The Foundling Wheel by Blas Falconer

A review of Blas Falconer’s The Foundling Wheel. Four Way Books, 2012.

Over thirty years ago, confronting my ticking biological clock and lack of a partner, I snagged a gay friend who agreed to be the father and got myself a baby.   It seemed slightly mad at the time, but my mother, the one person whose opinion really mattered, was thrilled, and everyone else mostly kept their objections to themselves, only telling me when my son reached adulthood and married that “he turned out okay after all.”  Well.

I have been reading Blas Falconer’s wonderful second book of poems, The Foundling Wheel, reliving my determination to be a parent and those early days with my son, the gift that banished my feelings of separateness and isolation and linked me to the past and future and the larger world.

But not all newborns are wanted or can be cared for by their birth parents, hence the horrific practices of exposure, infanticide, and abandonment.  So many newborns were found in the nets of fishermen on the Tiber that Pope Innocent III in 1198 ordered up the first foundling wheel, a rotating, horizontal platform that allowed newborns to be dropped off at a hospital.  The book’s cover image,  “Printed calico” comes from London and samples the foundling admission process. As infants  entered the hospital, all the clothing they were wearing was recorded, along with a strip of fabric that was often included, the parents retaining the same so that later the child might be reclaimed, a remarkably humane system that allowed the parents to remain anonymous while leaving with the children a clue to their identity. Adoption is even more ancient, and humans aren’t the only ones to practice it.  These are the lucky ones, we hope.

So what does it mean to adopt, to be adopted, to abandon, to be abandoned?  The response to this question, in its complexities and interrelated circles of cause and effect, unpredictability and grace, is the focus of Falconer’s book.  Beginning and ending with the idea of story, in between are immersions, meditations, consolations, and acceptances in poems ranging from heroic couplet to prose, as form and the ghost of form mirror the process of transformation and renewal.

Falconer describes The Foundling Wheel as a long, single sequence, beginning with a kind of triple annunciation which addresses the question of what it means to consider parenthood.  “To press the air, to bless the silhouette” argues for an opening to all possibilities: “to cut the fruit and not think// of the heart, to think of it and not flinch, /or flinch and cut through its core all the same,” a reminder that plunging into the unknown is an act of bravado as well as an act of will. The poem urges a stepping away from order and comfort into the landscape of discomfort, “all fair and foul, lush and bare: the vine/ that takes the barn,” and so on, ending,

Below, the city rests. You’ll test
yourself the way you always have, a boy

stepping into the dark and the story
it held—whatever it was.

The second poem, “The Annunciation,” is based on Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of the same title which, like the most compelling paintings in this genre, illuminates Mary’s mixed emotions:

In one account,
she fled. He chased her back into the house,
not Gabriel, a pull inside the ribs until
she acquiesced, exchanging one loss for another.

The poem turns to a discussion of the painting’s perceived flaws, its lack of perspective and proportion, and concludes: “the flaw in her face: a lack of fear or awe.”  Part of the mixed story of parenthood being, well, yes: no perspective, no proportion, no fear, no awe.

The final of the three first poems, “On the Bluffs of Pico Duarte,” seems to argue that becoming a parent is like leaping off a cliff.  The speaker falls so far into the water that “the halo of light begins to close. / I like the cold and muted dark, //the stillness there,” but body and lover call, and the speaker returns to the world unable to explain, as the poem ends “Why?  You ask, and close your eyes, /even this small lamp too bright.”

Among the next handful of poems are references to the birth mother and to the speaker, like a seedless orange which “cannot bear fruit” (“Still Life with Orange”) and must wait: “Catch me,//  I call to the bedside clock, a bare wall” (“Saved”).

In the title poem, “The Foundling Wheel,” descriptions of the wheel are interwoven with references to a woman pushing a stroller, the Bible story about the infancy of Moses, boats in a harbor whose “masts call out like dulled bells,” a music which echoes the dilemma of the speaker who must put himself at the mercy of larger forces like the birth mother, like tidal waters.  “I hear the gulls and don’t sleep well.” The father experiences a different kind of pregnancy:

A father’s body changes, too,
on a molecular level:
a small disturbance among fallen leaves,
a soft thud.

But like the wheel, time turns toward birth, as the poem concludes, “the child sleeps beside our bed/ and you make toast with red plum jam.”

In the next group of poems the speaker enacts and re-enacts aspects of the plunge into parenthood.  “Homecoming” considers the quotidian demands of raising a small child.  There are nighttime feedings: “The train rumbles through the dark, and my body, tuned/ to hear you cry before you cry, stirs.” Later in the poem, the speaker addresses the child: “Small Clock of Needs, Law that I Abide,” a reminder of the necessary constancy of care and attention.

“A Warm Day in Winter” is a meditation on the construction of memory, the speaker aware that his son is too young to remember this day and that it will become a story he will tell when they re-visit the park.  Addressing his son, the speaker says, “I try to see as you, without likeness or memory,” and then turns to a consideration of the time before the child’s birth, when his physical features couldn’t be imagined, “because you didn’t come from me.”  Both events, birth and the warm day of the winter walk, are recollections for the speaker becoming stories on the page.

Parental vulnerability appears in “Still Life with Three Zinnia Elegans,” a response to a photograph by  Bruce Checefsky.  The phrase “still life” seems apt for a poem about illness. It opens with a description; “this flower in the forefront is my fevered son in lamplight, his face / lit brightest.”  As the fever continues, the speaker notices a digital glitch in the photograph causing a blur, a blue and yellow error. Implicit, it seems, is the possibility of death, an argument that takes place in the child’s body which alternately stiffens and shakes.  There is a moment when we are not sure if the child has entered the calm after fever or the calm of death: “When it ended, it ended at once, his whole self I thought, leaving his/ body or sinking deeper into it.”

But with parental challenges comes a shift, a new insider perspective.  In “Passing” the speaker remembers living alone, but strangely,

A webbed foot
in a bowl of soup was a sign of good luck.
What could I say while other sighed with envy,
the small bones breaking in my mouth.

This poem is a kind of prelude to a poetic sequence in six parts, “Another Kind of Music,” which crosses back into the landscape of childhood with a fresh empathy for all the varieties of longing. The first, a prose poem, is a most unlikely blessing, here in its entirety:

I climbed the hill where a man lived with a man who moved the lawn
on Sundays. Even from across the street, you could see his jockstrap
when he bent to pull the cord or empty grass from the carriage. I doubt
he saw me chasing birds in his yard with a handful of salt. Scott’s dad
wanted to live with a man, but didn’t tell anyone for years, and I didn’t
tell anyone though my father often asked me what was wrong. More
bird talk, more twitter. Didn’t we all want one? You had to catch it
first. You had to make it understand.

Earlier themes and motifs are revisited, informed by the speaker’s new place in the center, a music which casts time in a different light.  References to flight, injury, recovery, death, absence, and the small miracles of ordinary life abound.

The book’s last gesture considers again the idea of story.  It’s what we tell ourselves and our children, as in “Deus Ex Machina:”  “Tell another story.  Hang pillowed stars, suspended by string, /above the crib.”  It’s also, paradoxically, what can’t be told, as “Adaptation” asserts:  “You don’t know how /you got here, to this kindness.”  And finally, these interrupted narratives simply inhabit small actions:

The grass grew longer.

Hello, Goodbye, and Thank you very much.

Kneeling down, we hugged his neck, held his paw to our faces.

You could smell the whole afternoon there.

Read The Foundling Wheel as a long meditation; sample the book here and there: the pleasures and surprises are striking.  There are imagistic coherences: water appears in a multitude of forms, as rain, as tidal pull, things adrift, drowning. Bird song and nesting references are frequent. “Another Kind of Music” admits, “The difference between what happened and what I thought would happen I could never account for.”  That’s as good a way as any to describe our journey through these poems and our lives as we encounter them here, and here, and again here.

***

Elizabeth McLagan’s book of poems In The White Room is just out from CW Books.

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