There are places out west, Denver among them, where traces of the city bleed into the wildlands contained within or just beyond the limits of our constructed landscapes. These margins—the ones which people produced, and the bleeding edges of all else—seem perpetually at odds. I can recall a time looking out over a lake on Denver’s west-side, the lights of a smokestack blinking back at me; a ball of tin foil bobbing in the algae.
In his new book, A Better Place is Hard to Find, Aaron Fagan explores the chasm between what exists, and what we bring into existence. The collection glows red with a sort of divine anxiety, a propulsive panicked search for some world more stable than the one we have made for ourselves. A better place.
Fagan’s index is ascetic, material, and often uncomplicated. Moving from the vague and conceptual to the concretely specific, Fagan sets up a core dichotomy between the raw materials of experience and the processed aftermath of those raw materials. He seems, at times, to grasp for language honoring the emptiness, while at others his poetry suffocates amidst the smog-hewn details of real perception: a flurry of colors, fabrics, faces, acquaintances. His opening is illustrative of this:
Every word is a delusion, and I
Say too much and too little (1)
Speech is drawn and quartered
Slowly over years in a long
Emergency asking us to keep
Harmony with all we no longer
Obey and then for us to recall
What silence remains in reverie (1)
The opening piece, which is titled “One World at a Time,” predicates the central anxiety of the work as a whole: how do we communicate the most elemental parts of our experience when the act of communication itself is one of processing, of imperfect remembering. The pieces which are more withholding of image, such as the opening poem, use abstraction as a mode of dissociation to express the central anxiety. Elsewhere in the collection, Fagan writes more maximalist work, such as “King and Trumpet,” which is dizzyingly detailed, and comprised of disjointed images of bikinis, torpedoes, and corn on the cob. This monolithic form leaves the reader similarly disoriented, but on the opposite end of the spectrum (6). The collection is in search of a middle ground, a space where the world as we conceptualize it and the world as we communicate it can settle down with one another. This place is hard to find.
Fagan is a master manipulator of scale, type, and degree, collapsing great distances and expanding minute objects into seemingly limitless vistas. His language plays God and simultaneously languishes at the non-existence of one. This binary may be overly reductive, there very well may be real divinity here, but if there is, it is the product of our own discordant understandings of what it means to perceive and be perceived. In “Second Nature,” the concept of ceremony and ritual is presented as consumptive, un-holy even in its holiest applications, a complete undermining of the ends by the means:
Nouns to use
To put on
An altar, but
We love them (2)
These more spare moments lament our manufacturing of ritual, with the operative word altar acting as a synecdoche for conventional modes of worship. In “King and Trumpet,” as an alternative, Fagan writes of wrapping two dead kittens in tin-foil and burying them in the backyard “by moonlight smoking a Lucky,” and meeting up on a Sunday “Near the Shell with the “S” / Burned out. (6)” In the more abundant language within these poems, the ritual purposes of language become self-actualizing, flowing undammed by any institutional construct. Fagan hints that by observing these grotesque liturgic forms, by burying a dead animal in the yard, by meeting on Sunday at the Shell station, we embrace that ritual may be practiced under any circumstances, not just by dressing up nouns for the altar. These more self-justified moments, the moments in which we the reader, and Fagan the author, refrain from languishing in the void, and rather choose to rejoice in the absurdity of it all, are the moments that give this work light. In “Loser’s Hymn in the Evening Land” we find lions hosting a pasta dinner (22), and in “Limitless Again,” we meet a speaker who is
Walking through the warehouse with a wood
Case full of trains and busses…
The man in the moon, relentlessly in love. (33)
The moments of joy in this book are almost as potent as the existential crises they seek to overcome, but not quite. So what am I, as an admittedly already anxious reader, to make of work that leaves me with no roadmap for how things ought to be, only with a satisfyingly frantic depiction of how things are? Fagan struggles with this question as if his book is to say the attempt at creating anything hopeful is futile. In this post-modern world, aren’t I as a writer, and just generally as a person, simply in the business of repurposing existing ideas? Grinding down a finite amount of raw material and manufacturing something that, while perhaps different in form from its original, is fundamental of the same stuff? Take this portion of, “Arrow of Time” as an example
The whole is not the sum of its part,
The parts contain the whole,
And the whole contains the parts—
There is just this mountain of us,
A flare of light, and this empty awareness—
Ghost platitudes of the aboriginal star. (47)
Fagan asserts that I am not what I think I am. People do not actually construct meaning, or perhaps, our constructs themselves do not intrinsically contain meaning, but rather it is the very act of being that contains all meaning; the parts contain the whole. And though we may be brief flares of light—blinking light towers looking back at each other across miles—that is enough. We ought to revel in the fact that there is nothing larger than what exists inside of us all, that we approach the world as we are, and make meaning where we need to. As an artist, this is both completely freeing and totally terrifying. It takes much of my perceived control and throws it out the window, leaving me only to try and capture a lingering hue of existence, to fish from the waters inside. But Fagan gives us this in the book’s final piece:
A poem is a biography of the words
It’s made from. (78)
And I think the ultimate resolution of this work seeks not to propel us toward anything in particular but aims only to get us to exactly where we are, an imperfectly perfect place, forever in search of “a perfect room-tone recording,” and “a stellar aberration of light” (53).
Ethan Cohen is a writer and visual artist in Denver, Colorado. He has been the Poetry Editor of GASHER Journal since 2018, and holds a BA in creative writing from the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he graduated Summa Cum Laude in 2019. His work has been published in WINDOW and Journal 2020, and can also be found at misconnectgallery.com.