Literary Criticism

Excerpt from “Reading Alice Fulton’s Barely Composed” – Essay on “Triptych for Topological Heart”

 Fulton leverages this episteme in the sonnet trio, “Triptych for Topological Heart,” to illustrate Western culture's transition from classical religious dogma to new age secularism. The scientific theory of “topological psychology” describes the plasticity of human behavior and its propensity to adapt itself to a given environment. A significant part of this adaptation is the dominating role of concrete science over the increasingly subsidiary position of the closed-loop systems of myth and ideology.

[The following text is a portion of a larger essay on Alice Fulton’s Barely Composed.]

 Perhaps because of their affinity with the sacred poetry of John Donne and George Herbert, Alice Fulton’s metaphysical poems, “Cascade Experiment,” “The Fractal Lines,” “The New Old Testament,” and “The Next Big Thing,” seem cardinal statements on religious belief: the first two admitting the possibility of divinity in hitherto unexamined areas of the physical world, and the third calling it into question by reason of God’s silence in the course of human tragedies like the Holocaust. In “The Next Big Thing,” divinity clearly seems the product of human invention:

No need to fix creation
with wire at the base. If a cascade exists just to be

riveting, if that is why a gyroscope exists. To be

a thing-of-beauty-toy-forever kind of

thing. Have you seen it levitate
on point and sideways like
some android ballerina? While an airy armature
coddles its serenity. It must be pleasing to bow a little
as you pivot and have your way with space.
To roll the world around a pen

to invent a center. Then forget the pen.

The address of the poem is at once personal and metaphysical, a specular image of God as author, author as God. In the same way the “vintage Hermes” (typewriter and messenger to the gods) is diminished by “gunked up keys,” the deus ex machina — for which “Cascade Experiment” and “The Fractal Lines” offered the prospect of unsuspected life beyond the cosmology of the physical world — is reduced to a bathetic “wire at the base” of creation. This was the “supported” world of “rational monists” that Henry James ridiculed in Pragmatism and Humanism and Humanism and Truth. When the wire is removed, it is much like forgetting “the pen” of the author, which may be a thinly veiled allusion to Roland Barthes’ famous essay, the “Death of the Author.” Fulton is not so much offering theoretical proof of divinity’s nonexistence (which she could not do in any respect) as much as testimony on the loss felt in the notion of a prime author’s withdrawal from the world, whose nightmarish portent is realized in “A Tongue Tie of Vet Wrap” and “Personal Reactor.” Instead, we are diverted by the “riveting cascades” of history (“the next big things”) above which the “gyroscope” of the human spirit must levitate. But if the resulting diversion, which we look to in place of God, is merely a “thing-of-beauty-toy-forever-kind-of thing,” then it is ultimately inconsequential vis-à-vis our grander aspirations to spiritual apotheosis and ultimate truth. Thus, in “Sidereal Elegy,” Fulton writes, “Someone had to tell Polaris/it would not always be the pole star.” The axial drift of the celestial universe reflects a more significant movement away from hallowed traditions and myths which harbor our misplaced faith in notions of their inviolability. We rely upon the fixedness of “inertial guidance,” but the “Mists of Time” summon even the stars to constitutional slippage.

  Therefore, Barely Composed is the voice of conscience and self-confrontation that urges human accountability. Fulton views the mirror ball of a world without a governing mythology and so submerges herself in deeper investigations of the self, as indicated in “Because We Never Practiced With The Escape Chamber.” In this vein, Fulton follows the lead of Jean-François Lyotard, who posited that the grand narratives of myth and ideology no longer have instructive or nurturing purpose. The essence of her introductory discourse in “The Next Big Thing,” while framed as personal testament, is that our mytho-ideological narratives are illusory, “collapsing arrangements,” as one belief system is substituted for the next, each unable to offer (as Bertrand Russell noted) a reprieve from the fear of death or serve our intellectual demands for ultimate truth. The final momento mori aspects of “The Next Big Thing,” with its haunting reference to Dickinson’s “I Did Not Stop For Death,” nails the coffin shut on the metaphysical questions embodied in classic myth. What we are left with is not less, but more, a Jamesian pragmatism and humanism that urges us to embrace the world as it is.

 Fulton leverages this episteme in the sonnet trio, “Triptych for Topological Heart,” to illustrate Western culture’s transition from classical religious dogma to new age secularism. The scientific theory of “topological psychology”[1] describes the plasticity of human behavior and its propensity to adapt itself to a given environment. A significant part of this adaptation is the dominating role of concrete science over the increasingly subsidiary position of the closed-loop systems of myth and ideology. “Triptych” argues that only love, unalloyed with ancient or modern myth, offers us anything like a true salvation from the soul-divesting “closets in the flesh,” our office cubicles and caskets.

 The “Triptych” sonnets are constructed around the annual celebration of St. Valentine’s Day. St. Valentine’s Day[2] originated in Chaucer’s time as a tribute to courtly love[3], but persists today mainly as a secular holiday, a Hallmark greeting card occasion for “commodified flowers, obligation chocolate.”[4] The triptych itself, originally conceived as a three-paneled devotional composition, also emerged in the Middle Ages and became a prominent feature of Christian altar paintings and, later, stained glass windows in churches throughout Europe. Some of the most famous secular examples of the form are seen in paintings by Hieronymus Bosch (The Garden of Earthly Delights) and Francis Bacon (Three Studies of Lucien Freud). The literary form, as employed by Fulton here, is an interlacing composite in which the subject of modern love is shown as a vital interplay between the intellect and passion on equal footing; this love eschews the macabre symbolism of Christian belief and resists the conformity of corporate culture that forces us into anonymity and conversely finds an ennobling constancy beyond the scope of religious or secular myth.

 The first sonnet (“It befalls us. An exchanged glance, reflective spasm.”) opens with an extravagantly abstract metaphysical query, transforming the classical Augustinian conceit of the human being as a body-soul composite to a new age formulization:

Is it a fantastically unlaminated question set in flesh
or valentine that wears the air as its apparel?

When we read “Wow Moment” later we understand “unlaminated” to be the way one sees the world without the glossy plastic overlay of mytho-ideology. Yet, the line is complicated by linking “fantastically” with “unlaminated,” an oxymoron suggesting that, in order to get to an unvarnished view of the world, we need to transcend ourselves. An actual “question set” follows:

If you cut a heart from parchment, is it still
a heart? A nontrivial knot, where turns of every gradient
may kiss and tell. Does the vessel have edges?
Or is it all connectedness, an embedding to be stretched
or bent. Imagine being simultaneously alive,
bound in both directions with a bow! Is it diachronic,
a phenomenon that changes over time?

Fulton uses metonym to obtain a textual presence of greater vitality and range of reference than her previous poetry was capable of achieving. The reader interacts with the greater world through the objects of the text, not through the limited persona of the poet.

 Thus, “If you cut a heart from parchment, is it still a heart,” at once reaches for its courtly counterpart in Romeo and Juliet (“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet”[5]), as well as its historic connection with the courtly “Religion of Love.”[6] Fulton’s employment of “parchment” in this context calls forth Shakespeare’s First Folio and the Dead Sea Scrolls. The inquiry, however, is chiefly one of deconstruction: at what point does the heart, as metaphor and symbol, lose its functionality, meaning and significance when dislocated from its customary context. To excise the “parchment heart” from these crucibles of civilization is to abstract and materially change it[7], in one respect reducing it from the hallowed to the bathetic in the secular valentine’s card, the prosaic emblem of love in “I heart you,” and the “parchment heart” used for fish recipes; in another respect, helping us to understand its universal power to move us beyond traditional cultural boundaries.

 Each of the subsequent characterizations in the “question set,” supports metonymic development: the heart’s “nontrivial knot” has its complex of bindings (familial, social and legal); its “turns of every gradient” summon the circulatory tendrils of blood’s essential mathematics (e.g. economic, generational, as well as exponential) and chromatics (e.g., its moods and modes in color and sound, emblems and symbols); and its “kiss and tell,” while serving as the font of the arts, is also the basis of hundreds of exposés in gossip magazines and the new generation of television reality shows. In these respects, the heart’s “connectedness” goes beyond the confines of the body; its “topological” ability to “stretch” and “bend” is individual and societal. Its physical and spiritual dialectic, mirroring the individual and societal, is “bound in both directions with a bow.” Fulton even extends this to Eve’s gift of the apple (ironically emulated in “Malus Domestica”), which mythically gave birth to the human race and mortality (Milton’s “all our woe” in Paradise Lost), as a form of valentine to humanity. This construction invites the teachings of Freud and Lacan as much as Augustine, so that the “question set in flesh” (which plays on the Gospel of John 1:14: “The word became flesh”) and resulting “theory” must finally yield to “ardor” as its sine qua non.

 Without ardor,
theory suffers. That’s why I’m stuck on you with wanton glue, per-
severing, styling something blobbish and macabre
into something pointed, neat. Love is a gift
that springs from an unlit spot. Resin and rue.
Even when I’m in the dark I’m in the dark with you.

 Given the elevated metaphysical frame of the sonnet, the dramatic turn to the physical world and the “wanton” valentine, voiced in Fulton’s “street” diction, lends the needed emotional heft. Love’s “wanton glue”[8] keeps body and soul (or heart and mind) inexorably together, but also brings into the mix the heart’s perfidiousness and lasciviousness as well as its playfulness. “I’m stuck on you” expresses the teenage angst of the modern Romeo and Juliet, but is wry wiseguy stuff coming from an adult. “Per-severing” pointedly emphasizes resistance to the “severing” temptations, but also reminds us of their ever-present threat as the typographical hyphenation emphasizes. In this way our perception of love is as “topological” as the fickle heart’s moods. Dread images of the heart as it actually is (“blobbish and macabre”) are “styled” into a valentine’s sensual images of tart romance (“pointed, neat”), physical and mental arousal.

 Finally, in the heart’s adaptive framework is the riddle of love’s mystery: “Love is a gift that springs from an unlit spot.” That “unlit spot” is as much the irrational Freudian id, as the chest cavity, the womb and the closet. Love is the deus ex machina. As Fulton writes in “Claustrophilia: “Love is the retaliation of light.” In this “unlit spot” love defies rationality as much as time; and it is this very aspect of love, as the eternal equivalent of divinity, to which Shakespeare devotes Sonnet 55 (which is acidly transformed in “Because We Never Practiced With The Escape Chamber[9]). Love is the “Resin and rue” of life (with “rue” serving as both the floral symbol of purity and signifier of mourning): the bow on the ambivalent union of heart and mind (“an embedding to be stretched and bent” and “bound in both directions with a bow”[10]), often bearing more contemporary relation to the kinky sado-masochistic play of Fifty Shades of Grey’s Elliot Grey and Anastasia Steele, than the ancient recollection of Romeo & Juliet. All of which renders the final line challenging, confrontational and ironic. Being “in the dark” signifies a voluntary or involuntary loss of our most vital sense: sight; more importantly, it implies the lack of traditional common sense and perspective. Yet the dark is the chief domain of love. And love is fundamentally irrational when Romeo and Juliet are its leading representatives. A mature grasp of love’s significance is that, again and again through history, human love has trumped representational (mytho-ideological) laminations that threaten the integrity of our connections with each other and the planet we live on. When we have nothing else to rely upon, love always answers the call. This reading anticipates the ending of the final sonnet in the sequence.

 The dialectic continues in the second sonnet (“Say it quivers rather than contracts, fluttery with ruptions.”) which features the macabre exhibition of St. Valentine’s “blossom-crowned skull,” evoking conceits of sacred love (otherwise figured in Christ’s crucifixion, the stigmata of St. Francis, and the ecstasies of St. Theresa) whose ultimate fulfillment lies in the “good” death that permits entry into Heaven. These also represent the erotic death of the Liebestod theme.[11] In post-Freudian capitalism, such sacred images have been abandoned for their secular counterparts, where romance is “pointed, neat,” a little racier and more direct. Modern love (qua eros ) demands new sexualized forms of tribute in “anatomical dark chocolates” and “smoked salt pepper and beaujolais in a plain brown box,” cures for the arrhythmia of “holiday heart.”[12] But to redeem it from its corporate mausoleum, real love demands the personal touch: “embellished with praises/in a romance language in your hand” (rather than the Hallmark’s “carded lace”). The old world’s courtly love, like old time religion, is too antiquated: as unappetizing as the “fudge” that has “tears in it” like someone’s “been sweating[13] over [it].” When the heart calls to dreamy “Mr. Stethoscope,” it is to the mind qua Dr. Love and new age savior with miracle cures for sexual dysfunction as well as the faint of heart. Without the fiction of divine grace, real love is our only “hope” against the secular myth of capitalism and the “dusk ahead, the months gray as donkey.”[14] The promise to “grow another blossom” is the erotic clitoral/phallic substitute for St. Valentine’s sanctimonious blossoms, and the more satisfying Liebestod in sexual congress.

 Triptych’s final sonnet (“Some give vinegar valentines. No pillow words.”) begins with a bawdy tease. Despite the corporate usurpation of Valentine’s Day, its “commodified flowers, obligation chocolate,” we are treated to the imagined exchange of greeting cards in the form of slapstick renderings of sexual organs (“Just floppy thistleburr. Froot Loops and craft wire fashioned on a snarky jig” and the “carnelian pin with openwork components that let you see its self-pleasuring mechanism, storm hormones, and single pulsing vein”) and broadly humorous salutations (“To my Pocket Prince. By Bitch Possessed.”). This “vinegar valentine” dares to take all the sap and cynicism out of the hackneyed form of treacle and antisceptic childishness (“clinical sprinkles”) upon which Valentine’s Day has fed from the hands of its religious and secular priests. But bawdiness and social critique yield unexpectedly to a teaching moment reminiscent of the way Shakespeare would suddenly switch gears from playful banter to sincerity: “a gift cannot be cynical/unless the giver is . . . . Valentines intensify the surface, heart the depths.” In this instance, Fulton defangs the “gift” motif (ironically used in other poems in Barely Composed) and shows that, when love is not hijacked for the deleterious ends of religious and secular myths, it can be a perfect, lasting grace, “vast” and more steadfast than “all other closets in the flesh.” Fulton’s choice of “closets” as the final metaphor offsets the other closed-loop systems of contemporary life. If we are destined for our “closets in the flesh” (our walking coffins, physical and metaphysical), we want our love as Shakespeare would have it in Sonnet 55:

‘Gainst death and all-oblivious enmity
Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room
Even in the eyes of all posterity
That wear this world out to the ending doom.
So, till the judgment that yourself arise,
You live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes.

 I cannot leave this discussion of “Triptych” without commenting on the breathtaking experience of reading these sonnets. They are as magnificent as anything ever written in the form. They display a fascinating admixture of qualities that employ metaphysical, philosophical, literary and artistic themes. They are by turns elegant, romantic, noble, bawdy and sincere. They also have Fulton’s “street,” those reality checks that have made her persona so intriguingly complex and endearing:

 Without ardor
theory suffers. That’s why I’m stuck on you with wanton glue


Doctors call it holiday heart, Valentine’s Day—
named for a saint whose head is venerated in Rome—
is also National Organ Donor Day, okay?


I’m just praying, Can you find a pulse
or a dry needle trigger point? Just saying
this fudge has tears in it. Someone’s been sweating
over this this. Listen Mr. Stethoscope. I’m at the end
of my hope.


 “To my Pocket Prince.”
“By Bitch Possessed” Tough tits, isn’t it?


 What even is it?
Here’s the thing. A gift cannot be cynical
unless the giver is. I will pay you to test this
for me.

(Emphasis added). This is the kind of jazz that Fulton jaywalks across the page just as she takes us to operatic heights. It is what keeps us in touch with the real flesh and blood behind the poetry


[1] In mathematics, topology is the modern version of geometry, the study of all different sorts of spaces. The thing that distinguishes different kinds of geometry from each other (including topology here as a kind of geometry) is in the kinds of transformations that are allowed before you really consider something changed. Topology in geometry allows that any continuous change can be continuously undone.

[2] In 1969, the Vatican removed St. Valentine’s Day from the liturgical calendar: “Though the memorial of Saint Valentine is ancient, it is left to particular calendars, since, apart from his name, nothing is known of Saint Valentine except that he was buried on the Via Flaminia on February 14.” Calendarium Romanum ex Decreto Sacrosancti Œcumenici Concilii Vaticani II Instauratum Auctoritate Pauli PP. VI Promulgatum (Typis Polyglottis Vaticanis, MCMLXIX), p. 117.

[3] Courtly love was based upon professed and practiced virtue and frequently linked itself to spiritual and sacred love.

[4] Barely Composed, “Triptych for Topological Heart” (“Some give vinegar valentines. No pillow words.”), p.21.

[5] William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, (II, ii, 1-2)

[6] Cf., generally, C.S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love (Clarendon Press 1936)

[7] Indeed, in topological geometry, although bending and stretching is permitted, tearing off, cutting and similar amputations invalidate the essential qualities of the figure.

[8] The word “wanton” is applied to embrace lascivious and playful, but also unrestrainedly excessive.

[9]Not nuclear warheads/on the sea’s floor nor the violet glow over the reactor/will outlive this sorrowful rhyme.” Barely Composed, “Because We Never Practiced With The Escape Chamber,” p. 11.

[10] The use of the “bow” here, a figuration of the valentine gift, recalling “all tied up in gift” and “white satin bow on the coachman’s whip” from “The Next Big Thing.”

[11] Traditional Christian myth’s ultimate sign of love was Christ’s mortal death in redemption of Adam’s original sin, making it possible for the human spirit to blossom after death and enter Heaven.

[12] Although “holiday heart” is a real medical condition, its reference here is for the purpose of exploiting the classical metaphor of being “heartsick” with love, which in more contemporary popular music settings may be heard, e.g., in the lyrics of Robert Palmer’s “Bad Case of Loving You” and The Young Rascals’ “Good Lovin’.”

[13] The word “sweat” is a motif by which Fulton has linked labor and sanctity. If someone has been “sweating” over the fudge, it imports the sanctity of hard labor, not romance. [“A Thinkable Rampage” states: “Don’t sweat it. Though as Jesus once told me, sweat is//the smell of sanctity.”]

[14] Barely Composed, “Wow Moment,” p. 26.

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