When the news repeatedly presents images of war, readers often find themselves hoping for cease-fire, or at least someone to lead them through the conflicts. Poet Fred Marchant does the latter in his fourth book, The Looking House, in which he explores literal battles as well as those of the mind and spirit.
Marchant has a deep understanding of both. During the Vietnam War, he was one of the first Marine officers to be honorably discharged as a conscientious objector. That experience colors his poetry as much as do his acute powers of empathy and observation. Even during the darkest moments, he has the ability to make readers feel compassion.
Such is the case with his opening poem, “House on Water, House in Air.” In these lines, starkly beautiful, Marchant balances overwhelming pain with profound tenderness. He describes a riverbank loosened by flood and a “boy among the living” who
thinks that nothing is near, or worth
believing in. That every bit of air
comes from where he will never get
and the house, lifted from its mooring,
feels like his soul in longing,
That longing continues in the second poem, where Marchant recalls reading about Agamemnon (who led the Greek forces during the Trojan War) and working on a farm in Ireland shortly after leaving the military. There, he milked cows, tended hay, and wrote about the life-altering decision he’d made. The warmth in his words provides a balm and a way for both him and his readers to move forward:
... Sunlight would angle low into the room sometimes,
and I would feel vaguely visited,
though I could hardly say by what.
From there, Marchant, who directs the Poetry Center at Suffolk University in Boston, continues to act – and write – as someone who doesn’t just observe his surroundings, but subtly nudges readers to look below the surface. In “A Place at the Table,” that means listening to people’s opinions and honoring their presence, understanding that, “Later in your life this moment will return to you as a mote/ of dust that floats in on the spars of sunlight./ It will search every room until it finds you.”
Marchant often provides apertures – even when describing a book read in childhood – that allow him to connect with other people, despite their flaws or emotional wounds. Or he transforms a desperate situation into a “looking house,” from which he can observe and record with palpable tenderness.
Marchant’s subject matter isn’t easy. He doesn’t flinch when describing an Iranian writer who has been tortured, a sister who is losing her memory, or the entrance to a prison, where people “feel either you are in danger, or that you are the danger.”
What makes these poems resonant, though, is that Marchant often sounds like a conscientious objector, not just a witness. He understands the difference between viewing and see things with unwavering clarity. At times, the reader can almost feel him standing at the edge of the room, watching with a knowing nod.
This is especially true in the third section, where the intensity rises and rises – until Marchant suddenly releases that tension by closing with two gentle poems. The first leaves readers with “the minutes we have of grandeur, hope, gratitude” and the second with “the small, but persistent/ Impulse to sing.”
Those who prefer easier journeys may want to start with “Full Moon Boat,” one of Marchant’s earlier books. Either way, he’s a poet worth exploring.
Elizabeth Lund regularly reviews poetry for the Monitor.