparent in this collection. After all, Hall is not only a poet; she is a musician and has acknowledged in interviews the connections between her crafting of songs and her crafting of poetry. There is a poem, for example, called “On Music,” written in tercet form, that indeed does have the rhythm of a song:
As if wanting
me were a song he hummed
without knowing, I listened . . .
Field Music often feels like one long folk song, or at the very least an album of folk songs: a rhythmic and riveting collection of expedition and the excavation of memory. Hall is intimately aware of the power of language, of the paintings and images language has the ability to create. It can feel like an act of magic, to spin memory into language, into the form of poetry, but this is precisely what Hall does so well.
Loisa Fenichell’s poetry has been featured or is forthcoming in various publications, such as Winter Tangerine Review, Sundog Lit, and Guernica Magazine. More can be found at loisafenichell.com
Alexandria Hall is from Vermont. Her debut poetry collection, Field Music (Ecco, 2020), was selected by Rosanna Warren as a winner of the National Poetry Series. She holds an MFA from New York University and is now a PhD student in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Southern California. She is founder and editor-in-chief of Tele- Magazine. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in LARB Quarterly Journal, Narrative, BOAAT, The Bennington Review, Hobart, and The Yale Review, among others. She lives in Los Angeles.