OzarksWatch Reviews THE PAIN TRADER by JAMES FOWLER
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- Published: Monday, 02 August 2021 18:15
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In the latest edition of OzarksWatch, C.D. Albin* does a beautiful review of James Fowler's 2020 colection of poems, The Pain Trader. Check out the journal's website at https://ozarkswatch.missouristate.edu after you read this review:
The Pain Trader and Other Poems
by James Fowler
Golden Antelope Press, 2020
review by C.D. Albin
Quietly pulsing through James Fowler’s debut poetry collection, The Pain Trader, is a theme of uncommon art wrought by common hands. Even the volume’s cover design, a reproduction of Asia Cummings Shed’s circa 1900 Lily Quilt, hints at the theme. Shed was matriarch to a family of talented quilters, and in “Threads” the speaker notices her work while touring an exhibit by black Arkansans. Although multiple quilts catch the speaker’s eye, it is the Lily Quilt that “fixes” (12), prompting the notion that “this is how time gets stitched, the fabric / adorned with scarcely traceable designs / encompassing the most disparate swatches of life” (15-17). The quilt, its colors softened by the patina of use, still retains art’s capacity to remind us, vibrantly and mysteriously, of the humanity we share with others.
Akin to “Threads” is the title poem “The Pain Trader.” Set during the pioneer era of the Arkansas Ozarks, the poem dramatizes a peddler of sorts who “works in horn, wood, bone” (1), his manner of art so quietly captivating he serves as mesmerist for his backwoods clientele, who are surprised to “hear themselves unpack / their sorry load of troubles” (7-8) to a stranger. Such woes are intimate — never fully healed, likely never confessed — but deftly summarized in Fowler’s haunting phrase “raw cicatrix of loss” (12). As in “Threads,” here the plebian artisan has fashioned something extraordinary from the most common of materials, and the pioneers who barter for his creations are “surprised what value / something neither finery nor tool / can have by their reckoning” (26-28).
Both “Threads” and “The Pain Trader” are from the first of two sections of Fowler’s collection, sections that operate according to a unique hither and yon dynamic. The first section, “Hereabouts,” is arguably the most thematically unified, with the majority of the poems set in the Ozarks of northern Arkansas, the rest taking the reader on a southward tour through the state. The poems in the book’s second half, “Thereabouts,” offer a similar trek through the broader South. The effect mimics the randomness of daily life as we pass persons and places, perhaps accumulating more years than epiphanies, until a chance meeting or unplanned destination brings us up short, prompting us to contemplate the interior lives of our fellow travelers.
The poem cycle Mountain Airs cultivates such contemplation. Made up of six poems that have been set to music by composer Michael Brown, the cycle chronicles the mismatched marriage of Robert and Clara Trask, an Ozark couple whose public image of unity belies the deeper circumstance that “For all their common memories / both occupy a sovereign space / and side by side negotiate” (V: 12-14). Robert, a veteran of the Great War, returns home to an unnamed Ozark mountain and marries “a girl from school / he never fancied / but now found / likely” (I:15-18). For her part, Clara learns to endure a distanced companionship “with a cloudy man / most at home in silence” (II: 11-12). Robert’s dobro seems to convey their most frank, if unspoken, exchanges, with Clara deciphering a stoic conclusion from her husband’s melodic art: “The strains of joy and sorrow / don’t part too readily / is what the music says / and what her days repeat” (II: 17-20).
The repetition of days and the “disparate swatches of life” those days bring is Fowler’s subject in The Pain Trader. Whether we pass such days winding down an Ozarks highway, savoring treasures at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, losing two-buck bets at a Hot Springs race track, or awakening to guilt at an antebellum mansion in Natchez, Mississippi, our glimpses of life’s panoply are made clearer and more bearable by the ameliorating agency of art. In “A Psalm of Ed,” Fowler’s tribute to fellow artist Ed Stilley, “maker of primitive guitars out of scrap materials” (note, p. 76), Stilley’s character states the theme as well as any: “His will is salvage, the saving of scraps / from the heap, the jarring made tuneable” (11-12). Fowler’s vision in The Pain Trader is clear-eyed enough to jar, but the chorus of poems makes for a euphonious tune.
*C.D. Albin is author of his own anthology of poems: Axe, Fire, Mule (Golden Antelope, 2018), and an award-winning collection of stories: Hard Toward Home. For years he was editor of Elder Mountain: A Journal of Ozarks Studies.