The Wolf Spider, by the American poet Michael J Fisher, is a distinctive pamphlet of twenty poems. For starters, it’s strikingly designed and bound: attractively hand-stitched covers with the titular Wolf Spider squatting in the bottom left-hand corner of the front one.
Then there are the poems themselves: experimental, visceral, an insider’s view of life on the psych ward and literary-savvy enough to name check and converse with some of the writers who have walked that road before. A quotation from Gertrude Stein graces the title page and both Sylvia Plath and Elizabeth Bishop feature. The former, in the poem “Geodon”,
“i stashed a picture in Ariel of you
hair longer frizzed like a halo short circuited
it’s your only picture your smile is un-posed
don’t ask which poem”
The latter, in “Hope Ave Cemetery”,
“Elizabeth Bishop, this won’t be a thistle hidden
in green lawns, but glitters of an accident
a schizophrenic talks about. For that I apologize–“
This is poetry that can require several readings to soak in properly. Partially, it’s because of the subject matter, partially the experimental style of the poems. There is the now-ubiquitous prose poem, poems that largely dispense with punctuation, poetry with lines intentionally and visually crossed out and where the words form themselves into abstract lines and patterns. Despite this, a few poems are almost immediately accessible; others resist interpretation, even after several reads. At times, the white space around the words seems almost as important as the words themselves.
The poems are disparate and even fragmentary, but the whole makes for a searing and, frequently, moving, exploration of mental illness from inside the treatment zone. These are poems of humanity. At times that humanity may be at war with itself, but the human always manages, somehow, to shine through,
“Tonight she’ll lacerate
herself with a broken
plastic spoon. A doctor
will need to surgically
retrieve each shard.
It’ll take hours.”
This is a striking debut.