by Joe Fiorito
All I Have Learned is Where I Have Been, a poetry collection, contains quick snapshots of vivid moments. Fiorito expands his focus from those on the outskirts of society who were almost exclusively his subject matter in his previous work, City Poems, to include the more mundane aspects of life as well. The pictures he crafts are encapsulated by a clear structure, clear both when the author employs the more obvious drivers of this, such as tight rhyming and alliteration, as well as the less apparent ones, like similar sounds that don’t rhyme.
My criticism toward the collection extends to two main concepts that suffuse most of Fiorito’s poetry to varying degrees. Firstly, the structures employed are often rigid and obtrusive, the harm here mainly involving the effect this causes on the rhythm and flow of the pieces. An illustrative example is the poem “Ocean Blues,” which is presented with a simple, song-like structure. The rhyme- and repetition-driven pattern gives the work an obvious and halting beat, which ultimately makes it feel unnatural. Most poems in All I Have Learned is Where I Have Been aren’t as rigid as “Ocean Blues,” but many possess this unnatural feel that can be attributed to structure. The more the author is able to loosen the structure, the more the rhythm and flow benefits, with “What the Butcher Boy Found” and “Modern Courting” being great examples where the sounds of the poems unfold more naturally. Understand, however, that neither is unstructured: A beat can be felt in each, and the source can be found by analyzing the repetition of the underlying sounds. It’s just more competently blended throughout the verses so it doesn’t stand out and trip readers up. And he even occasionally employs an effective combination of tight rhymes and sound-repetition to make verses resonate, as he did from my perspective in the first verse of “Lake Superior Lament (2),” though this is the exception more than the rule.
The second piece of criticism concerns depth and meaning, and it’s pretty complicated, so I hope I have the ability to unpack my feelings in a way that satisfactorily explains them. Fiorito deals with important subjects throughout, and this will likely do a lot to convince readers that his poetry is meaningful, but the subject itself being important doesn’t automatically inject any discussion of that subject with meaning. Fiorito focuses mainly on superficial description and imagery. This is an important exercise for the cultivation of verisimilitude, but it does little to add depth to his thoughts. Adding the briefness of pieces to this, it feels like the author isn’t giving his subjects the time and energy they deserve to adequately hit on this useful discussion. That so many pieces employ description or expression that feels designed to get a rise from the readers while lacking this strength of expression or thoughtful discussion, it feels like he’s attempting to draw a reaction that isn’t earned. (A good example of what I’m getting at here is the poem “Judy’s Bracelet,” on display in the synopsis. The description is ugly and gruesome, but the poem arguably has nothing useful to say about its subject.) And he relies heavily on his notes to also inject a false sense of meaning on pieces. Here, important details––details that could begin to add substance to his discussion or add further context to make his pictures come to life even more strongly––will be relegated to the notes, when they could have been in the pieces if the author was at least willing to explore outside this brief snapshot style, even a little bit.
That he felt the need to add such details to the notes, it strikes me that he understood that something was lacking, that he understood the need for at least further contextual information to turn the poems into something useful, but he didn’t stick with his ideas and flesh them out fully. When everything is taken together, it feels less like stylistic choices were at play here, but more that an author hit on a brief expression he liked but was too frightened to edit: to expand ideas, to cultivate the sound of pieces, to inject more life into his subjects.