The Interior of the Exterior: On Katie Peterson’s “Fog and Smoke”

By Valerie Duff-StrautmannFebruary 18, 2024

The Interior of the Exterior: On Katie Peterson’s “Fog and Smoke”

Fog and Smoke by Katie Peterson

IN 2017, POET Katie Peterson edited Robert Lowell’s New Selected Poems for Farrar, Straus and Giroux, on the heels of her first three poetry collections: This One Tree (2006), Permission (2013), and The Accounts (2013). All of Peterson’s books resonate with the depth and breadth of her reading but have never seemed to speak across history to Lowell in any way (Peterson makes it clear that, growing up as she did in California, Lowell was not part of her original poetic environment). In her introduction to the selected Lowell, she describes her difficulty engaging with this difficult writer, as the verse and Lowell’s history were often difficult to parse, but she then pinpoints her eureka moment. About his poem “The Day,” she writes, “The energy of its similes had something to do with a terrified joy—the only kind I believe in without question.”

Seven years later, following the publication of A Piece of Good News (2019) and Life in a Field (2021), Katie Peterson’s sixth book, Fog and Smoke (2024), firmly placed in 2020, reveals itself to be a book of terrified joy. It is a book that moves day by day, saturated in the moment.

In poems like “Fog,” Peterson grapples with the isolation and weight of her experience of the pandemic:

I was like everyone else.
I stopped lifting weights and walked
instead, I did not shop
if I could help it, found new use
for what I had.
I did inside what I had done
in the world. When I thought
about what I lost, I loved myself.

It all comes back to grounding the self in the presenting world. Peterson, an excellent storyteller (we see this in the story of a girl befriending a donkey in Life in a Field, as well as in a loosely woven chronicle of family through the lens of a mother’s death in The Accounts), deftly braids personal lyric with narrative through the four unnamed sections of Fog and Smoke, moving between life and the ephemera that surrounds it, making meaning.

While Lowell is perhaps a new influence on Peterson’s intensity and sound, he isn’t the only presence. The deceptively plainspoken observer in these poems echoes the legacy of Louise Glück, but Peterson isn’t confined to one mode either. These poems are imbued with earnest contemplation as she responds to the context of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as ever-burning wildfires—where in Glück’s work we might expect wry self-consciousness. In her case, Peterson reports with how-it-was directness: “Dylan came by and we sat unmasked. / We had seen enough of each other all summer / we were almost quarantining together, / and he’d been tested twice in the last month / but afterward I took a shower and cried” (“Smoke”). Other poems veer into the oracular, or allude to the epic: “A woman stands like a god in the field” (“The Country”). What remains consistent throughout is Peterson’s fascination with movement and stillness, and with the forces outside herself that create movement or stillness.  She is interested in the interior of the exterior, fog that “comes home / through the Golden Gate.” The poem “Fog” continues: “It comes from the ocean. / It means our interior burns. / Our coolness burns, miles inland.” Fog is of heat. Later, smoke clarifies even as it chokes and obscures. We end up not only understanding that nature, like human life, is full of paradox, but the reader, in these connections Peterson draws, also comes to empathize with and be awed by the elements.

“Fog” is the longest poem of her book, written in unnumbered sections that begin and end as mysteriously and boundlessly as the fog. For the last section of the poem, Peterson describes the pandemic lockdown beginning to loosen, and a world that seems unchanged by the encompassing fog:

It actually wanted to give you back to yourself.
I don’t think it possessed one ounce of progress—
we saw ourselves in the same place
when it dispersed. The city took its usual

shape, buildings implying the streets
underneath that give them findable
addresses, places to deliver postal mail,
boxes in which letters could be dropped
through slots and sorted into people.

We could even see
how to get there again.
Rituals began in moderation.
Midmorning traffic like blood in a vein.

Despite the many rituals restarting, there will be no pretending that all is as it was. Fear and admiration (the experience of terrified joy) for the presence of fog and smoke waxes and wanes as Peterson studies them. What is transitory acquires staying power: “It stayed the same, hanging / around the house / like a lovesick teenager / or a grown-up with nothing to do, / or curtains, or sirens, anything / with duration that acts permanent” (“Fog”). On the other hand, while there are tangible records of fire’s destruction in poems such as “The Fire Map,” Peterson lingers over the inscrutable: “In no year does this map record our smoke.”

In a world at a standstill, Peterson examines the passage of time. Again, one recalls her introduction to Lowell’s New Selected Poems, where she notes that “[i]n [his poems] in Day by Day, all of Modernism—which mourns, celebrates, and obsesses over our alienation from a collective narrative readers past, present, and future all once shared—became the problem of just having a day, our day, a human day, so beautifully and terrifyingly to ourselves.”

As an exemplary human day, Peterson offers “Second Family” with her perspective on the curious day-to-day of the Deep Springs College campus, where she taught for several years. She reflects on the passage of time in a microcosm:

Everyone should learn to feed the animals.
The object was to farm a piece of desert,
growing food out of necessity.
No Swiss-made sweet milk. Ours tasted like sage.

Young men covered in sour milk from mornings
early in the dairy, no time for laundry,
arguing against the oceanic feeling,
and there I was, a Russian doll, a matryoshka,

I saw inside her another family,
another, and another, and another,
and so on, like a repeating decimal.
The more we talked, the more the baby kicked.

Where is your home, where are you going, I see you are like me,
stranded, buoyed only a little, only a decimal’s worth,
by that perishable angel, the passage of time, who does not discriminate,
I said to my girl, who could not hear words yet.

In “Second Family,” Peterson lets us inhabit something much like the sweet and rudderless moment in Voltaire’s Candide when Candide understands he must “cultivate [his] garden”: recognize home, work the land, focus on family. The pandemic and the wildfires teach us to turn to our communities too.

California wildfires form the backdrop to the latter half of the book. “The Deer in Fire Season” starts: “It isn’t love that makes them / come nestle each other under / the liquid amber after they eat / all the ivy, dahlias and the stock.” It’s hard to ignore the “Skunk Hour”–like intensity of Peterson’s observation as this poem opens (from Lowell’s poem: “nobody’s here— // only skunks, that search / in the moonlight for a bite to eat. / They march on their soles up Main Street: / white stripes, moonstruck eyes’ red fire”). What makes Peterson’s deer stay and behave as they do, she knows, is innate and urgent. The brilliance of “The Deer in Fire Season” lies not only in her attention to the music of the line and her finely wrought enjambments, but also in her ability to fall into fascination with the movement of life itself: “Watch her leg, it’s like a lower limb / of eucalyptus, pushing winter. / It looks like tinder.”

A fascinating observation leads to prolonged philosophical meditation in some poems, such as “The Web,” in which Peterson navigates a spiderweb’s intricate fragility. She turns the question of how to maneuver between the web and her car, parked precariously close, and the visible spider on it, for six pages before ending on the sinister “darker art” of the spider’s meal:

Sorry for your
trouble, the Irish
say to each other
after death walks in.
The wake’s a party.
Everyone shows up.
I look. I see I haven’t
wrecked her.
I buckle my daughter.

The danger is everywhere—for Peterson, for the spider—but still we protect, we defend, she says. In the clipped regularity of effortlessly enjambed lines, in the sentiment, and in the anxious pause of hindsight, one feels her join hands with the confessional poets writing half a century ago.

Ultimately, Fog and Smoke balances terror with joy. When the terror of a fleeting—or stagnant—moment becomes overwhelming, Peterson reaches for temporary refuge where she and those she loves can continue on “like blood in a vein.” In her final poem (below in full), “The Beach,” Peterson finds rhythm in the stillness of each end-stopped line, and there is sonic comfort in the ricocheting partial and full rhymes contained in the cage of three-line stanzas followed by a monostich. In form and subject, there is a fierce case being made for the safety of the family unit:

No one could prohibit the sunshine.
All the churches were shut.
Families headed to the water.

Little fear, rest, I said to my child,
the waves crash too far out to be interested
in you. Keep on with your story in the sand.

You live with mama in a cave.
Shells are food this holiday.
Bundle feathers to burn so we won’t freeze.

Fire is a resource that can’t be saved.

“The Beach” pays homage to the continuance of the human family in what too often feels like the end times. In her introduction to the selected Lowell, Peterson acknowledged, even in 2017, that “the day might be all we have left together as ritual.” In Fog and Smoke, we proceed through this extraordinary day.

LARB Contributor

Valerie Duff-Strautmann’s second book, Aquamarine, was published by Lily Poetry Review Press in 2023. Her first book, To the New World (Salmon Poetry, 2010), was short-listed for the Seamus Heaney First Collection Poetry Prize from Queens University Belfast. She currently works as a writer in alumni relations and resource development at Harvard Kennedy School.


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