Thomas Fink: Peace Conference

Review by Chris Pusateri


Dear Tom,

My apologies for the tardy response, but life is full of so much bullshit, which is not really bullshit at all, but life. Then again, misdiagnosis always was one of my foibles: “The / gift is the box, Pandora.”

I wanted to send you a few sentences worth of impressions on Peace Conference but felt that the book warranted something a bit more considered, something that may be difficult to fit into the space of a paragraph. So I hope you’ll bear with me, as I try to make my thoughts amenable to language.

I thought the book was well-written and sharp and dealt with political and social issues without constantly resorting to various forms of cover, like irony or misdirection (a tendency that I count among my more serious flaws as a poet). I believe there is more peril in being transparent with one’s allegiances, but by the same token, I also feel that such an approach is more honest, and when it works, often makes for a more effective poem.

There’s a penchant amongst poets to want to address the political without being a “political poet.” I understand the distinction (and for me, it brings to mind George Oppen, who explained his 20-year hiatus from poetry by saying that he wanted to focus on his Marxist activism, but did not want to be a “Marxist” poet). On this count, Peace Conference really nails it; that is, it manages political content without being doctrinaire, or worse yet, tentative. Since politics and ethics are as close as most poets ever come to religion, I think it’s imperative to retain the energy and wonder of religious experience without becoming intractable. This can be a very difficult balance to strike, but you bring it off quite artfully in Peace Conference.

I’m also quite taken with your use of visual (some might say “concrete”) elements. As a writer who doubles as a painter, you exhibit a complex understanding of how the visual, rather than being simple ornamentation, can also be a vehicle for expectation, for meaning, and for imparting the political dimensions of a piece. For instance, the book’s opening poems, from Generic Whistle-Stop, remind me of solidarity ribbons, those pinned to the lapel or tacked to the old oak on the front lawn, which are used to signify everything from “free the Iranian hostages,” to “support our troops in Desert Storm,” to the more secular (not to mention less nationalistic) desire to eradicate breast cancer. When used correctly and thoughtfully (as you do), the combination of linguistic and spatial elements can be mutually reinforcing (or alternately, their divergence can cause an interesting friction), adding an entirely different dimension to what might have been simply words. I’m very grateful for anything that challenges my habits as a reader, and Peace Conference does exactly that: it upsets habits without being prescriptive and resists substituting one set of rules for another.

Peace Conference strikes me—and I may be completely wrong here—as a book whose constituent parts were taken from a number of existing poetic sequences. Your willingness to write individual poems—and I think there’s a palpable resistance in contemporary avant-garde circles to “collections” of poems, as avants seem seduced by the modernist preoccupation with The Grand Project, one unified book-length piece along the lines of The Cantos or Paterson or Helen in Egypt—is itself a very necessary refusal of one of the more inexplicable prejudices built into contemporary innovative practice.

But me, I often hanker for more compression, greater economy, shorter pieces that are carefully placed end-to-end, with an eye towards creating (or perhaps “building” is a better word) a sustained effect or affect, not unlike the ordering of tracks on a well-made musical album. I tried this approach with a previous book of mine, Anon, but was unable to bring it off to my satisfaction. Peace Conference does a far better job with this. It builds on its emotive and linguistic power quite well, I think, and its poems succeed as both free-standing pieces and when taken in toto.

In the formal training of writers, there’s a great onus on the development of voice. A graduate school professor once told me that I had a very distinct voice, and this seemingly innocent and well-intended bit of feedback nearly drove me to despair. You see, I didn’t want a voice; I wanted many voices—enough to accommodate the countless unforeseeable predicaments that poetry invites. What my professor saw as high praise, I saw as utter damnation: one voice, stuck being “me” for all time, seemed like a custodial sentence. “‘I’ / ‘go’ to / ‘hell.’ Why? ‘Art.’”

This versatility, the need to incorporate a chorus, is one of the many virtues of Peace Conference. From the whip-smart vernacular of Generic Whistle-Stop to the halting, cross-cultural music of Yinglish Strophes to the jump cut parataxis of the Goad sequence, Peace Conference is a city unto itself: a beautiful mashup of the many voices that comprise the social compact. It is a marvelous thing to behold.

I’d like to close with a small meditation on the book’s title because you know how I obsess over such things. A peace conference, at its most literal, is a conversation between warring parties who hope to achieve a cessation of hostilities. The outcome of a peace conference is always uncertain (I’m thinking here of the Korean War, in which there were several rounds of failed peace talks before an armistice was agreed).

Your book does precisely what all peace conferences aspire to do: it brings together unlike elements and brings them into coexistence. And I want to be clear here: I’m not talking about some false Hegelian synthesis, whereby all the rough edges are sanded down and all contradictions are reconciled. Peace Conference possesses far too much intellectual integrity to attempt such shenanigans. One of the most brilliant aspects of the book is its embodiment of the idea that the only art worth bothering with is an art that honors difference and allows contradictory elements (the unlike) to stand alongside one another, present but unresolved. In that way, Peace Conference reflects the life that we all lead, one that cannot be explained by tidy philosophical systems: it is gritty, colloquial, and as often as not, its parts don’t dovetail; as in sometimes, we must force the jagged edges together, knowing full well that it’ll hurt, and welcome the inevitable awkwardness that accompanies it. This is part of what workshop teachers call risk, but risk cannot always be abstract, cannot be forever intellectualized. Sometimes it involves giving people what they’ll not like and bearing witness to their discomfort, their disinterest, and sometimes even their derision.

As with all good art, Peace Conference is not for everyone, but it could be for anyone, and that is perhaps its most beautiful contradiction of all. The audience for our kind of poetry will always be small, but for those few readers, such writing will always be transformative and necessary. Wherever your poetics take you from here, it’ll be somewhere generative (both for you and for your readers), so let me thank you in advance. For my part, I’ll be awaiting your next book with barely-suppressed glee.

All bests,

Chris Pusateri