The Fat Sheep Everyone Wants by Bern Mulvey
(Cleveland State University Poetry Center, Cleveland, Ohio, 2008)
In one of my former incarnations, I was a buyer for an international bookstore chain, and my duties included teaching assistant buyers the art of seeing into the future. On the first day of training, I would tell them, "My job is to show you how to predict what someone will buy when they walk into one of our stores six months from now, themselves not having decided yet what they're going to buy."
We had an assortment of tools for parting the mists in our crystal balls, of course, including a powerful database and access to publishers' reps and media kits. We could sometimes parlay our personal reactions toward a book into a few extra copies hither or a recommendation thither, in hopes of improving the odds for a sale it might not have otherwise attracted.
All the educated guessing and calculated marketing notwithstanding, the fact remained that there were a multitude of factors beyond our control -- in particular, the personal history of a potential buyer, and his or her mood on the day he or she considers spending time with a given book.
I was reminded of this when thinking about who else might enjoy Bern Mulvey's poetry, because when I read this collection, it connected with me in ways it wouldn't have even a mere three months ago, let alone three or ten or twenty-five years ago. For instance, the poem "Secrets" is prefaced with the note, "In rural Japan, it's still the custom for the terminally ill not to be told about their illness"; I read this but a few days after a friend's mother-in-law passed away, in Japan. The poem contains lines that would have resonated with me no matter what, such as
Strange how one can lack something there's so much of,
like a fish dying of thirst
but remembering my friend's distress at her own family's secrets invested the very next lines --
I want to say,
Tell him, for God's sake, but I say nothing --
with an extra layer of helpless sadness, with my current recognition of that line as one that will speak directly to someone I care about.
Thirty years ago, I had a huge chip on my shoulder about being an Asian kid growing up in rural America; it seemed like everyone else in the world expected me to care more about being Asian than I actually did, and I would've resisted any effort to steer me toward Mulvey's work: he's an American professor in Japan, with (at least, implied by the poems) a Japanese wife and children, and at least one ex-lover (who, upon my first reading of "Snapshot," I'd assumed was Japanese, but on second reading, perhaps not). At that point, I would've assumed that our interests lay at opposite poles.
Ten years ago, I hadn't yet visited Japan or encountered the manga and anime that would fuel my current, ongoing interest in its history and culture; three years ago, my mother hadn't yet been diagnosed with the cancer that would kill her less than a year later. I requested the book for review in part because I was intrigued by the blurbs I'd read about its Japanese-inspired content, and also because I'd greatly enjoyed an earlier book in the Cleveland State poetry series (Alison Luterman's The Largest Possible Life). What I hadn't anticipated was how the book is so much about the missing and the dead -- or so it seems to me, but do those themes stand out for me so much more because of my own losses (of friends as well as relatives, and of illusions as well as personal connections) over the past decade? The writers quoted on its cover seem more entranced with the themes of (failures of) communication and (failures of) cross-cultural connection; yet, if I had two prospective readers at hand -- one preoccupied with Japanese/American encouters, and one with themes of loss -- I would hand my copy to the second reader.
The motif of things gone missing or lacking is present even in the title and the cover. The phrase "The Fat Sheep Everyone Wants" in itself suggests a limit to abundance: its shadow side is that some people will have to make do with the scrawnier sheep, or perhaps even no sheep at all. It is the shadow hovering over the father-to-be in "The Window Tribe" whose child fails to arrive as expected; the aging mother in the same poem who plaintively asks, How did I get so old?; the mother-in-law in "Summer Festival in Tamura Village" whose stamina likewise isn't what it used to be; the terminally ill woman in "Jean"; the terminally ill girl in "How to Make Cranes"; and, for the author's dead father, "Hands," about how
there is space, still something escapes
somehow until it's all gone and you look
at what you have and it's nothing
but hands that couldn't hold
Things that vanish sans explanation: the author notes that 1960s reproductions of the cover artwork -- some panels from a Tokyo museum -- included flocks of sheep. However, the sheep are not on the screens owned by the museum -- a mystifying circumstance to all involved. In "Lost Dog," a pet disappears, and with it, belief in parental omnipotence, the father recording how "I just wanted not to fail" even as the story inexorably proceeds to "We found nothing, ever. The night stumbled on,/ and so did we." The shadow of scarcity colors this poem as well: the son is "borrowed this weekend from his mother in Texas," and even as the father holds the crying child, he cannot help but remain aware of the child's suitcase as "an open mouth by the bed." A sense of impending doom also informs "Low Tide near Mikuni, 1990," where the narrator ties a summer day on the shore to "the letter I hold from my brother in Germany,/ the would-be Rambo…", and "Trouble in Birdland as Two Lost Parakeets Move in with the Asuawayama Crows," the hapless "twin scoops of sherbet" about to lose their nest to the avian equivalent of "a biker gang/called Death's Head or Satan's Spawn." "Snapshot" makes a point of describing lost illusions:
A photo can't capture this: I had not met
your mother, you still thought me
Byronic, I thought you could hold a job.
We don't keep in touch.
In short, this is not a collection for the sentimental, or for those in search of a happy-ever-after of West meeting East. That said, neither is it mired in unrelieved despair. The final section of "The Window Tribe" consists of these lines:
Three of us, waiting out a storm.
He teaches me, Decorate the end with beauty;
the elements up, words dissolve like salt.
This sense of fractured yet enduring hope also appears in poems such as "Bending a Stiff Branch," "After" (about a 1995 earthquake), and "Blizzard in Sabae," the last closing the book with an image of the narrator walking alone under a moon that "unveiled, shatters, becomes a million reflected stars." It could well serve as a metaphor for the potential of poetry, both in general and of this collection -- that it too can serve as company and mirror for ourselves and our losses as we continue waiting out storms and walking through their aftermaths.
Peg Duthie graduated with honors from the University of Chicago, followed it with an MA at University of Michigan, and has since worked a variety of jobs, ranging from yogurt machine cleaner to military software designer. Her poems have appeared in flashquake, Strange Horizons, the Hay(na)ku for Haiti series (#10), and elsewhere. Her favorite poets include Vassar Miller, Alison Luterman, and Lynda Hull.