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Alice Fulton, “Fractal Poetics: Adaptation and Complexity,” Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, Maney, Surrey, UK, 2005, vol. 30, no. 4, pp. 323–330.
Excerpts from Reviews of Cascade Experiment: Selected Poems
W.W. Norton, 2004
Alice Fulton is not a safe poet; she's a daring, ambitious, and risk-taking one, and, as the magnificent pieces gathered together in Cascade Experiment so eloquently and scintillatingly demonstrate, she has been so throughout her lengthy and deservedly successful career. Time and again Fulton has proven herself willing, unlike so many of her contemporaries, to take chances in her work. Poetry as a whole would be much enlivened if poets everywhere could take a cue from her and engage in experimentation of their own.
[Fulton’s poetics] challenges the conventional wisdom among many poets that the content of a poem is less important than its form. In practice, Fulton has created a poetic style that is remarkably "about things," in the sense that her poems explore their overt subject matter deeply and uphold their convictions with rigor. Cascade Experiment, a new selection of poems culled from her previous five books of poetry, amply demonstrates not only Fulton's broad range of interests but also her continual and evolving sense of how to use the most seemingly insignificant details to illuminate the nuances of difficult moral ideas.
The Atlantic Unbound
In her essay “What Abu Ghraib Taught Me,” Barbara Ehrenreich writes, “It is not enough to be equal to men, when the men are acting like beasts. It is not enough to assimilate. We need to create a world worth assimilating into.” Fulton creates such a world in her poems, where taking the established orders to task is often a given point of departure, and where most of the energy serves to demonstrate the kinds of generous behaviors and beautiful formal fields that can define a microcosm.... A concern for justice is everywhere in her work. It is difficult to imagine people in power similarly bothered by external suffering, but not so hard to believe that Fulton was exactly the kind of poet Shelley had in mind when he said “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”
Strikingly flexible in their diction and manner, Fulton’s poems often include puns and slang, but her topics are deeply serious.... The poems are epistemological in their concerns: What is it possible to know? How does scientific knowledge affect the perceptions of common sense? How do the powers of language relate to media culture, scientific discovery, imperialism, gender, and the petty inhumanity or graciousness of everyday feelings and events? Some of her most significantly innovative work has been in poetic series, particularly in terms of the way a Fultonian speaker’s identity shifts in order to question the foundations of identifying constructions, like race, class, and gender.
Fulton’s sustained poetic method of allusive, associative leaps, collage, and quotation is effortlessly inventive. Deftly negotiating the “passional” analytic ... Fulton makes strikingly postmodern some of the foundational poetic experiments of modernism. She is among the few poets of her generation to contemplate the ethical value of immersion — the surfeit of feeling — which has come to be associated in her work with generosity of spirit and compassion. In her most recent poetry, she enjoins us to immerse ourselves, to risk the too-muchness of others’ feelings or our own feelings for others....
Elisabeth Frost and Cynthia Hogue, Innovative Women Poets
At the heart of her politically powerful and linguistically complicated poems is a questioning speaker attempting to make sense, to be a good person, to live right. This voice is most often emphasized at the close of the poems. These endings illustrate not just a questioning speaker who is willing, over several collections, to end her poems with heart-rending flux, but also an unpredictable movement from line to line, and a wordplay that transforms the meaning unexpectedly, so that we readers are surprised out of the familiar and into a heightened awareness.
Sarah Vap, Rain Taxi Review of Books
Nabokov is one of Alice Fulton’s literary mentors: The sheer delight in language’ subterfuges, the knotty avenues of recollections and desire, the human need for ‘significance’ that forms narratives even where there are none — these themes are the very bone and gristle of Fulton’s prodigal, energetic poetry.
Washington Post Book World
A cascade experiment is a chain of causality, of interconnected events. The phrase is an apt title for this selection of poems by Alice Fulton, whose similies and metaphors leap from science to pop culture to lived experience.... These freewheeling associations reflect a thematic interest in both linkage and separateness.... Fulton is fully aware that such connectedness does not necessarily lead to a cozy feeling of oneness with animal, vegetable, and mineral. The subject of borders relates to another of Fulton’s recurring themes, that of the relation between nature and artifice, particularly in the context of gender.... Fulton handles these weighty themes with grace, making pointed use of humor as she startles the reader into active thought.
Virginia Quarterly Review
Fulton’s first selected (and her seventh collection overall) cements her reputation as a quirky, increasingly challenging assembler of a pluralistic, kaleidoscopic world. Grounded in the pathos of personal lyric, Fulton’s early offerings Dance Script with Electric Ballerina (1983) and Palladium (1986) already showed the range for which she became known, roping in subjects from "the wet / storeways of Graytown, U.S.A." to Isaac Newton, Emily Dickinson, ice-fishing huts and "Aerobia, Goddess of the Body." Other poems took on the grim landscapes of Michigan, where Fulton long lived.... Zipping from fact to emotion and back again, Fulton’s lines mirrored her thoughts' abrupt stops and new starts, "tipping and flirting / with seldom-seen surfaces." Longer poems and later books took better advantage of Fulton’s polymathic bent, offering opalescent disquisitions on two or three topics at once: Felt (2001), her strongest yet, staged a parade of white and off-white objects, from Dickinson’s dress to Fulton’s own castoffs to "emollients made of mammal fat," weaving around its museum-like displays an ambitious meditation on reticence, art, death and obstinate eternity. Though Fulton tells us that "The natural is what / poetry contests," her gift for phrasemaking lets her sound spontaneous even in her most surprising claims.... [T]his midcareer poet wins, and will go on winning, plaudits for her intellectual agility, for the stamina of her book-length projects and for the warm ethic at their core.
Fulton is a poet of depth and great intellectual resources—skills that, as Cascade Experiment shows, have only been strengthened and refined over time. Never failing to display a wide range of ideas and images, Fulton artfully crafts her poems with wit and grace; and as a result her work comes across as both bold and elegant. Her ability to manipulate and transform words proves there are no limits to the wonders of language and ensures that every poem brings readers into a realm they otherwise would never have ventured into. As Fulton writes in the poem "Warmth Sculpture": "It isn't simplicity that epiphanizes me, it's / saturation, the maximal, the interwoven / thrombosis and richness of / contributors to each morsel of / what-is: this density / in which all entities / exist. It works. It wilds."
Braiding lyricism with American vernacular, Fulton’s poetry complicates relationships between language and ideas. Palladium — comprising six sections, each connected to a different definition of the collection’s title — demonstrates a reverence for the transgressive; Sensual Math experiments further with transmutations of sound and sense, form and content. In poems like “some Cool,” Fulton challenges the iamb; in other poems, gender and its conventions are subverted.
Who's Who in Twentieth-Century World Poetry
[Cascade Experiment] is at once as profound as it is unconventional. ... Her poetry is often playful and almost always challenging. ... Over a twenty-two year period, Fulton has addressed several crucial and provocative topics in her poetry, including sexuality, materialism, family, and death. Cascade Experiment is a welcome document of where Fulton has been as a poet and a harbinger of the boundless possibilities to come.
Magill Book Reviews
On Writing Cascade Experiment: Selected Poems
W.W. Norton, 2004
In science, a cascade experiment is a domino effect, a waterfall of causality, in which one event triggers and affects the next. Love must be such a structure: one touch and worlds take place. Each section of this book begins with a love poem, a pattern I didn’t notice till I received my bound copy. Section one, for instance, begins with “What I Like,” a sonnet on the dangers of guardedness and trust, and the last section starts with “Close,” a love poem to “… the closeted, oddball, marginal / artists in the storage of the world’s indifference….” I guess all along I’ve been interested in proximity and distance, the measures of love.
The progress of my work has been a cascade experiment in that one passion instigated another. As a teenager, I spent a lot of time alone in my room, reading and listening to music, and in the 1970s, I worked as an announcer for radio stations with progressive rock, all-night jazz, and classical formats. This interest in music and popular culture appears in my first book and resurfaces much later with the Elvis sightings and imitators of Sensual Math. Then, too, Emily Dickinson has been a favorite poet of mine since high school. The conversation with her work and themes began with my first book, and her aptitude for solitude (and syntax) continues to fascinate. She was the catalyst for “Maidenhead,” a more recent poem that figures the mind as the definitive sealed and private space.
My life was changed by feminism, and that great force for human rights appears in many poems as a subversive pleasure. Thinking about gender led me to think about the relation between nature and artifice. (When I say “thinking” I also mean feeling — since emotions are drastically embodied thoughts.) The composite image on the cover — a waterfall topped by a painting of a sky against the sky — suggests the relation between what-is and constructions of what-is: the interface of nature and art, as well as the uncanny properties of montage, forced couplings, portmanteaus. Is the billboard an advertisement for the sky? A portrait of air? A pixilated heaven? An imitation ether? A drive-in movie showing clouds? The image raises questions of authenticity and substance that figure in some of the poems.
I’ve been drawn to science, philosophy, and religion because they grapple with the greatest mysteries of reciprocity and being. At this point, I find it’s hardly possible to write about anything without considering fairness — as in beauty, as in justice. Several poems in the last two sections consider the suffering of animals or the entwined fates of the natural and human world — what ecologists study in their “cascade experiments.”
Through the years and the poems, I’ve tried to see more deeply and more peripherally, to honor the obverse rather than the obvious, the circumference rather than the center. Some of the more recent poems are imbued with inconvenient knowledge: those cruelties or inequities we wish to forget or efface because attending to them might force us to change our lives. As my husband, Hank De Leo, once remarked, attention is a form of homage. It follows that a reader’s time and mind are a gift to the writer, and I’m grateful.