Startle Response

Heather Fuller

2005 • 66 pp. • $12.00
ISBN: 9781882022557

Purchase from Small Press Distribution

“These poems conjure a raw, emotive power—ineffable and refracted. Fuller’s tremendous formal skills create a focused coherency that engage the fluid edge of language, as it weaves through ethical, political, and personal concerns. Line breaks, repetitions, and visual orientation of text combine to enact evocative glances and momentary illuminations—those that are the most difficult and necessary of all. To read this poet is to engage worlds we have been missing”.
—Jefferson Hanson

“So millions of us woke up on a cold rock in the middle of a lake of smoldering tar. A hard-core getting to know you kind of affair, not only to keep alert and moving, but also singing & dancing & writing. In Fuller’s Startle Response, the complex contours, historical density, and transformative potentiality of lived culture, are not given free reign (as that’s a coercion of the now-now / status quo) but put to the acid test of genuine democratic impulse: each and every momentary autonomy of the word gives (graceful) way to a more fulsome expression of the radical interdependencies that constitute us. Let’s face it. Too many poetries sputter out exactly at that transition. Heather Fuller thrives there.”
—Rodrigo Toscano

“’Startle response’, according to a Veterans Administration website on post-traumatic stress disorder, is ‘the sudden jump or twitch’ that happens in response to an unexpected stimulus: ‘You may notice that your heart beats faster, you breathe more quickly, you sweat and generally feel nervous and ‘on edge.’ In her long-awaited third book of poetry—itself a response to the global nightmare accelerated at astonishing rates by our current political administration—Heather Fuller’s strange beautiful music produces an analogous effect. But more importantly, from ‘patriot act in five scenes’ to ‘bluegrass squalor’, Fuller’s dark funny book expands the definition of ‘startle response’ beyond mere bodily reflex to what Silvan Tomkins calls a psychic ‘circuit breaker’, an ‘interrupter mechanism’ which ‘resets’ consciousness and enables a crucial shifting of attention from one thing to another. Fuller’s Startle Response thus has ‘the characteristics of an emergency mechanism in a communication system which interrupts ongoing activity with a special announcement’—one readers will especially welcome during these dark times.”
—Sianne Ngai

”What is most striking about the poetry of right now is how poems are being used to question and indict, rather than to comfort, by an emerging generation of poets. Startle Response examines our complicities and insists that we look on at the horrors–the horrors of the patriot act, of the privileged self… This book is for those who want more from poetry than a quiet house and a calm world. Its tense, tight poems are a stunning critique of nicety and narcissism in poetry.”
—Juliana Spahr


Heather Fuller grew up in Keflavik, Iceland; Dale City, Virginia; and Henderson, North Carolina. She now resides in Takoma Park, Maryland, just outside D.C. She has worked with non-profits on homelessness and poverty issues for the past eight years and edits poetry & book reviews for The Washington Review, as well as practices venipuncture on oranges, on the side.

Her first volume of poetry was perhaps this is a rescue fantasy (Edge Books, 1997); her second, Dovecote, is due out in 2001, also from Edge. In addition, she has two chapbooks: beggar (Situation Magazine, 1998) and Eyeshot (Propjet, 1999).

Poetry, excerpts of plays, essays, and reviews have appeared in alyricmailer, Antenym, articulate, Aufgabe, Big Allis, Cartograffiti, Chain, Combo, distance carrier, Georgetown Journal on Fighting Poverty, kenning, Membrane, Mirage #4/Period[ical], the mi nnesota review, On Your Knees Citizen, Philly Talks Newsletter, Phoebe, Poetry New York, Primary Writing, random,, Situation, So to Speak, The Organ, The Tangent, two girls review, the washington review, and Zazil.

Collaborations include: fiber art & poetry collaboration with Perreaoult Daniels in the Cooks Smell Time group installation at the Ruthless Grip, D.C.; printmaking & poetry collaboration with Susan Goldman for the Corcoran Print Portfolio 2000; photograph y & poetry collaboration with Michelle Frankfurter for Membrane; letterpress & poetry collaboration with Buck Downs and the Pyramid Atlantic letterpress shop for Pyramid Atlantic Signature Series Postcards; and voice collaboration with Gray Snead for Snak e Hiss: A Transcendental Friend Audio Project.


The playful aggression and political intensities in Fuller’s third volume make it this poet’s most entertaining and most disturbing work to date. Fuller (Perhaps This Is a Rescue Fantasy) divides her slim, fast-moving collection into three discrete verse sequences that set several globes spinning on slightly different poetic axes. The first compiles angry, pointed, witty critiques of corporate dominance, governmental surveillance, urban decay, spectacular distraction and war-on-terror paranoia: “Don’t narc/ out your neighbors don’t/ die like a fink don’t blink.” More cryptic and more personal, the second sequence (entitled “My North Carolina”) uses harsh sounds and unmoored phrases to explore the poet’s ancestry and her vocation, diagnosing “Fading Child Syndrome,” denouncing “the myth of mad/ genius economy where the prize is blankness,” even warning of “hell taking hold talking here.” The closing sequence models its poems on veterinary hospital animal-care forms and procedures for reporting emergencies: each page gives “triage location,” “assessment” and information about a wounded animal, some of it literal (“intact male DSH silver tabby”), some of it bizarrely metaphorical (“a kitten is a wind-up watch”). As the descriptions fade in and out of human resemblances and metaphors, a world emerges, hurt and resilient.
—Publishers Weekly, August 15, 2005

There are as many good poetry books being written as ever, but goodness gets wearisome. Fuller’s third book is a relief from this, lacking the steady-handed competence, ingratiating charm and middle-aged melancholia from which much verse suffers. Despite a table of contents promising careful, cubic order — three sections of nine parts (less one at the end) — “Startle Response” is uneven, unfamiliar and charged with intensity. It wants to be new speech: “G says jargon is like J’s new language / like prisoners invent a code in other words” a poem called “Comic” begins, encoding the desires that come when regular speech feels anesthetic. This quest to rescue real experience by telling it in other words is central to the poetry, and erotically charged in its urge for raw experience. This can be unsettling. Over and over we’re asked to steady ourselves, to recalibrate how that line got us to this one: “when you sleep you miss / the courtesy service dream,” Fuller writes in “Notes on the Tarmac,” tracking something about mobility and modernity. Prufrock’s cheap retreats return as the future’s anonymous motels in which the personal is perishable. Just then, one decides “dream” is an imperative commanding what follows, “the trouble of the ones / who’d slept there but / that is now your trouble.” Endlessly displacing one another in featureless rooms, we have to share nightmares, the language and displacement itself. One is always trying to catch one’s balance, as if startled, as one often is amid this jagged and terrific book.
—JOSHUA CLOVER, NY Times Book Review, November 22, 2005