Chain Link Fence, poems by Patti White
Reviewed by Brent House
As a child growing up in South Mississippi, I was given the chore of plucking the fascicles of pine needles that had fallen into the zigzag of the chain link fence surrounding our family home; so, on Saturday mornings after late-summer storms, I carried a small metal bucket to the edge of our yard, I plucked the needles fallen from forest to the wire, and, before I placed the fascicles in the bucket, I pressed each sharp needle against my sun-darkened skin, blanched myself white, for a moment. For longer moments, I rested in the pine shade, I laid my head on the needles I placed around the roots of the pines, I looked back to the house, and I envisioned the fence clean, as falling needles returned to the wire.
Patti White’s Chain Link Fence—vignettes presenting the experiences of a central character … “Let’s call her Lucy.”—similarly works against the aftermath of the storm; this book, like my self of childhood, “walks the fence-line picking up litter,” and the results are similar to my childhood work. White has gathered a book of needle-strewn poems, poems gathered from the debris of a storm, poems that—individually—remind us we are frail, remind us that “we are naked because / there is something wrong with our skin”. The poems remind us we move forward through suffering tolerance, but, taken together—in this fascicle of sixty-four poems—these poems remind us we are also resilient, “an island in the spring lake, naked / floating in wind and light”. They remind us to be still in the presence of falling.
White’s perfect square of poems—sixty-four poems, including her bio, numbered among the poems—offer a form of comfort against the storm and the aftermath.
Lucy, the avatar of Chain Link Fence, experiences her world “like a sieve,” while “everyone loses everything in summer.” In poems near relentless, White’s narrative voice offers Lucy—and us—a darkened landscape: “There isn’t enough sun.” Rain is coming, the wind is sweeping tornadoes, ash is falling, and, in winter, the wind stills, the river freezes; we are left with the “barren horizon scraped by the sky. The earth, horrified,” offers no refuge, and small hope for survival remains in the natural world. Lucy travels through landscapes urban and rural; plain, desert, and coastal; parched and frozen; and finishes exhausted, longing, with small respite.
Although Lucy travels in company of others, she often remains alone. Perhaps she—on occasion—“dreams a farmer’s wife who tells her dream / within the dream,” but her interaction with others most often stands fearful. Lucy’s uncle tells tales of foxhunts in the South, the farmer’s wife becomes a harbinger of the storm coming into a seemingly Midwestern field, a displaced taxi driver seems homicidal, voices whisper “you can pull yourself out”, and other “characters eat light bulbs in the basement.” In the locations White has grounded Lucy, her isolation is a pinning of safety. The apocalyptic world Lucy occupies presents dangers, and desperate people increase those dangers.
Lucy, seemingly alone, faces the challenge of pulling herself out, of escaping this storm—a “bleeding wound that will not close”, “a precursor to something that shatters,” or “a / dark
wind [that] sweeps over her.” In a space between the broken safety of inside and outside, “swaddled in images ah / sheets of fencing rolled and stored away, dreams falling / like diamonds from the sky,” she must find “a kind of awful grace.” So, too, must the readers who shares these square blocks of poems, for, ultimately, White’s collection asks her readers to join Lucy, to exist in the liminal between inside and outside, between storm and aftermath, between forest and lawn. White asks Lucy—and us—to stand on the tree line, to stand against the wind and risk being broken by the storm.
Chain Link Fence is suffused with an awful grace of images colliding together, with an awful grace of the liminal spaces we occupy. Lucy wakes, “tasting / summer grasses on her breath, cool ashes in her throat,” says, “they will all die if the story continues to construct itself this way, [and she] closes the book.” Grateful that she closes the book on the apocalypse of Lucy, I remember my own waking from rest beneath pines, from my white skin, but I also remember the burning of sun into exposures, the invasion of reptiles and insects that claimed my bed of needles.
White’s third collection takes us through the front of storms, providing for us “the sound of a breath passing through wire.” Here, in these poems, we are reminded voices break, evergreens shed, a plot becomes a series of shapes, and characters resiliate into themselves. These remembrances—in the aftermath—will prove sufficient for frail readers who enter into the wind and light that passes through the pages of Chain Link Fence.
Patti White teaches literature and creative writing at the University of Alabama, where she also serves as director of Slash Pine Press. Her work has appeared in a number of journals, including Iowa Review, River Styx, North American Review, Forklift Ohio, New Madrid, Mississippi Review, and Gulf Coast. In 2001, she received the Anhinga Prize for Poetry for Tackle Box (published by Anhinga Press in 2002); an award-winning festival-short film of the title poem was released in late 2003.