Voluntary Servitude by Mark Wunderlich. Graywolf Press, 2004.
A Companion for Owls by Maurice Manning. Harcourt, 2004.
shattered sonnets love cards and other off and back handed importunities by Olena Kalytiak Davis. Bloomsbury, 2003.
Blue Venus by Lisa Russ Spaar. Persea Books. 2004.
As Reviewed By: Aaron Baker
F. Scott Fitzgerald famously remarked that there are no second acts in American lives, which is not true (strictly speaking), but anyone who has written a second book of poetry has reason to know what he meant. These days, any excitement generated by the publication of poetry tends to be divided between the hot new things, books that arrive accompanied by the fanfare of having won one of the dozens of first-book prizes and the latest works by our belaureled (beloved?) elder practitioners, those whose careers take place in the heady realm of laureateships, Pulitzer Prizes, and endowed chairs. Unlike first books, second books usually come without the endorsement of the brand-names of poets who selected them in contests and are consequently under greater pressure to stand or fall on their own. I’d like to take a look here at the work of several poets currently embarking on that all-important journey between the moment when they first “emerged” and the mysterious, often lonely central part of a career when most poets do the bulk of their life’s work.
[private]Though not a writer of elegies, Mark Wunderlich seems by nature a poet of the elegiac mood-one who looks backwards, memorializing experience as he strives to make meaning out of it from a temporal (but not emotional) remove. After seeing the title of his second book, Voluntary Servitude, and its jacket blurbs, I was afraid I was about to be treated to a double dose of academic cliché-an examination of the dynamics of power by way of a focus on the body. Ultimately, my fears proved ill-founded; Wunderlich personalizes and authenticates his themes by grounding them firmly and feelingly in personal experiences of growing up in rural Wisconsin and of adult experiences with relationships and sex. No matter the topic, Wunderlich almost infallibly strikes a tone of humane feeling and aesthetic refinement. His best poems are accomplished examples of the type which says, “Listen: this is what happened and this is what I feel about it and what I learned.” Here is his poem titled “Lamb”:
Inside the sheep’s hot center, lambs tangle,
soft joints press a tender twin.
I am brought to the barn, soap my arm in a sink.
Orion stabs the sky with his arrow of ice.
I unwrap one sister from her awakening sister,
carefully, for the flesh is tender and this is an animal will.
Hand in the cave where blood shapes into an other,
I will bring them forth, bleating into January.
Good shepherd, I will shelter them from fangs,
chase stray dogs with a gun, turn them onto grass in spring.
They will come when I call, press against woven wire
even though I call them to the gleaming hook.
Significantly, the speaker here (who assumes the role of both shepherd and killer) is himself “brought to the barn,” suggesting that the power dynamic is deeply seated in drives that are uncontrollable by either master or subject. This is a realization (whether related to killing or having sex) of central thematic importance to the book. In addition, the “good shepherd” line makes a subtle and subversive allusion to Christ -Wunderlich doesn’t make as sustained a use of this connection as Blake once did, but it’s undeniably there.
Throughout the book, Wunderlich uses a variety of ad hoc free verse forms (primarily poems consisting of free verse couplets, prose poems, and poems consisting of heavily end-stopped single line stanzas). He composes in fairly broad rhetorical strokes, and his poems tend to deploy in cleanly delineated cognitive stages. He’ll frequently describe an image or series of events and then comment on it (I probably noticed this because I was simultaneously reading Spaar, for whom description and lyrical flight are inseparably blended).
In the prose poem “Letter to J,” Wunderlich reverses the power role and makes the speaker the subject of domination. The poem begins: “With your hand over my mouth, your body on my back, I still attempt refusal.” Here are the concluding strophes:
I pretend you are the father. I am the child stepping into the bath. My pale limbs texture with gooseflesh and the water is too hot. When I call, you come to me, wash my small body, which once was your body and curled into the smallest cell of your sex. You handle me gently but with contempt.
Your teeth have left their impress on my thigh. When you hurt me, I press my face to the pillow and do my sums. Two wings and a feathery heart do not add up to bird. Fathers and sons continue to multiply.
Wunderlich’s lyricism frequently allows the kind of emotional lift demonstrated here in the transition to bird imagery from the language of the violent and taboo. His work achieves strong effects through the disparity between the destabilizing physical and psychological dramas he describes and the sophistication (intellectually and emotionally) of his response. Critics have already called this a book about submission and domination, but the richer dichotomy, I’d say, is between desire and repulsion. This dynamic works itself on many levels: between memory and regret, between longing in its manifold forms and unsatisfying fulfillments.
Wunderlich’s talents and disposition also present him with dangers-namely of over-aestheticizing his material. Writers with better than average descriptive skill can easily give in to the temptation to describe everything beautifully simply because they can. At times, though, the unbeautiful is required so the beautiful can be seen against it in relief. In “Amaryllis,” he writes:
You’ve seen a cat consume a hummingbird,
scoop its beating body from a pyracantha bush
and break its wings with tufted paws
before marshaling it, whole, into its bone-tough throat.
This is writing that takes a very long way around, and I can’t help but think that a passage which is supposed to remind its hearer of brutality has misfired in mentioning the Latinate name of the bush and the cat’s claw tufts and throat bones (which the speaker cannot see so must imagine). Using “marshaling” instead of something more direct, say, “gulping” is also a problem. There are times when such conceptualized descriptive maneuverings may lend themselves to the psychology of a poem (if, say, you were writing a poem about evading brutality instead of one about confronting it), but this doesn’t seem to be one of them. Wunderlich wouldn’t be the first poet whose weaknesses arise from an occasional surfeit or misapplication of his strengths.
Some of Wunderlich’s most successful poems are those whose narrative occasions are the least quotidian. In one poem, he describes how to build a device for burning bees, and the poem’s conclusion is a good example of how with the right topic as vehicle, this poet’s brand of elegance can create something at once lovely and disturbing:
Release the bees one by one, feeding them into the device. As they touch the surface of the pan, the smoke will become a garment around you. In your hive
of smoke, a calm will settle.
Inside you, a field will open outward.
The dead and their whispers cannot find you there
in a world of burning light and pollen.
Maurice Manning is a less elegant and far less personal poet than Wunderlich (or perhaps he’s more personal-but the personality in question does not belong to Manning but to Daniel Boone). In A Companion for Owls, Manning pays homage to Boone but does not take a slavish or complacent view of him as an ideal. Neither does he take the easier, ironic path of puncturing holes in the legend surrounding this icon of schoolhouse America. Instead, Manning ups the ante considerably and not only celebrates Boone as the center of American folklore and cultural mythology but attempts to give him indirect credit for English High Romanticism and the intellectual and artistic traditions that followed (meaning virtually everything).
You’ll have to read the essay that concludes the collection to learn about the web of connections and coincidences that Manning traces in order to claim Boone as the inspiration for the poetry of William Wordsworth, and thus allege the semi-literate Boone as our most important intellectual ancestor. I don’t know or care if Manning is serious about this claim, which strikes me as either totally exaggerated or completely wrong, but it’s such an exciting, such a winning idea that I really didn’t care. Myth-making is a more important business than what’s true and false, and Manning’s ability to transcend the problem so blithely on the strength of his overall conception is impressive. The concluding essay lends the book an apotheosis which lifts and imbues with new significance all of the poems which came before, and makes you want to go back and experience them again with this revelation in mind. It may be a problem that we catch on to the point so late, but one of the achievements of this book is that this wonkish and semi-academic culmination overlays the poems in a way that doesn’t come across as heavy-handed or forced.
As good as this book is, too many of its poems seem mostly obligatory riffs on material culled from Boone’s biography. This is most obvious in poems padded with second-person imperative statements. All of the following are opening lines: “Don’t ever name a son Israel; / and don’t ever follow a man hot / for blood into battle, because / he will bring blood upon you /” or “No matter how well you dress the hide / a buffalo rug will always smell like buffalo” or “Once your have felled and squared/ and notched laid timber upon timber / and allowed your cabin to assume its form” and “If you walk around the woods enough, / your mind wanders / just like your feet.” I couldn’t help but think that such straightforward exposition suggests too transparently their probable origins (research on Boone in preparation for this book).
Another way Manning modulates his technique to avoid the appearance of dumping data is to make heavy use of the poetically suggestive question. There are 32 such questions in the first ten poems alone. Here are some of them: “Is sunlight dripping on the leaves a question suitable for clocks?”; “Is grace forgetting we are but specks / in the iris of a monstrous eye?”; “Who decides the shape of rocks, the curl of cedar branches, the ripples / sprinkled down a bedrock stream?” These are intriguing as questions, and a potent means of smuggling detail into poems while simultaneously providing them with lyrical lift, but after a while the technique starts to feel heavy-handed. They also make Boone appear a little too obsessed with epistemological numina at the expense of actual flora and fauna; it’s nice to have a Boone who is thoughtful, but something is amiss when the timbre of his daydreams make him sound more like an M.F.A. candidate than an eighteenth century woodsman.
Noticing this, I started to wonder if there isn’t some discord between the book’s most successful poems and its success as a project. “Considerations: December 1799” is a poem that evokes details of an America that strikes us now as completely alien (which is also, incidentally, how it struck Europeans at the time. The images and action are rendered starkly and with a velocity that underscores their personal urgency:
My last winter in Kentucky,
Big Sandy country.
Deer hams hanging in the trees.
Rebecca’s glow is fading.
Yesterday I killed four bears.
The moon is half, but bright.
I smell like blood.
I’m standing by the fire.
Our cabin has three walls;
the fourth is draped with skins.
I have a satchetful of voided titles.
I have a mind to leave this place.
I’ll go to Spanish lands.
I estimate seventeen days from here.
This piece really does something to both mythologize and dramatize the figure of Boone, but the writing is not as stylish as in poems like “On God” (which is another piece filled with poetic questions-one which places thoughts in Boone’s head which actually belong to Manning). The poem begins:
Is there a god of the gulf between man
and a horse? A god who hovers above the trench
of difference? Not a god who makes us notice;
but a god who rakes his hand through the air and makes
a space neither can enter? What about
the god of animal innards? Some god
whose sole creation cleans the blood of an elk?
Perhaps there’s a god of petty disaster
who breaks wagon wheels and paints clouds across
and old man’s eyes.
In the collection’s middle section, “Letters from Squire,” Manning appears to successfully resolve the problem of how to reconcile poet, persona, and theme. The poems are presented as letters from Boone’s brother. In these letters, we see a reflection of Boone which is at once personalized and humanized by the mere technique of his being addressed. Squire, who on some level seems to idolize his brother (even while subtly exhorting him to be a better Christian) provides a lens through which we see the legend of Boone taking root. The poems are rendered in authentically misspelled old-timey English: “Manye dayes / I am given over to the Alements, but / the Lord has Blesst me notheless / with good sonnes.”
A Companion for Owls is something of a magpie’s trove-84 pages of poems and an additional 44 pages of notes, drawings and unclassifiable addendum that include the concluding essay. It all adds up nicely, even if the sum is somewhat greater than its constituent parts. As a foray into American history and mythology, this book is in the tradition of another Kentuckian poet, Robert Penn Warren (especially the Warren of Audubon: A Vision). It’s exciting to see a younger American poet take on, and with so much success, such a quirky and ambitious project.
Olena Kalytiak Davis’s second book, shattered sonnets love cards and other off and back handed importunities, is in some ways the opposite of Manning’s: its strength of invention is expended not at the level of the book’s conception-or of the poems -but within individual lines, or even within the words themselves. Davis has found an entertaining stylistic method (and this is certainly a book written in a single style) for presenting a certain frenetic state of mind: that of someone who has been caught cheating at love (or caught her husband or lover cheating-who is to blame isn’t always clear), and who attempts with increasing verbal inventiveness and desperation to avoid having a serious conversation about it. Davis’s poems display a dizzying range of verbal pyrotechnics-they echo, alter, and reinterpret quotes from other poems, the Bible, nursery rhymes, and various stock phrases and clichés from common speech. The results are entertaining-it’s lots of fun to watch not only the speaker but individual words squirreling out from under any effort to pin them down. The poems dart down one hole and pop up somewhere else sticking out their tongues and wagging their fingers. The book is filled with lines like: “So far, a few fractures, a few factions, a few / Friends. So far, a husband, a husbandry.” This is from “dis-spelt”:
My jeweled face, my dis-pleasure, my dis-ease.
I pack, unpack my orange streaked,
My freaked heart. With me I bring
My prosthetic soul. Under the newly dis-astering
Stars I dis-limb, dis-orb, dis-robe. O new dis-aster!
I will need new breasts, new legs, electric shock.
A clock, a clock. I will need to dis-pose of my
dis-pose. My sorry starry pose. Now
dis-arranged, now dis-natured, now-dis-
Owned. My dis-comfiture, my dis-comfort,
My dis-content: none dis-edged, none dis-closed,
All trees and bones! Dis-furnished…
These are poems that delight in turning on their heads our rhetorical sacred cows. This is from “wow,” which gives this treatment to the traditional wedding vows:
in sleep and in sickness
in drought and in doubt
for porous for curious for highly and dangerous-
(let me not to the marriage admit pendants, lice, pedophiles)
in truth and in truth and in the other sticky-er tricky-er wile-
ier truths (no, not the truths behind that mountain but of the
behind that sky)
in sleep and in sickness, once again,
in sleep and sickness, once again,
in clamsauce and in stealth
It would be a mistake to either praise or condemn these poems for something they aren’t, to play the straight man in the face of the incessant hilarity and verbal gamesmanship that issues forth from this book in buckets, but it would be similarly wrong-headed to make any large claims for them. There’s not much demanded of the reader in order to follow all of these verbal juxtapositions and on-the-fly revisions. For the most part, the poems play their game of hide and seek on a topographically unchanging intellectual and emotional landscape (for so much verbal dexterity, there’s surprisingly little tonal variance); the elisions and quick switches are ultimately so expected that we never find ourselves suddenly reaching new intellectual or affective levels. Much of this is because each poem tends to deploy according to incidental similarities between words rather than any overarching concept (except for the book’s broad theme of beginning and ending love affairs), similarities which Davis exploits with joyful headlong abandon. The procedure by which a phrase like “sickness and health” morphs into “clamsauce and stealth” is a pleasure to witness, but it’s so transparent and expected that we don’t actually need to pause in order to parse its significance, to ask questions on the order of: how is clamsauce like sickness? How is health like stealth? It’s fruitful to think about these similarities in the same way it’s fruitful to compare and extrapolate significance from any two homonyms (or as Davis would probably call them, “any two honeymoons”).
The book does not need to be 125 pages long, and if Davis were less verbally clever and if these poems drew from a narrower range of allusions, the book would be too exhausting to read. As it is, this collection is a madcap romp through the language of love (and the love of language).
Lisa Russ Spaar is a poet whose dense linguistic textures not only describe but enact the struggle for understanding and release that her speakers so desperately seek. The poems of her second book, Blue Venus, contain tremendous internal tensions between urgently described situations and an impeded language of Hopkinsesque consonant-clusters and stacked (frequently elaborately conditional) phrases. The result is a language-and mind-which seems to literally wrestle with its themes.
Spaar is drawn to those moments when, for the charged imagination, physical events seem imbued with spiritual meanings.
Among the carnelian clusters,
mockingbirds, by whose rambunctious
vatic psaltery of feast feast
I replay your body’s entrancement
of dusk in my own, irreducible,
tasting again its long road of sky
moving beneath me, sky flocked now
with jeweled flosses and leaping, salmon light
-an orgy of starlings-and whoever said
that taking on the cosmos meant putting off
the flesh never lay down with you,
suffused by time’s heated gnomon,
its intense, essential wedge of shadow,
as, closer, dense churches of cherry flesh
are turning their secret stones to wine.
This moment of alchemic transformation-when the senses unlock the spiritual, when stones turn to wine-is Spaar’s constant preoccupation. Here is the beginning of “The Insomnia of Murasaki Shikibu”:
The sheer divestment
of a tonsured moon,
a tenth-month sky as blue
and lustral as the sacred scrolls,
yet the wolf-hair wick of my writing brush-
frozen with frost to the inkstand-
cannot express the inexpressible.
I’m unpreparedly drunk
on the dank chrysanthemum wine
of love, too old, too old to sit awake,
face wet and defined in the vented
shutter’s shive of ice and night.
Black mouth, singing floorboard, spies
in the lattices-I should be past
this hungry wound of wanting.
Many poems in this book similarly deal with the famous historical figures suffering bouts of insomnia (other insomnia poems are about Mesmer, Edison, Blake, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Wordsworth and Hildegard of Bingen). Insomnia, a state in which the mind wrestles with the body to, and beyond, the point where both are exhausted, lends itself perfectly to the book’s theme; for Spaar, the nearer the individual comes to collapse, the nearer the possibility for grace-of spiritual epiphany or the fulfillment of the creative act. Insomnia is at once an actual distillation of, and a metaphor for, human experience: a phase of fitful suffering and occasional brilliance which ends in the release and the negation provided by sleep. Spaar is consistently mindful that death is the constant background for all human actions, something captured with all its pathos in the conclusion to “The Insomnia of Thomas Edison.” Edison is celebrated as a creative individual whose work literally illuminated the darkness that it could not ultimately hold off:
There’s the skyline now, ablaze and looking-
for all its steepled invisible rave of technospur
and cyberwave-like the complex, constellar
circuitry of the internal.
I learned in school that the nation
extinguished itself for one dark, full, silent
minute the October Edison died. And here’s
the glare-shattered river, the bridge, the strum
and hurtle of light through the girders, then the earth,
blasted open to admit and halt us.
When Spaar says “I know / that a blown threshold is not a devastation / but a glimpse of heaven, the way God still waits for us / beyond the limits of our fullest grace,” some may be impatient with a sensibility which takes seriously the possibility of such consolation. Part of the discomfort is no doubt the fault of our times-the modern sensibility sits a little uncomfortably beside notions of truth, and of god (whom Spaar meditates on frequently). But in her poem “Wind,” which describes the sight of a moth from her porch, she asserts her own artistic credo: whatever the cost, Spaar is a poet determined to go towards the light:
Right now I’m high on nothing but the friction
of this traveler’s old news of elsewhere
that buffets a vexed moth above the privet hedge
Her ragged, velvet course toward the burning lamp
is at the heart of this story. I watch her beset body
and its crisp shadow-dogged and drawn-repeatedly-
in palpable silence…