In 1993 my first book of poetry won the Washington Prize from The Word Works, Inc. It had gone through three printings, and on its twentieth anniversary the press did a Second Edition. The title in some basic way is ironic, or intended to be, as it comes from a remark made to me by a commanding general in the Marine Corps when I, as a lieutenant, was applying for conscientious objector status. This was during the Vietnam War, and the general said “every man has a tipping point, a place where his principles give way.” The book in an effort to argue against that point of view, or if not argue, at least present some moments when that point of view seemed untrue and dangerous. The poet and essayist Nick Flynn wrote a memorable introduction to the second edition. The text of his introduction follows.
A proposition: All significant art contains eternity.
Fred Marchant’s Tipping Point first appeared twenty years ago, and is, in part, about an individual becoming an artist, with the Iliad and the Inferno, the Bible and Billy Budd, weaving through its pages like bloodbright threads. In poem after poem we are presented with a living, breathing human consciousness in the midst, always, of being (of becoming) alive. And in Marchant’s case that means becoming a poet. Marchant’s poems move always and fully into and through a language which is not pointing at any one thing as the source of this becoming—not at the war which is the shadow behind every word, not at the father, looming, then fading—but at the seemingly quotidian (whiskey, leaves, roseate spoonbills), the stuff of this world that surround and prop up these larger truths. Marchant’s language is not used as a tool or wielded as a weapon, but is returned to us as creative power. Tipping Point arrives, twenty years or two thousand years later, eternal and utterly ever-present.
Another proposition: War effects everyone, even those of us who turn away, and we all turn away. Yet even (especially?) the act of turning away takes psychic energy, a psychic toll. Before he was a poet, it is significant that Marchant was one of the first Marine officers honorably discharged as a Conscientious Objector (conscientious observer?) during the Vietnam War. Reading Tipping Point twenty years after it was first published, we know that Marchant may have picked up a gun a long time ago, but since then has devoted his life, his art, to putting it down, alchemically transforming each weapon, each impulse toward violence, into a language that can spread outward from that one moment. Which makes this one of the most affecting antiwar books ever written, in the same way I’d propose Hal Ashby’s Coming Home is the only true antiwar film, for in neither is a weapon lifted against anyone. Or if a gun is lifted, it is not fired.
In his introduction to Another World Instead, The Early Poems of William Stafford, 1937-1947 (Graywolf Press, 2009), written many years after Tipping Point, Marchant offers a clue to how to read his own first book:
In “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force,” an essay written during the first year of World War II, [Simone] Weil celebrates the virtues of hesitation, pausing, swerving. Examining several blood-stained scenes in the poem, she notes that those who conquer and kill—be they Greek or Trojan—are inexorable. No one imposes the slightest halt in what they are doing. No one, she writes, insists on “that interval of hesitation, wherein lies all our consideration for our brothers in humanity.”
Tipping Point lives in that interval of hesitation. These poems are not blood-stained; they pulse with life, alive with a thrilling and compassionate consideration. Here’s another clue (as well an attempt at full-disclosure): Before my first book of poems (Some Ether) was accepted for publication, the publisher seemingly felt the need to set up a conversation between me an outside editor. This is how I met Fred Marchant, sitting across from each other in a Boston café for a few hours, near the end of the last millennium, the pages of my not-yet-book spread out on the table before us. He started out by stepping back from the poems and placing them in a larger poetic context (maybe he called it a “restless post-confessionalism”). Then, after articulating what he saw I was attempting, he then pointed out where I was falling short. He used the phrase “purchase on the material,” as if the subject I was wrestling with was a mountain (it felt like a mountain), and I needed to find new routes up that mountain. This route is good, he said, as is this one, but then you take the same route here, and here. I was repeating myself. I needed to find new purchase. As he uttered the word purchase I knew it was true. I went home and worked on the poems and two weeks later it was a book. When I read Tipping Point for the first time, a few years later, I could see that Marchant had viewed his own subject as a mountain, and that he had invented, or discovered, his own various purchases in order to scale it.
I’d like to finish this with something from John Berger (a kindred spirit with Marchant), from his essay, “Once in a Poem”:
Poems, even when narrative, do not resemble stories. All stories are about battles of one kind or another, which end in victory and defeat. Everything moves towards the end, when the outcome will be known.
Poems, regardless of any outcome, cross the battlefields, tending the wounded, listening to the wild monologues of the triumphant and fearful. They bring a kind of peace. Not by anaesthesia or easy reassurance, but by recognition and the promise that what has been experienced cannot disappear as if it had never been. Yet the promise is not of a monument. (Who, still on a battlefield, wants monuments?) The promise is that language has acknowledged, has given shelter, to the experience which demanded, which cried out.
Poems are nearer to prayers than to stories, but in poetry there is no one behind the language being prayed to. It is the language itself which has to hear and acknowledge. For the religious poet, the Word is the first attribute of God. In all poetry words are presences before they are a means of communication . . . .
This passage always makes me think of Tipping Point, a book which, as much as any book of the last twenty years, “has acknowledged, has given shelter, to the experience which demanded, which cried out.” The book you have in your hands is not a monument, but a promise, and it will stay with us forever.