The art of fiction
(Four Way Books, 2021)
Thanks to the collective efforts of social justice activists around the world, it is virtually impossible for any American responsible for cultural production to avoid the lingering systemic inequalities that were once stifled or ignored. In the case of the poet Kevin Prufer, whose work has long been inspired by a genuine ethical commitment, The art of fiction, her eighth collection of verses sheds light on uncomfortable truths with compassionate force. As the title of the book suggests, Prufer achieves this through an inventive and flexible style of storytelling that links memories and assumptions to various fictional forms. The bulk of the collection is made up of poems in which several narratives are initially parallel, then gradually tilt towards each other and eventually intersect. Through several skillful maneuvers, seemingly distinct lines of inquiry merge and merge with unexpected consistency. Thus, Prufer’s craftsmanship tells its own story, an unlikely tale of suspense, in which various materials are selected and shaped into the ineffable but palpable structure that produces the poem. If the best storytellers invent realities to establish a kind of veracity that testimony and memory alone cannot handle, their very inventions become facts themselves, entities as tangible as orchids, Tupperware, and tainted water. The best poems of The art of fiction are phenomenal in both senses of the word.
In the opening title poem, Prufer establishes themes and techniques explored throughout the book. Four narratives, alternately intimate and conceptual, are stitched into a complex but unified pattern that adapts to changes in time, place and emotional temperature: a young poet reads a poem about the indignities of old age and offends a woman elderly in the public; an adult remembers a high school classmate bringing a gun to school; while surfing the Internet, the narrator reads that cops and blacks shoot each other in American cities; and anthropological theory claims that the cognitive revolution is responsible for the rise of modern humans. (Because humans could “imagine unverifiable truths greater than us”, they were able to “destroy / every sentient, / and therefore complex, / community. [they] encountered… ”.) These juxtapositions on race, violence, death and uncertainty are softened by various connecting images which allow a certain fluidity between the sections. The technique is not new, either on paper or on screen, but its use by Prufer can cause wonder and awe. In large part, this is achieved thanks to the poet’s direct but serene tone and impeccable arrangement of quirky lines, which memorably frame the current cultural air of the day not to celebrate his terrors and despair, but to s’ questioning about oneself. After all, the narrator of “The Art of Fiction” “looks into his large, bright screen” writes a poem titled “The Art of Fiction,” a poem emerging from his quest to understand where “memory stops. And “the fiction of terror and immortality hangs over us” begins.
However, that is only half the story. While some writers turn to fiction to articulate and explore, a reader or audience may seek mediation, a guiding voice proving what remains otherwise impenetrable. Some realities are too harsh to be accepted without reason or explanation. Religion, science, and literature provide stories that can protect and soothe – or at least clarify. In this way, portions of The art of fiction are aligned with post-Kantian metaphysics, in particular with Hans Vaihinger’s “as if” principle: although some sensations and feelings are real, the rest of human knowledge consists of fictions that can only be justified in some way. pragmatic, even for the laws of logic which we consider to be true are so only because we find them useful. In “The Damned”, when an unnamed city is destroyed in an unspecified war, those who have been “saved” sprout wings to escape the “scruffy and doomed” left behind in what lies ahead. It can be an allegory of privilege, or a metaphor for heavenly ascension, or a fable in which the damned who deal with living and rebuilding do not have time to think about those who have been spared.
Certain fictions are more subtly anchored in our thinking. Again, in “The Art of Fiction” shooting cops during protests is called “social justice”, while cops shooting black people are labeled “public safety”. The very computer the poet uses to write his poem is called “Apple . . . a fiction / made palpable by our common agreement / on its existence. Likewise, “Google”, Prufer notes, is “a fiction that belongs to its followers / facts”. Our mutual agreement is so absolute that we forget that some realities are theoretical, like an out of season “orange” made in a laboratory that we confuse with the real fruit. However, fictions can also intentionally suspend or divert the truth. In “Cruelties” the narrator envisions two types of elimination: a young man spraying poison on a wasp nest; and a “cargo captain throwing castaways overboard” in order to “pick them up / one by one” to the overwhelming approval of his crew. In one case, the commission of acts of violence is so blatantly horrific that it would be next to impossible to find an appropriate context to justify it. On the other hand, the narrator considers the other case as “necessary and cultivated”, while he himself pours poison on the ants in his garden. In truth, both acts are based on a ruthless annulment. The difference is in the “common agreement” as to what serves a greater good. This theme resurfaces with comparable brutality in “An American Tale”, where “the idea was to prevent some people from polluting / our country”. What is more, in the same poem, “The estrangement of some / who lived among us / facilitated the well-being / of those who deserved to stay”.
Given Prufer’s unwavering emphasis on moral responsibility in the face of dehumanizing economies, ecological disruption and systemic injustices, one might expect The art of fiction be a little painful, but the very vitality and ingenuity of his poems make this book one of the most digestible collections of recent years. The poet knows fiction, and more precisely, knows how to exploit various narrative mechanisms for the pleasures of consumption. Therefore, the rage and pathos explored in “Hog Kaput”, “Into the Weeds”, “Wet Leaves” and “Jesus Christ” are balanced by surprising twists in the language. The disturbing juxtapositions that animate the stories of “Blueberry” and “In Small Spaces” are conceived as suspense. In the old poem, “a very bad man” under government surveillance shows his daughter and his parakeet considerable tenderness before setting out to murder someone, his actions recorded by a “loving” drone. The latter traces the insane psychology of an incarcerated criminal who remembers the woman he tracked down by wearing varnish on her toes the color of “kitten’s tongue”. In the hair-raising conclusion to this poem, the stalker walks into the woman’s bedroom while she is sleeping, fingers her hair, then sits in a chair to watch her until dawn. This behavior prompts the man watching the television documentary on this incident to ask, “How is the man in this story different from / what people say about God?” “
While the poems of The art of fiction don’t hesitate to ask big questions, Prufer judiciously avoids clear answers. To be connected to life is to embrace all kinds of ambiguities. Perhaps this is why some of the poet’s fictions seem intentionally random, or at least beyond the point of explanation. “Election Night” alternates between reflections on Seneca’s murder at Nero’s behest and a pack of raccoons looting the narrator’s trash bag. Although the link is not clarified, it feels just – and this is also the art of good fiction: the intuitive gesture or the appropriate image refusing to signify anything other than what it is in a living way. Elsewhere, as in “Right in the Eye,” Prufer’s adherence to ambiguity takes the form of distrust of certainty and reductive understanding. “The problem with dogma,” writes the poet, “is that it wants to make complex problems / simple solutions. Later in the same poem, he opines: “sentimentality / could be the reduction of a complex political situation / to a single emotional / simplified channel…” In the realm of literature, we could consider these lessons as they are. apply to, say, propaganda theater or sensationalist memoir; ultimately, however, Prufer’s poems work best when turned towards ourselves, like large, uncomfortable mirrors through which, at one point, one might wonder: what’s the story?