‘An Ordinary Life’ by B.H. Fairchild: The Winding Road of Grief

Gus Berg

In his latest poetry collection, An Ordinary Life (67 pages; W. W. Norton), B.H. Fairchild, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and the author of the collections The Art of the Lathe (1998) and Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest (2002) , doesn’t flinch from the foxholes remembered secondhand in “My Father, Fighting the Fascists in WWII” or from images of a Korean War veteran bagging canned goods without fingers in “Groceries.” Fairchild offers succinct commentary with discrete but vivid imagery, honoring the beauty of small-town scenes with artistry and exactitude, transforming even a Walmart on Black Friday into a beautiful scene haunted by his distinct working-class American voice.

At the focal point of this collection, An Ordinary Life includes a suite of seven prose poems. The first of these, “The Hat,” contains the collection’s echoing refrain:

The problem is the same, escaping and returning to that which one can never leave, circling back to the origins that we felt were in the past but are always revealing themselves in the future become present.

“that which one can never leave,” in many of these poems, is the grief that winds tightly throughout. The book is dedicated to Paul Fairchild, the 80-year-old poet’s late son, whose loss is felt not only in direct laments like “On the Sorrow God Pours Into the Little Boat of Life” (about the speaker collapsing to the floor of a record store after his son’s death), but in frenzied pieces that explore the relationship between a father and his son, an older generation’s fears for their descendants, and what it means to be a man in America. In “Revenge,” the speaker tells a story of reciting poetry to his angry father and defending his practice of memorizing it to impress a girl he is interested in. Holding the frantic rhythm of the Beat poets, it concludes:

And I remember the grim, tight mask of his face

inflamed now by the porchlight as he lurched

for the front door and I sang to Kansas poems

I so loved that they became a type of revenge.

B.H. Fairchild walks his readers through this winding road of grief, frequently doubling-back as he guides us all through a rhythmic and varied mosaic of the natural world, generational echoes of war, and his gritty portrait of blue-collar life. You can’t look away.

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