Myths of Falling
Kevin Prufer’s Fallen from a Chariot
Carnegie-Mellon University Press, 2005. 88 pp. 13.95
As its title suggests, Kevin Prufer’s Fallen from a Chariot considers the notion of falling as an individual, national and mythic act. The most sustained attention in the collection is given to a falling away from our national ideals. In a sweeping comparison with the fall of the Roman Empire, Prufer envisions the sure fall of American empire – giving voice to the “grand moment… when the city collapses” (“Claudius Adrift” 42.) Within the motif of falling, the poems flitter around specific and metaphorical bodies – the body corporeal, the body politic, lands and civilizations as bodies – whose boundaries tend to dissolve. Prufer conjures lyrics that look to the barren moment “when the empire fell/ [and] the internet closed / like a refrigerator door” (“Who are our Barbarians?” 86). He writes, “I was afraid to start my car – someone / put a mind in the engine” (86). The emotional weather of Fallen from a Chariot is a consistent conveyance of that anxiety.
Each of Fallen from a Chariot’s four sections explores Prufer’s meditations on aspects of falling: car crashes and falling airplanes, the fall of the Roman Empire, musings on the death of the body, and the eventual fall of American empire form the territory of each section. The poems of the book’s first section begin in the here and now, with the immediacy of an evening news broadcast. They envision American decadence in literal, surreal, and often tragic images, and they begin, “first of all” (11), with a dead woman’s body in the aftermath of an auto accident. Through this section, Prufer populates wheat fields and city blocks with the human blood and coughing wreckage of drivers and cars that dive over guardrails and leave would-be rescuers to wonder at the corpse that does nothing, and the machine that steams as if it had a spirit. In these nine poems, Prufer calls on the distant music of emergency sirens and the over-and-over-again drama of men scrambling down embankments – intending to help – in order to sketch-out what is perhaps Fallen from a Chariot’s most profound suggestion: that of the corporate responsibility and social culpability for the violence that is usually assigned to individuals.
Prufer elicits this notion in deft fashion. In “For the Dead: Car Crash,” the book’s third offering, the poem’s “I” dies while considering, “So many gone before me;” dies as “somewhere, two boys / in a truck, turned wrong/ and kept turning in the sleet, / through the rail and down” (14). The slippage between the speaker’s death and the boys’ deaths is haunting. The distance between subject and object is annihilated. The boys die; “And I, somehow, also” (15). And though, in the aftermath, “The road / was a silence” – here figured as a soundless scape that absorbs and hides the carnage – the speaker transforms through death into a necessary part of the scene: a bird on a branch “that could not help but swallow its heart” (15). A bird that watched, and kept singing.
Fallen from a Chariot is ripe with such transformations: birds become cities; empires become airplanes; the dead woman of the first poem is conflated with the fallen angels of the section’s later poems. Through these leaps, Prufer combines past and present, the extraordinary and the mundane, human concerns and the physical environment. In so doing, he realizes a breathing, sometimes convulsing, earth in which our apocalyptic anxieties play out in the weather, and in which the tyrannies of history litter the contemporary sky with bomb-dropping planes. Likewise, Prufer often combines the knowledge possessed by the dead with the capacity to speak, thereby uncovering voices capable of telling about the present moment in its context. Ultimately, Prufer uses these combinations to speak about the living and to articulate the complicated tension surrounding “Our souls in these terrified animal bodies” (“About the Dead” 69), wherein we scurry for cover and safety, but are inclined also to make our own wreckage beautiful: to wallow in the destruction; to sing about it. As the speaker admits in “Beautiful Nero,” “Like Nero, I can’t help but add a trill / to any bit of paper caught fluttering down the street…” (43).
Such bold comparison – the self to ancient dictators – is not uncommon in Fallen from a Chariot. Just as the Prufer’s “I” appropriates the voices and experiences of the dead, this “I” continually insists on its own participation in a realistically imagined version the American fall. In the book’s second section, this takes place through comparison with ancient emperors and tyrants: for example, the conceit of “Beautiful Nero” suggests, in the current moment, the writing of poetry may be akin to fiddling while Rome burns. The poems’ speakers express their own sense of responsibility for the fall. They wonder at their own seeming inability to act, while also broadcasting a resolute belief that there will be no redemption for the societal sin of hording wealth and ignoring the physical conditions of many of the earth’s other inhabitants:
I have always hoped that if my body resumed
its terrible weight,
I would know enough to say:
It is fitting, Lord. It is fitting (“‘They Shall Be Left’” 20)
In this poem – the long title owes to a sermon from puritan preacher Jonathon Edwards – the speaker alludes to his own privileged experience of weightlessness: literally on a falling airplane, and metaphorically in a situation of advanced material overabundance. In the rhetoric of puritanical prophecy, this speaker advances the hellfire belief that we will all get what we deserve, that fiery justice will replace gilded opulence.
Sometimes, Prufer’s “I” relishes society’s decadence, as in “The Rise of Rome,” the second poem of the second section, wherein the speaker brags, “I swam in perfume while my servants ate mice” (28). Here, as in the dramatic monologues of Robert Browning, Prufer indulges the discourse of excess so as to showcase its terribleness. He celebrates excess, thereby investigating the situation of being caught within a milieu of that promulgates and cherishes it. Implicitly, Prufer seems to hope that by speaking in the decrepit voice of ill-gotten power, that power might be checked, or, unwound by its own vocabulary. Conversely, Prufer inhabits the voice of one who has come to experience the foreseeable reaction to recurring injustices. Scared and hunted, this “I” can only hide, and can only offer a report of the terror of being pulled back into weighted-ness; the terror of receiving vengeance. Further along in the “Beautiful Nero,” the speaker reports:
Yes, I lost the song in my throat, but crouched in the park
beneath a tree, hands over my head, and cried
thinking of no one but myself while the deep-voiced bombs called
one building after another into the ground (44)
Always, Prufer’s speakers find themselves caught on the edge of the imagined drama during which the world rids itself of evildoers, and, in which they are, or might be, the ones slated for bloody retribution. These speakers take on the difficult task of escaping and singing of the escape, as if song could bring an impossible reprieve, or, as if singing were the only thing left to do. “How lovely,” Prufer writes later in “Beautiful Nero,” “when a city dies / and one is far enough away to make a song of it” (45).
Here, as elsewhere in Fallen from a Chariot, Prufer unearths a question of distance: the distance needed to understand the contemporary moment, and the distance necessary “make a drama of it,” which is how he describes making sense of a destroyed city in “Caligula, Clairvoyant” (37). After all, Prufer reasons in a later poem, “When Rome fell, the Romans never knew it” (“The Fall of the Roman Empire” 50). With regard to our entrapment in our own moment – an entrapment Prufer strives to transcend – he writes, “At such times I think we will never fall, our buildings firm as a / gladiator’s armored shins.” (“Lives of the Later Caesars” 48). Perhaps most importantly, Prufer considers the distance between the living and the dead: the living, with our scattered confusions and unanswered questions; and the dead, who “desire the living / but cannot speak” (“Caligula on Death” 39).
Despite Prufer’s recognition that distance is necessary for comprehension, it is his close proximity to the end-times dramas considered and created in these poems that carry them into he realm of troubling prophecy. The cities that die, the cars that crash, the bombs that drop, and the dead who do speak all occur within an ersatz American landscape, into which we have fallen; where the living seem thoroughly – if ignorantly, if uneasily – at home. Prufer’s exacting consideration of this landscape is often beautiful and evocative, as in “My Life with Caesar,” when the speaker returns to a childhood memory of watching a heron, “Caesar,” hold the grass in “gorgeous obedience” (27). Likewise, when Caesars fall like leaves from trees, as they do in the surrealistic “Lives of the Later Caesars” (48), Prufer creates the disturbing but poignant suggestion that even present-day forests are constructed from the organic material of emperors past. This is the furious, all-to-connected world around us; this is the world our bodies melt into, he seems to say. Beware, fighter-planes are coming soon, overhead. Flames are next. There is a brain in the ATM, and a “mean little heart” in the phone’s mouthpiece (85-86). There is “a zero in the body” (11), and an “insect // where the soul should be” (68). It is this superficial world that we have fallen into, having driven too fast, flown too high, eaten too much. In many ways, this world is our own hole in the ground, just as ancient Rome constitutes another hole, which we gaze into and attempt to excavate. But, in Prufer’s own attempt to tap the deads’ knowledge, he concludes, “What is important about the dead is their absence” (“About the Dead” 69). Considering our myriad falls from a streaking societal chariot, Prufer leaves readers with a troubling look into a moment when what will be important about us, and our civilization, is its absence.
Jack Christian is a poet in NC State’s MFA program. His creative work has appeared in Black Warrior Review, and is upcoming in jubilat and Meridian.