Review: How It Was with Scotland by Joan Fiset

(Edmonds, WA: Ravenna Press, 2019)

Joan Fiset’s newest collection, How It Was with Scotland (2019, Ravenna Press), is a startling, vivid chapbook comprised of fragmentary poems and surreal images. Each poem is paired with visual art by Noah Saterstrom, and the images — with their rough brush strokes and swirling colors — function to both illuminate and obscure the lines they are printed beside. Indeed, these combinations of the lyric with the visual ask readers to dwell a little longer with each poem, to ask questions that may not be answered and to linger in the beauty tinged with uncertainty. 

The poem that begins, “this is summer,” for example, is paired with the image of what appears to be a mother and her three young children. Wearing bright red clothing, they stand on the steps of a building; their attire and the warm colors imply that the season here is also summer. Though their faces are not detailed, we can tell that they are smiling as though posing for a picture: a happy family on summer vacation. The poem itself continues: “over there the lake / returns so blue we / look together into it / dreaming the hummingbirds home”. Because of the image beside the poem, the “we” in these lines becomes this young family on the steps. The ideas of dreaming and home become all the more nostalgic in the context of this family. At the same time, the image opens up questions that the poem cannot fully answer — what happened to the family, to this “we”? Who is the speaker now, and where is home?

Throughout the collection, these pairings seem to offer us glimpses of a world not so different from our own — a world we might almost remember, except that it is too dreamlike, too fragmented for us to recall. Fiset’s poems are almost entirely without punctuation or capitalization, with lines that seem to begin mid-sentence and passages that end abruptly, without completion. As other reviewers have commented, reading these poems feels much like overhearing a few words from a conversation, prompting us to fill in the missing words and meanings for ourselves. Besides the continual enjambment, other elements of these poems create the sense of gaps and incompletion. A poem that begins “A room   white breath” for example contains several lines with extra white spaces between words, as though various words have been cropped from the poem. The closing two lines read, “sail on as if   what / left   and” , leaving us with the impression that we are not reading the full story.

Even with this sense of incompletion, however, Fiset’s talent is to offer us a chapbook that feels whole, even profound. Throughout, the poems repeat themes: an emphasis on colors and spaces, or a particular character, Lucinda. In the latter part of the book, a few of the poems adopt longer lines or prose-like blocks that, though still fragmented, give the impression of thoughts becoming more concrete, even as the lines themselves speak of things lost or broken. What is more, the collection opens and ends with the exact same poem, a longer piece that ends with the line “it begins again” — thus, the collection feels whole in that it is almost circular, perhaps even cyclical, beginning and ending at the same place.

We have here a profound reflection on the nature of incompletion — what it means for something to have completion and why completion, in its common interpretation, is not always necessary to generate meaning. While Fiset’s poems are difficult to understand in their fragmentary shape, they do not fail to offer truth because of their structures. Rather, the structures themselves help create that meaning. In a way, Fiset testifies to the shortcomings of art to generate clarity. At the same time, she reveals art’s power to characterize and alleviate human experience. This latest collection, filled with imagination, layered with evocative language, and arranged profoundly, is a testament to Fiset’s enduring talent as a writer.


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Alexa T. Dodd is a fiction writer, essayist, and book reviewer. Her work has appeared in River Teeth Journal, Heavy Feather Review, The Write Launch, and elsewhere. She is a Tin House Summer Workshop alumnus and a recipient of a Hypatia-in-the-Woods residency for women artists. She has a Master’s in Creative Writing from Texas Tech University.