The art museum in my hometown of Knoxville has a collection of Narcissa Thorne dioramas, miniature rooms of various fashion and purpose, similar to doll houses. There is a Victorian parlor, a Spanish foyer, a frontier kitchen, all meticulously detailed and like the collection room itself, mostly devoid of people. Each illuminated box presents a stage where any number of actions can take place. The rooms rely on the many arrangements of our imagination—who sat in the armchair, who leaned on the mantelpiece—all the possible scenarios laid out and invisible like precious crime scenes. Yet despite the dramatic combinations an empty stage can offer it’s still bound by purpose: the kitchen is where you cook, the bedroom is where you sleep, and the armchair is where you left it. In the opening poem of Wolf and Pilot—not coincidently inspired by one of Thorne’s rooms—Farrah Field writes:
could walk in on a daily basis, mount a war-period wall clock,
pollute the cold kitchen with pork dumplings, heat the toilet seat.
The poems in Field’s second collection both accept and challenge this mystery. They investigate the nature of absence, the human need to satiate a vacuum, and the gnarled process of memory and apprehension. Centered around four missing sisters, their witch-mother, their beloved teacher and the detective enlisted to find them, Wolf and Pilot is a novella-in-verse which defies its own narrative boundaries.
Echoing Pirandello’s Six Characters, the speakers in Field’s poems are inextricable from the theater of their lives. As per the demands of the story they follow a certain direction, confined to prescribed roles (“What are you supposed to do besides what you have to?”), but this doesn’t stop them from confronting—sometimes bravely, sometimes with caution—their psychological limitations (“We’ll never say this: we want to hang/a sheet from a tree and project movies”). There are moments when the characters are brimming with awareness, their ambitions and failures on display. “You think I’d know what to do,” the detective says, “because I agreed to take care of them.”
Interestingly enough the sisters (or rather the idea of the sisters), whose disappearance is the locus of the story, are specially attuned to these dramatic borders. Not entirely missing, the sisters linger outside the fence-line or at the foot of the bed. Their breath is fog on a windowpane. They leave “prints on wooden spoons” and “chalk drawings,” ambiguous hints at best of their existence. Paul Éluard said, “there is another world, but it is in this one,” and perhaps this is true for the sisters only in reverse. It seems at times they are a collective embodiment of the creative act that it takes to fill rooms or imbue a story with meaning, suspended as they are between reality and imagination. The sisters’ being is a non sequitur, an irresistible bafflement:
because we arrived without a trace and no one can do that again
unless by vanishing.
Cocooned in their sisterly bond, the girls are unencumbered (“Our mother never took pictures of us”) and idealistic (“They think kindness could spare their lives./Their tiny lives, tiny as wrists”), yet possess that disturbing intuition so unique to children (“We can never be too aware of what’s really being said”). In many ways the sisters inhabit an adolescent lingo, straddling the line between the apparent permanence and awe of childhood (“While we are away from the world we are wise and sound wise.”) and the impending cynicism of maturity (“Girls are prey to everything./They’re only daughters for a little while.”).
Their supernatural union (“The girls can talk just by thinking.”) and seemingly magical ability to flit like ghosts in and out of these opposing realities distinguishes the sisters from the adult world (“The four girls belong to themselves.”). Consequently, the sisters exercise an almost tactile control over those around them:
behind the summer jazz band.
Using craft scissors and felt
they constructed this very scene.
For sure, because it is their story, Wolf and Pilot belongs to the four sisters (“We are the girls. Everything in the world points to us”). They are the ones behind the wheel, and often their presence is conscious and pervasive to the point of antagonizing clairvoyance (“Detective, we think you’re afraid of spiders. You’d be surprised/to know what things are in your shed. We think you should feed us.”). But ultimately the sisters’ refusal to commit, their ethereal penchant, represents a defensive mechanism, a way to offset or resist the passing of time. In the haze of childhood, daily life is meted out by innocuous “plastic cereal bowls” and the certainty of growing up is kept at an ironic arm’s length:
hands on the cool glass called a window.
Once upon a time all adults used to be children.
The focus of these poems is determined to be contradictory and evasive. If the story is to make sense, it must be viewed through a tempered lens, one calibrated by the figments of youth, because what lies at the heart of Wolf and Pilot is a reality the sisters can hardly bear. For the girls, existence is a combination of fragile wonder (“We’re strong//as blueberries”) and absurdist horror exemplified by their witch-mother, a reptilian presence hovering in the dark periphery (“Our mother waits behind a log./With her hair caught on the reeds and her mouth open.”).
The mother is the source of what hounds the girls. She is outlandishly visceral, a composition larger than herself, a bizarre mythos proportionate to the sisters’ imagination. She can “pull her face off at the nostril” and constructs perverse shadow puppets to frighten the girls:
with a lamp and a bunny.
She says you can electrocute someone
from any place on the body.
From the perspective of the sisters, there is little difference between the object and its shadow, between the truth and their perception of the truth, but for the reader the distortions of reality are evident and compelling. Wolf and Pilot is convincing in its dreamy precision, a story of childhood trauma that can only be understood in the telling and re-telling (“A long time from now,/my sisters will say I wanted to die.”). The facts of the characters’ lives are unfocused images (“Who could possibly know what someone else looks like anyway.”), stilted refractions of light. Now matter how hard we try to correct the image, our efforts will always be in vain, because the real reward in Wolf and Pilot is not apprehension but the process of correcting, our minute and constant adjustment of the aperture.
In his wildly (yes, wildly) entertaining book on craft, Triggering Town, Richard Hugo says, “I caution against communication because once language exists only to convey information, it is dying.” Certainly in Wolf and Pilot, there is an extent to which the poems rely on what is not known, what is the garbled detritus lifted from the characters’ voices. In many ways, Wolf and Pilot is a puzzle missing a few pieces. It is a proper, open-ended mystery that slips through our fingers. Each time we reach for meaning, when we presume the answer is an object to be owned, we are met with deafening silence, the “new loud ringing” of an empty stage: