From the suite, Moments of Bloom, photographs by Sally Buffington

“the gift that bright exults”: On the Poetry of Alice Fulton

Alice Fulton with one of the thoroughbreds she rescued, Thrilled Flossie, now a therapy horse at Wallkill Prison in upstate New York.
Photograph by Hank DeLeo
It is my profound pleasure to present to readers our featured poet, Alice Fulton, one of the most original, complex, and consequential poets of her generation. She is the recipient of the Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt Award from the Library of Congress (2002) and an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature (2011). Among her many other honors are fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Ingram Merrill Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Guggenheim Foundation. For two decades, she served as the Ann S. Bowers Professor of English at Cornell University.


While teaching at the University of Michigan (until 2002), Fulton read deeply into quantum physics and the mathematics of fractal theory (that is, geometric patterns that repeat at various scales), and began to explore the possibilities of scientific meaning and metaphors in her verse. Her thematic investigations expanded to formal experiment, creating over the past two decades a body of work distinguished by its intellectual reach and interdisciplinary range. Her poems are attentive to music and verbal play, and magnificent in the tenor of their insights.

Because of her commitment to animal rights as well as social justice, Fulton has investigated subjects that are upsetting to learn about, and acknowledged that serious poems about such topics as injustice and animal cruelty convey what she terms “inconvenient knowledge.” This knowledge is the flip side of the maxim that ignorance is bliss. Knowing about some disturbing practice (such as the industrialized slaughter of animals for meat consumption) encourages a responsiveness in readers. For some—and Fulton herself, who is a near-vegan—such knowledge might catalyze a change of lifestyle. (Reading the poem “Some Cool,” for instance, I stopped eating pork.) Having studied quantum physics, Fulton realized that we are all interconnected at the cellular level. Therefore, as the speaker in a poem entitled “Fair Use” concludes, “what happens to others happens to me.” In her later poetry, including the longer poems in Coloratura on a Silence Found in Many Expressive Systems (from which all the poems in this feature are drawn), Fulton investigates the ethical implications of what is termed in physics “quantum entanglement.”

What is a new element in this volume, however, is that Fulton examines the consequences of such ethical commitment in her case: grievous injury and the isolation of painful recovery. She had long donated to the rescue of slaughter-bound equines and would find homes for those she saved. One of the rehomed horses was returned to her, and this horse, which had become her own, accidentally kicked her. It’s not the pain of the injury that Fulton confronts in Coloratura, as Lisa Russ Spaar observes, but the existential crisis of being nonexistent while concussed, “decoupled suddenly / from time.” The following passage captures the phenomenon of waking up:

… I’d returned from nonexistence knowing
there was a where where there
was no night no dark no


The echoing internal rhymes (where where there, knowing-no-no-no) mime both a timeless state of nonexistence and the difficulty of describing the experience. Simple tonal repetitions capture something of the condition without explaining it, because in truth, when she tried to explain, “there was no // way. I write to write it/ out.” Fulton’s signature poetic methods—associative leaps, polyphony, and such typographic and linguistic innovations as the double equal sign (==) Fulton calls “the bride”[1]—may seem effortlessly inventive, but are threaded with the precision of lace-making. Russ Spaar states, “Perhaps more than any poet writing today, Fulton takes to heart John Keats’s belief that writing poetry is a ‘vale of soul-making.’. . . For Fulton, this soul-fashioning is a moral as much as it is a spiritual imperative.”[2] As Fulton articulates in the last poem of the volume (from which I’ve drawn the quotation in my title), “Summoning a Freshening,” to know something “through the suffering” is to know fully and deeply how our time on earth is “the gift that bright exults” human life.

I invite you to consider acquiring Coloratura for your personal library, and to read more poems at your leisure, but for now, I encourage you to savor the rich and marvelous poetry in Persimmon Tree’s feature of Alice Fulton.


From the suite, Moments of Bloom, photographs by Sally Buffington


Selected poems reprinted from Coloratura On A Silence Found In Many Expressive Systems by Alice Fulton. Copyright © 2022 by Alice Fulton. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.


At The Feast

I stand in line to be inoculated against time. Will you join me?
While night goes by like a cortege, and the stars are busy
being charming. Being heaven’s trinkets. Gleamers, why so brightly?
You occupy the trauma darkness yet seem robotic, all numbed up.
When were you appointed to bear witness? And by whom?
You are not special, accidentals. You’re too many,
and what kindness comes when heaven’s overwhelmed?
Witness is too big a word. Testimony’s full of moan, so I’ll say it
in sidereal. Tell it to the stars. Little spitfires, poached in gilt,
I’ll empathize. Say you are not glittering but flinching.
Distant listeners maybe do the same for me: say shivering
is shine when that’s all I have to give. At the feast,
steak knives tapped the crystal flutes to sound your music,
heaven’s gristle, tiny chimes that you alone make visible.




To witness constant miracle is a distraction.
In its presence, I wore earbuds, snowflake sleepers—
a design of teensy pounce wheels, no two unalike.
An eraser workshop, snow fell
on the boreal forest, my thoughts
dark firs. The palette was dingy: dishwater
grays, sweat yellows—the colors of
the pillow stuffed with balsam
needles we used as a doorstop
while the plow foundered in the yard,
the storm door balked on orogenies of snow.
I was living in a high-maintenance loneliness,
researching the mean winter temperature,
water weirded into nonce ideals,
forms whose bowels were struts of ice,
the crystal’s airy crotch.
Things that evolved to house the marvelous
for which there is no counterfeit.
Like the sun appearing like
the orange in a Christmas stocking’s toe.
You have to make love to the corners,
my mother quoted her mother
as she scrubbed the sepia tape stains
where the poster was torn down.
The Adoration ofth the Magi in the Snow,
a scene of labor more than adoration
though there must be a likeness between
sublime laws and those who toil under them.
Only kings can afford such worship.
If the workers paused to marvel
their chores would go undone.
They’d hammer their thumbs.
They were thinking about leverage. Lunch.
If summer comes, I’ll change to paisley
sleepers, a childish word. There will be cornucopias
all over me—pink, orange, green—a host of
horns of plenty. This snow
has been falling for ages.
It has turned into firn, the word for ancient snow.
Something is emerging, crudely rendered
in the nethermost
left of the painting—rags in frass,
larval squirm, a maggot
immanence, the size of a cursor.
I’ve tried to see it on these screens
everyone keeps touching
tenderly as lovers. On my tiny device,
I can’t make it out. Whatever
is taking shape took shape
without any procreation.suf
Yet everything it touches becomes
an erogenous zone. That’s how you know
you’re in the presence of a god.
If you’re looking for the marvelous,
look to the margins.
If you’re looking for a miracle,
look to the invisible.


From the suite, Moments of Bloom, photographs by Sally Buffington



If she had to be in it, she’d want it to be happy,
without many dictionary words
like the language mothers speak
to their children, a tongue too heart-driven
to be taught. The experts at the spiritual home
of Speech Act Theory called it Motherese,
“an illocutionary force”
and “acme of ordinariness.”
My sister who’s a mother spoke it
to our mother when she was dying.
We never said certain dire words
since she’d forget and ask again,
again. We came up with lying
niceties, told a varnished truth.
Will I get better?
There was hope, the thing with talons,
in her tone and trust.
The experts said “one fulfills sincerity
conditions by precisely indicating
the genuineness of a request.”
Where are the real nurses?
When she was afraid
her first day in kindergarten, her mother
walked back and forth outside the window.
And night upon night
as she died she called
her summons steadfast, soft,
till an exasperated doomgiver
said Mary, your mother’s dead. She’s been dead
for sixty years. And Ma didn’t realize
she was crying as tears ran down her cheeks
and the nightgiver changed the station
to coma drones == music trying to pass
for music creeping through the morphine cracks.
This is my fault, isn’t it.
The experts were full of if and only if.
The nightgiver cited God. I could not
experience the depth of this
dropeverything witness I was living ==
couldn’t think dropeverything through ==
I’m dying, aren’t I?
Sincerity? Conditions? Precisely?
Indicate? An illocutionary force
was needed == to blow the whole
thing up == she was == being
forcibly touched == by an abyss ==
how far from == happy == I was == enabling
an impossibility == I could not
experience == feelings stoked by
== her clothes were all that held her ==
== my clothes were all that held me ==
Read to me. 
Her last request. But I could not
think dropeverything what. The experts said
each word constitutes its own problem
space. Like a piano with a missing string
there’s a hole once dropeverything is over.
There’s this memory
fugue that brings me to my grief.
A bird can wield its boney tongue
and double-throated syrinx to sound
two notes at once, dueting
with itself and in a way ==
that’s what I’ve done.



Salt Point Vesper

I feel the manacle inside my wrist, screws and plate inside my leg
as we ramble through Salt Point, this bird sanctuary with an industrial past.
“All the steam in the world could not, like the Virgin, build Chartres.”
Long ago, a little church stood here, built by Syrian immigrants
who harvested salt. When the plant closed, it became a site for dumping,
drugs. Friends of Salt Point changed it to a haven. I’ve learned
the tibial plateau is not a place.  Everything rests on it. I tell myself
I’m doing great since my mother isn’t here to say it. God help us,
she might say if she could see my state. It was simple.
Rescuing horses led to this. Broken. Kicked. Who wants lame
mules, slow Thoroughbreds? I met the meatman’s deadlines, paid
to keep them from his truck, the panicked trek to Canada
and captive bolt. The little free library is crammed with castoffs,
humidity wraps me like a damp pashmina. Schvitzy. Like omniscience.
The sun is shining in its fickle way, and though I limp, I live
to witness its fair minutes. What would you like to wear? my sister asked
my mother on her deathbed. A dress. Not a shroud of repurposed catalytic
converter stuff. God knows not a body bag. Is there an Upholder
of the tranquil soul? The Office of Spirituality and Meaning Making
maintains a website. Is the force of love too fierce? I’m asking.
All the salt in the world could not, like our questions, build tears.[3]


From the suite, Moments of Bloom, photographs by Sally Buffington



A bee his burnished carnage. His battle bling of stripes.
Dove boldly in a Rose. Honey dunker.
To knit him fast to her—his goods.
Combinedly alighting—Himself—his Equipage.
She would not be the flower, bristling
with submission. She would be self-
sealing. The female portion at the center
is the pistil. Her Life had stood—a Loaded Gun—
A social insect, he spoke in pastoral
to the larger buzz he was abbreviation of:
The first thing to know about
your penis is it is not your penis.
It is God’s penis. You are simply borrowing it.
While God’s penis is on loan you must admit that
it is sort of just hanging out there
very lonely as if it needed a home. He gyrated
on the surface of the hive
to preach: God created a woman to be your wife
and when you look down you will notice that
your wife is shaped differently than you
and makes a very nice home. He gave
each guy two stones, saying
God is giving you your balls back
to do kingdom work. Put these on
your monitors or glue them
to your dash. Men flew in to attend.
The offering swelled. His burnished Carriage.
He is what he has. Sweet sacker.
The bride elect, the Rose—withholding knot
to his Cupidity. Their Moment. Mated.
Remains for him—to flee—
Remains for her—of capture
Remastering strategies.[4]



Suffering Can Be Eased With Poppies

and pillows sprayed with lavender.
Lavender demands an extravagance of sun.
Extravagance needs a single-drop waterfall,
a fiesta cup to caffeinate the day.
The body’s hidden fiesta is blood,
which requires a skin to live in.
Poverty will live on
a yoga mat and bowl of rice
but prayer wants an enhancement
of candles to solve the planet’s anguish.
Cold easel syndrome needs solvents
to resuscitate the canvas.
Sickness canvasses the world
for water mixed with gold dust
but fortune’s rough justice won’t suck up.
Ozone’s extra molecule
sucks the stench of frangipani
from a drippage of infinity
scarves while snow
sedates the wreckage of what-is.
It will take a superflux
of snow to calm a world
this wired with overness.
Sadness can be calmed
by aroma therapy, but grief can’t
flush the fragrance from its mind.
The mind is hushed
by mantras, but trauma has a tongue
so long it wraps around the inside of the skull.


From the suite, Moments of Bloom, photographs by Sally Buffington


Toys Turned On A Lathe

Here in the north of north
everything was formed by what ice did
to the land, and darkness is redundant.
Night fills each mullion,
pressing itself into each
corner of each pane.
Like time it is everywhere
and has no edges. I sense
there’s something large
that doesn’t love us well.
Is it officious as a chancellor? It is
an omniscience == a big think
piece that must I think consort
with wickedness.
But I am not its invigilator.
If I dim the inside, night will thin
and let me glimpse the quaking
forms outside. I find you
must create a likeness of
the dark for dark
to disappear. It requires a certain obeisance?
If it senses kinship it will yield ==
though only the spinning
iron crystal at earth’s core
could be more noir. There is a power
at large that doesn’t love us well.
It has a knowledge,
though I am not its proctor.
Everything here was formed by what ice did
to the mind. This is dark thinking.
Light might think
there’s so much try to you. Stop crying.
In this interglacial moment,
you’re in good flesh. Nox is nothing
but a sealed ark of ornaments.
When day breaks full of details
safe as toys turned on a lathe,
light predicts the innocent
will have a constellation named for them
as they any minute should.
There is darkness still behind the dark.
There is darkness. Still behind the dark
there might be shining on all sides.



Summoning A Freshening

Firstness, be merciful
to animals raised in the dark.
Time’s minions. As I am.
Time’s chattel. Lumpen.
As a bullet travels faster than its sound,
let compassion travel.
Though hierarchy be hardwired, dismantle it.
Undo otherness. I pray you.
And by praying you, I create you.
Let the next be restful.
After major sparkling, matte.
Let art spin a likeness for loneliness.
Let it be company. With stuff in it.
Let it wreck the wrecking ball.
Unleash the living
from my daunted head.
As color is sifted through a prism ==
soul is strained through world.
The quality of mercy falls
like small-caliber raindrops
on the place below: the slaughter-
house between the farm-to-table.
The classic kitten studies.
Time == was it == mind == was it ==
marbled me with knowledge.
Not like a steak that’s tragic flesh.
More embossed endpaper.
Because knowing without going
through the suffering you know
is a mortal form of ornament,
the lace of shape.
Sidereal force, bestow mercy
on the innocent. Nudge compassion
please toward them.
As plates under an ocean can
shove continents, vast array, you can.
Just past midnight, December 31st,
I’m waiting for the other ball to drop.
But everything happens only once
when time’s the boss.
The difference between time and music
is music can repeat. Dissonance seizes
our attention: doors slamming, earth moving
machines. As it pleases time
to wipe clean everything
we’ve touched,
of the inexpressible one
cannot say too much.
I ask for absolution though I am as-is:
damaged, has-been, dissed. I was
guided by duty in the great things
and the small. There was this self-
flagellating map, this grind
of a cartographer being
flogged inside my head.
I traveled by diligence.
Grant me my walking papers.
As long as I’m alive
I’ll institute myself and give
thanks each time I rise.
I don’t ask for trophy travel.
Alarums and excursions
tire me. Sailing to Byzantium
in search of spicier jewels I might fail
to see my present wealth.
When explorers searching for Cathay
chanced on North America
they tried to bribe or slash
a passage through or navigate around it,
thinking it an obstacle, not thinking
how immense == how home it was
to others there before.
Before that thought
takes flight let me be on it.
Though I am tardy,
ailing, affronted, raw,
let me recognize == not colonize ==
the gift that bright exults me now.


From the suite, Moments of Bloom, photographs by Sally Buffington


[1] In an interview with Cristanne Miller, Fulton discusses her invention of the “bride” to signify a hinge moment that opens and closes, “revealing and concealing” (138). See Cristanne Miller, “An Interview with Alice Fulton.” Innovative Women Poets: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry and Interviews, edited by Elisabeth A. Frost and Cynthia Hogue (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2006), pp. 121–153.
[2] Lisa Russ Spaar, “The Perpetual Virtuosities of Alice Fulton: on Coloratura On A Silence Found in Many Expressive Systems,” posted online in On the Seawall (April 4, 2023), at: https://www.ronslate.com/the-perpetual-virtuosities-of-alice-fulton-on-coloratura-on-a-silence-found-in-many-expressive-systems/.
[3] “Salt Point Vesper” quotes The Education of Henry Adams and alludes to a phrase from William Wordworth’s Prelude, Book I.
[4] “Snatch” repurposes and quotes Emily Dickinson’s poems #1351 and #764 (The Poems of Emily Dickinson, Ed. R. W. Franklin, 3 vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1998). The italicized lines were posted by Pastor Mark Driscoll (writing as William Wallace II) on a Mars Hill Church (Seattle) message board in 2001.


A Place Like This
Finding Myself in a Cape Cod Cottage
by Sally W. Buffington
A book for anyone who's ever loved a house.
When newly engaged Sally Buffington is introduced to Craigville, she meets an expansive Cape Cod cottage that is virtually a family member itself. She quickly finds herself competing for airtime among the talkative, assured band of brothers—and her new mother-in-law, the cottage’s lively and confounding matriarch. Sally, a Cape Cod local, soon wonders how she’ll ever maintain her independence, let alone her sense of self when the day’s agenda and every detail is already set in stone. But she navigates her new life with quiet persistence and a boundless curiosity that guides her to explore life through the creative lens of her camera and her pen. Sally writes with a whimsical candor that is both honest and humorous. Through poetic prose and heartfelt reflection, A Place Like This reveals the beauty of Cape Cod and shows us that sometimes the simplest of moments brings us the most lasting joy. Sally Buffington is a writer and photographer, also a classically trained musician. From her home in southern California, she migrates back to native ground in Massachusetts, especially her spiritual homeland of Cape Cod. Writing lyrically and imaginatively, ever aware of sensory experience and memory, Buffington takes the reader into her thoughts wherever she finds herself. Buffington can “see things other people don’t see” in everyday scenes and find them beautiful. But her prose is where that ability most shines through. This memoir paints a vivid and lasting memory of a home with as much personality as the family who lived there.
- Book Life
"Punctuated by sensory delights, the author’s prose can prove particularly mouthwatering" …. "An elegantly observant account that transports readers to a beloved place."
- Kirkus
To learn more, and order the book, go to Amazon, Bookshop.org, www.sallybuffington.com, or your local bookstore.
Coloratura On A Silence Found In Many Expressive Systems
by Alice Fulton
  Coloratura On A Silence Found In Many Expressive Systems extends tactile mysteries to existential questions of invisible miracles, connection, and faith in the face of silence: “By praying you, I create you,” Fulton informs an elusive God. Reveling in the stunning possibilities of language, she seeks joy to counteract trauma and grief, empathizes with the silent pathos of animals, and finds solace in art, friendship, and the mysterious power of gifts. Without denying suffering, this enthralling volume extends a fervent prayer for gratitude and healing. Fulton borrows tropes and theories from science, linguistics, visual art, [and] mathematics…It is this kind of sonic and imaginative range—which puts into conversation the music of what is voiced with what is silent, invisible—that makes it almost impossible to talk about the powerful hold of these poems…Perhaps more than any poet writing today, Fulton takes to heart John Keats’s belief that writing poetry is a ‘vale of soul-making.’...‘You have to listen,’ she admonishes, ‘louder than you sing.’ Is there a more attentive listener than Alice Fulton? A more haunted and haunting singer? — Lisa Russ Spaar, On the Seawall   Alice Fulton is the featured poet in the spring 2024 issue of Persimmon Tree.
Available from W.W. Norton, Amazon, or Bookshop.org.


Alice Fulton’s most recent collection is Coloratura On A Silence Found In Many Expressive Systems (W.W. Norton, 2022.) Her book Felt was awarded the Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry from the Library of Congress. This biennial poetry prize is given on behalf of the nation in recognition of the most distinguished book of poetry written by an American and published during the preceding two years. Felt also was selected by the Los Angeles Times as one of the Best Books of 2001 and as a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award. She is the recipient of an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature and fellowships in poetry from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. She is the Ann S. Bowers Professor emerita at Cornell University.

Cynthia Hogue’s tenth book of collected poetry, instead, it is dark, was published by Red Hen Press in June of 2023. Her other collections include Revenance, listed as one of the 2014 “Standout” books by the Academy of American Poets, and In June the Labyrinth (2017). Her third book-length translation (with Sylvain Gallais) is Nicole Brossard’s Distantly (Omnidawn 2022). Her Covid chapbook is entitled Contain (Tram Editions 2022). Among her honors are a Fulbright Fellowship to Iceland, two NEA Fellowships, and the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award from the Academy of American Poets (2013). She served as Guest Editor for Poem-a-Day for September (2022), sponsored by the Academy of American Poets. Hogue was the inaugural Maxine and Jonathan Marshall Chair in Modern and Contemporary Poetry at Arizona State University. She lives in Tucson.

Sally Buffington is a writer and photographer, also a classically trained musician. From home in southern California, she migrates back to native ground in Massachusetts (Cape Cod), so is thus a bi-coastal citizen. Always aware of sensory experience and memory, Buffington takes you into her thoughts wherever she finds herself.  Follow her blog at www.sallybuffington.com

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