A review of Marlon L. Fick’s The Tenderness and the Wood, a book that reads like “a dissociated Psalm, an inverted prayer, a forsaken lament”…
by: Carolynn Kingyens
I wish I could say that I met Marlon L. Fick at some dimly lit poetry reading on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, or in a limestone Parisian cafe, located down a cobblestone alleyway where a chubby cat sleeps in a bright sun spot right beyond the opened door. However, I would meet Marlon L. Fick virtually via Facebook like a lot of people and poets meet these days. After getting acquainted, he’d ask me if I wanted to do a book swap. “Of course,” I’d replied back. A few weeks later, I would receive his book The Tenderness and the Wood published by Guernica World Editions by way of a grant from The National Endowment for the Arts, which Fick gratefully acknowledges in his book.
The book opens with a poignant four page forward penned by the Mexico-born poet Francisco Avila. Here we not only learn the genesis of The Tenderness and the Wood, but also the genesis of the poet, himself.
Marlon Fick grew up on the poetry of Walt Whitman, Rilke, and San Juan de la Cruz. He would go on to obtain a BA from the University of Kansas, an MA from New York University, and PhD from the University of Kansas. Fick’s poetry would attract the attention of literary critics such as M.L. Rosenthal, a former teacher at NYU, who wrote: “Fick has sustained the visionary moment longer than any poet since Ezra Pound’s Rock Drill Cantos.” Others including Jonathan Holden and Dana Gioia have stated that “Fick deserves a place alongside the major poets.” But Avila points out; “Still, he goes largely unknown in his own country. Here in Mexico, he is respected and honored.”
Fick is a respected educator, a literary translator, and a well-traveled poet who is called a friend to fellow esteemed poets Robert Hass, Willis Barnstone, the late Octavio Paz, who’d passed in 1998, and the late Robert Bly, who’d recently passed on November 21, 2021. In fact, his book is dedicated to Robert Bly, whom he credits with helping him heal from a senseless tragedy. In Avila’s own words, “After suffering a near total loss of his own identity, he wrote himself back into existence. Only words could save him.” And save him, they do.
The Tenderness and the Wood reads like a dissociated Psalm, an inverted prayer, a forsaken lament. In the poem, “Parting Words” Fick writes:
But I was only made of words, not places.
You turned me to smoke
and my spirit had nowhere to go.
A Kansas wind,
the coyote you hear in the distance
who tells you something is missing…
You, Gypsy! It was your freedom I loved.
That you crossed a desert in Africa.
I am thirsty.
In the first poem of the book, “I Am Fly,” Fick drops the mic:
I am Fly
and there is no God.
I am Fly, the smart, dark angel with transparent wings,
green and purple eyes.
I need no one.
I alone am why, my ownmost teleos.
Draw my own circles,
lived in Miro’s brain,
annoyed Wittgenstein with the now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t
went for a swim in the tea in T.S. Eliot’s cup.
There are remnants and broken pieces throughout Fick’s book. In the poem “The Betrayal,” the palpable images reminds me of Tori Amos’ video for her song “A Sorta Fairytale,” where Amos’ head is attached to her lower calf and foot and her love interest’s head, played by the actor Adrien Brody, is attached to his lower forearm and hand as they are separated for a time to only come back together by the end of the music video, whole again. Fick’s poem, however, doesn’t promise wholeness.
The love interest in his poem is likened to a flower in bloom, full of soft, pretty petals, and at its center — her soul. She removes each body part to give to him, similarly to the lover’s flower ritual, He loves me…He loves me not. He writes:
Then she gave me her ear, which was filled with voices.
Some pleasant. Others low and brutal.
Last, she gave me her vagina, the primordial nest
that fell from a tree in the wind.
It was torn and its stitches were crude.
I came so close to her soul
I could almost hold it in my hand.
She had given me herself, a rose, infinity
that lives inside of her. Petal after petal I took and took
to see her soul
and I didn’t see it.
In “Puget Sound,” what washes up on shore are the delicate things:
We reach for the smallest things first:
a wing bone from a sea gull, pieces
of kelp that break apart easily.
We hardly notice the afternoon
spreading itself too thinly across the Sound,
making the bright bones dark,
like the dark bones in each finger
of each hand.
There are many poems in The Tenderness and the Wood that grab you, almost shaking you awake. One such poem is “A Christmas Letter to My Daughter.” This poem spans almost three pages in length, a letter from a father who outlives his daughter.
You would be 16 this Christmas.
It’s the time of year relatives send out boring letters
and brag about their kids.
I’m sorry, but I quit sending cards and rarely write letters.
When I do, I don’t even mention you.
It’s as if you were far away in a manger with no crib,
just that metal table for surgery
and late into the night the surgeon’s light illuminated your wee
while I paced in the waiting room waiting for an epiphany,
not realizing that you were the angel, the revelation and the
The truth is, you wouldn’t like me if you knew me now.
Nobody likes the joyless old man who has no Christmas spirit — but
it’s true, the nativity at the church on the corner
has no appeal for me.
And things got so much worse…
Your mother lost her mind when you left. Just lost herself…
So whiskey kept me warm.
For a long time, it was me and my pal, Jack.
Women would come and go…
(They see a man down and think they can fix him.) That’s when I said to myself, okay, what the fuck, and I went to the war — the war.
The Tenderness and the Wood is heavy in all the right places, an existential exercise in wonderment and grief. My new poet-friend writes an inscription just inside the book, on the title page. It reads:
Signing his name boldly like a notary.
About the Author: Marlon L. Fick holds a BA from the University of Kansas, an MA from New York University, and a PhD from the University of Kansas. He is author of two poetry collections, a book of short stories, and the novel The Nowhere Man (Jaded Ibis, 2015), and is editor/translator of The River is Wide / El rio es ancho: Twenty Mexican Poets (New Mexico, 2005), as well as XEIXA: 14 Catalan Poets (Tupelo, 2018). Awarded fellowships from the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts, ConaCulta in Mexico, and Institut Ramon Llull in Catalonia, he now teaches at the University of Texas — Permian Basin.