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“VARIOUS AND COMPLEX”: KEEPING COMPOSED a review by Celeste McMaster Alice Fulton. Barely Composed: Poems. New York: W.W. Norton, 2015.

CELESTE MCMASTER is an Associate Professor in and chair of the English Department at Charleston Southern University. She earned her PhD in English at the University of South Carolina and her MA in English at East Carolina University, where she served as an Assistant Editor of NCLR. Her scholarship is on nineteenth- and twentieth-century British literature, and she has also published fiction and poetry in Short Story, The Dos Passos Review, Mslexia, New Delta Review, The Chaffey Review, Arkansas Review, and Fractured West. In 2016, she was the winner of the Great American Fiction Contest, and her winning story was published in the Saturday Evening Post. ALICE FULTON is the author of nine books and recipient of several awards, including the Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for poetry from the Library of Congress for her book Felt (W.W. Norton, 2002). Fulton has served as a Visiting Professor at several universities, including UNC Chapel Hill. Currently, she is the Ann S. Bowers Professor of English at Cornell University.


ABOVE Alice Fulton

other of her works, Fulton employs “fractal poetry,” which she says “splices satiric and lyrical, elegiac and absurd lines without casting a unifying tonal veil over the mélange.” Fractal poetics, she explains of her method, “has dispensed with fidelity to the ‘normal’ and the ‘natural,’ to ‘simplicity’ and ‘sincerity.’ Instead of reproducing speech, the poem makes a sound-untoitself.”2 However, in all of the complexity, Fulton is still playful. Like Eliot, she includes both the high- and low-brow in many of her poems. For instance in “Triptych for Topological Heart,” she writes of the idea of Valentines in one of three sonnets: “Just floppy organ thistleburr. Froot Loops and craft / wire fashioned on a snarky jig: ‘To My Pocket Prince.’ / ‘By Bitch Possessed.’ Tough tits, isn’t it? Some call it a day / marked by commodified flowers, obligation chocolate.” Not only is Fulton adept at cultural mélange, she also takes pleasure in manipulating clichés and creating neologisms. Her poetry is both formal and open, allusive and experimental. She’s a master of formal verse and her allusions include William Shakespeare, John Keats, and Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and Paul Celan, among others. In poems like “Malus Domestica” and “Personally Engraved,” Fulton shuns the obligatory, wants to get at the true. She writes in

In his essay on “The Metaphysical Poets,” T.S. Eliot writes, “Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results. The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning.”1 To simplify: we live in a complex world; therefore, our poetry must be complex. Alice Fulton’s sixth and most recent book of poetry, Barely Composed, is thematically and linguistically complex in its rendering of making and dislocating meaning in the world. The book is comprised of thirty poems divided into five sections. In most of it, the tone feels jaded and weary, “barely composed” in many of the poems whose subjects are grieving and searching for authenticity. For the narrator, it seems life and its systems of knowledge and faith have come up short. The last line of her introductory sonnet, “Because We Never Practiced with the Escape Chamber,” indicates how Fulton has made art out of despair: “I made this little sound for you to wait in.” Much of the book, in fact, has to do with mortality and art’s place in the grand scheme of things. Fulton’s vocabulary, as well as her knowledge of science and math, is staggering. In this and

T.S. Eliot, review of Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the Seventeenth Century: Donne to Butler, selected and edited by Herbert J.C. Grierson, Times Literary Supplement Oct. 1921: web.


Alice Fulton, “Fractal Amplifications: Writing in Three Dimensions,” Thumbscrew 12 (1998–99): web.

North Carolina Literary Review Online 2018  

A literary review published online annually by East Carolina University and by the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association.

North Carolina Literary Review Online 2018  

A literary review published online annually by East Carolina University and by the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association.