The Art of Fiction
(Four Way Books, 2021)
Thanks to the collective efforts of social justice activists the world over, it is virtually impossible for any American responsible for cultural production to avoid persistent systemic inequities formerly muted or ignored. In the case of poet Kevin Prufer, whose work has long been informed by a genuine commitment to ethics, The Art of Fiction, his eighth collection of verse, spotlights uncomfortable truths with compassionate force. As the title of the book suggests, Prufer accomplishes this through an inventive, supple storytelling style that binds memories and hypotheticals to various fictional forms. The bulk of the collection is comprised of poems in which multiple narratives initially run parallel, then gradually angle towards one another and ultimately intersect. Through several deft maneuvers, seemingly distinct lines of inquiry merge and blend with unexpected coherence. Thus, Prufer’s craftsmanship tells its own story, an unlikely tale of suspense, whereby various materials are selected and shaped into the ineffable yet palpable structure that produces the poem. If the best storytellers invent realities to establish a kind of veracity that witness and memory alone cannot manage, their very inventions become facts themselves, entities as tangible as orchids, Tupperware, and contaminated water. The best poems in The Art of Fiction are phenomenal in both senses of that word.
In the opening title poem, Prufer establishes themes and techniques explored throughout the book. Four narratives, by turns intimate and conceptual, are stitched into a complex yet unified pattern that accommodates shifts in time, place, and emotional temperature: a young poet reads a poem about the indignities of old age and offends an elderly woman in the audience; an adult remembers a grammar school classmate bringing a gun to school; surfing the internet, the narrator reads about cops and Black people shooting one another in American cities; and anthropological theory claims the Cognitive Revolution is responsible for the rise of Modern humans. (Because humans could “imagine unverifiable truths larger than ourselves” they were able to “destroy / each sentient, / and therefore complex, / community [they] encountered…”.) These juxtapositions on race, violence, death, and uncertainty are softened through various linking images that allow a measure of fluidity between sections. The technique isn’t new, either on paper or screen, but Prufer’s use of it can engender wonder and awe. In large part, this is achieved through the poet’s direct yet serene tone and his impeccable arrangement of staggered lines, both of which memorably frame the current cultural zeitgeist not to celebrate its terrors and despairs, but to interrogate the self. After all, the narrator in “The Art of Fiction” is “looking into his great glowing screen” writing a poem called “The Art of Fiction,” a poem emerging from his quest to understand where “memory ends” and “the fiction of terror and immortality hanging over us” begins.
However, this is only half the story. If some writers turn to fiction to articulate and explore, a reader or audience may seek mediation, a guiding voice giving reason to what otherwise remains inscrutable. Some realities are too harsh to accept without reason or explanation. Religion, science, and literature provide narratives that can protect and soothe—or at least clarify. In this way, portions of The Art of Fiction are aligned with post-Kantian metaphysics, particularly with Hans Vaihinger’s “As If” principle: although certain sensations and feelings are real, the rest of human knowledge consists of fictions that can only be justified pragmatically, for even the laws of logic we consider true are only so because we find them useful. In “The Damned,” when an unnamed city is destroyed in an unspecified war, those who were “saved” grew wings to escape “the bedraggled and doomed” left behind to suffer what awaits them. This might be an allegory about privilege, or a metaphor of heavenly ascent, or a fable in which the damned who get on with the business of living and rebuilding have no time to think about those who were spared.
Certain fictions are more subtly entrenched in our thinking. Once again, in “The Art of Fiction,” shooting cops at demonstrations is called “social justice” whereas cops shooting Black people is labeled “public safety.” The very computer the poet uses to write his poem is called “Apple . . . a fiction / made palpable by our communal agreement / about its existence.” Similarly, “Google,” Prufer notes, is “a fiction that returns to its disciples / facts.” So absolute is our communal agreement that we forget certain realities are notional, like an out-of-season “orange” engineered in a lab that we conflate with the actual fruit. However, fictions may also willfully suspend or deflect truth. In “Cruelties,” the narrator considers two kinds of elimination: a young man spraying poison at a wasp’s nest; and a “cargo ship’s captain throwing castaways overboard” in order to “pick them off / one by one” to the overwhelming approval of his crew. In one instance, the perpetration of violence is so obviously horrifying, it would be virtually impossible to find an appropriate context to justify it. By contrast, the narrator considers the other instance “necessary and cultivating,” as he himself pours poison over ants in his garden. In truth, both acts are predicated on ruthless cancellation. The difference lies in “communal agreement” as to which serves a greater good. This theme resurfaces with comparable brutality in “An American Tale,” where “the idea was to keep some people from polluting / our country.” What is more, in the same poem, “The removal of some / who lived among us / facilitated the well-being / of those who deserved to stay.”
Given Prufer’s unwavering focus on moral responsibility in the face of dehumanizing economies, ecological disturbance, and systemic injustices, one might expect The Art of Fiction to be a bit of a slog, but the very vitality and ingeniousness of its poems ensures the book is one of the more digestible collections to emerge in recent years. The poet knows fiction, and, more specifically, how to exploit various storytelling mechanisms for the pleasures of consumption. Therefore, the rage and pathos explored in “Hog Kaput,” “Into the Weeds,” “Wet Leaves,” and “Jesus Christ” are balanced by surprising turns in the language. The disturbing juxtapositions that drive the narratives of “Blueberry” and “In Small Spaces” are framed as suspense. In the former poem, “a very bad man” under government surveillance shows his daughter and her parakeet considerable tenderness before driving off to murder someone, his actions recorded by a “loving” drone. The latter charts the demented psychology of an incarcerated criminal who recalls the woman he stalked wearing toe polish the color of “kitten’s tongue.” In this poem’s hair-raising conclusion, the stalker enters the woman’s room while she sleeps, fingers her hair, then sits in a chair to observe her until daybreak. This behavior prompts the man who watches the TV documentary about this incident to ask: “how in the world / is the man in this story different / from what people say about God?”
While the poems in The Art of Fiction do not shy away from asking big questions, Prufer wisely sidesteps clear-cut answers. To be connected to life is to embrace all manner of ambiguity. Perhaps this is why some of the poet’s fictions seem intentionally random, or at least beyond the point of explanation. “Election Night” alternates between musings on Seneca’s murder at the behest of Nero and a pack of raccoons who plunder the narrator’s garbage tote. Although the connection is left unclarified, it feels right—and this, too, is the art of good fiction: the intuitive gesture or apt image refusing to mean anything other than what it vividly is. Elsewhere, as in “Right in the Eye,” Prufer’s embrace of ambiguity takes shape as distrust of certainty and reductive understanding. “The problem with dogma” the poet writes, “is it wants to make of complex problems / simple solutions.” Later in the same poem, he opines: “sentimentality / might be the reduction of a complex political situation / to a single, / simplified emotional channel…” In the realm of literature, we might consider these lessons as they apply to, say, propaganda theatre or sensationalist memoir; ultimately, however, Prufer’s poems function best when they are turned towards ourselves, like large uncomfortable mirrors through which, at any given moment, we might wonder: what’s the story?