“This is the life,” writes Carrie Fountain, in her most recent poetry collection. “After a day of devout silence, the toilet starts up again.” Plumbers fix what prayers can’t.
In “The Life” (Penguin Poets), Fountain pairs the sacred with the mundane, running toilets and the great unknown, daily living with a deeper yearning. Marriage and motherhood loom large, as does lack of sleep.
“My problem is, I am not good the way poets are supposed to be good,” she confesses. Fountain could easily swap out the word “poet” for mother, wife, human. She is eloquently hard on herself, though her inadequacies are our inadequacies: fallible, inconsolable. No one is spared from the inevitable. Just like the call-in shrink suggests over the scratchy airwaves in “The Voice,” we’re here so briefly.
“The Life” begins with “The End,” one of several pieces which mentions Mother Mary and the Christ child; not so much as a religious reference, but a case study. It allows Fountain to say the unspeakable, as she does in “The Parable of the Gifts:”
that’s the space I’ll enter, too, when I die,
and it’s not unpleasant to think of it,
an ultimate privacy, though thinking
of my children with spaces of their own
into which they will someday disappear
is unbearable. It is unbearable, and though
it is unbearable, I bear it. That is the agreement
into which I entered when they arrived.
Fountain seems squared up on what’s coming, and what she can’t control. From her daughter’s eerie fascination with “Beauty and the Beast” to her son soon running wild with “feral” boys. Typical boys who grow up to be typical men, she points out in “The Jungle:” “the kind of men who’d ruin / something if it meant they got to / keep it, who’d kill something / if it meant they could see it up close.”
She has succeeded in tearing the cuff of our cultural shoulder shrug, boys will be boys, while still cherishing the now — no matter how fleeting and fragile and temporarily innocent. “My children are so young,” she writes, “they cannot imagine a world like the one they live in.”
Fountain, who was named Texas State Poet Laureate in 2019, lives in Austin with her husband, the playwright Kirk Lynn, and their two children. Being a poet and being a parent aren’t necessarily a natural fit, but these 35 poems wholly accept that glitter glue sticks to everything.
In “How Has Motherhood Changed The Way You Write?” Fountain dives headfirst into the casserole of her domestic existence, timed with her baby’s sleep patterns and the changing seasons, throwing out old oranges and tracking down a strange smell coming from the backyard. In other words, nothing has changed. And everything has changed: “Suddenly it’s deep / winter and the baby / has produced one crude / tooth and the trees / in front of the house / across the street / are bare of leaves.”
Fountain’s poems appear tidy on the page: lowercase couplets with polite enjambments (where one line runs into the next), a prose poem for a paragraph, and a few contained pieces devoid of line spaces. Stylized indentations are rarely enforced, as are the shapeless rambles which sometimes get mistaken for something more than they are. The visual organization draws you right in, and the straightforwardness of her language keeps you there.
Her poem “The Life,” the one about the aforementioned running toilet, reminds me of Marie Howe’s “What the Living Do,” an ode to beauty and monotony, in the face of oceanic mystery. (Not so oceanic if the plumber ever shows up.) Howe’s poem mentions a clogged sink, but a running toilet is equally effective in illustrating the anticlimactic miracle of it all. Somewhere between the beforelife, as Fountain calls it, and the afterlife, there is this thing.
The life is this life, she heralds in the collection’s final poem, “The Spirit Asks.” Something so ordinary, and gone so soon: “Sometimes I feel myself so deep / inside it, blessed so painfully, so / painfully blessed, pushing into it.”
At last, a small request: “Please give me a God that exists. That’s all I’ll ever want.”
The spirit, a bit like a genie, grants Fountain this one wish. “Really?” she asks in giddy disbelief.
“Yeah. Probably. Yeah.”
by Carrie Fountain
Penguin Books, 112 pp., $18