Mark Wunderlich is a poet of remarkable skill and range. His best poems are lyrical observations of the shared essence of man and of beast, of their taste for brutality, and of their struggles with the cruelties of nature and of one another. He details contests between the ruthlessness of eros and the preservation of self-respect, between the will to master another body and the sweet thrill of being mastered oneself. His early poems are full of erotic athletes, shy lovers, and tricks, all negotiating the dangers of intimacy, each “laboring to extinguish / some common flame” (“Given in Person Only,” The Anchorage). The strong, shapely bodies of strangers is enviable, and the sex is as rough and anonymous as a gore-smeared lion’s downing a wildebeest: “As a teenager, I wished to be consumed, / to be pressed into oblivion by a forceful man” (“The Trick,” The Anchorage). There are drag queens as lithely imagined as the pagan nymphs in the paintings of Giambattista Tiepolo:
On the runway at the Roxy, the drag queen
fans herself gently, but with purpose.
She is an Asian princess, an elaborate wig
jangling like bells on a Shinto temple,
shoulders broad as my father’s. With a flick
of her fan she covers her face, a whole
world of authority in that one gesture,
a screen sliding back, all black lacquer
and soprano laugh. The music in this place
echoes with the whipcrack of 2,000
men’s libidos, and the one bitter pill
of Xtasy dissolving on my tongue is the perfect
slender measure of the holy ghost,
the vibe crawling my spine exactly,
I assure myself, what I’ve always wanted.
(“Take Good Care of Yourself,” The Anchorage)
Wunderlich reports lascivious scenes with an ethnographer’s skill and delight, but as interesting and salacious as this part of his work might be, Wunderlich’s best poems are not about adventures of sexuality but are instead about animals. In these one finds a peerless expertise and exactitude:
Over my shoulder
are the four overlapping prints
from her even stride. The deer
have left predawn tracks
simple as hunger
Their silhouettes hang
ghostly against cedars.
(“The Mare,” The Anchorage)
In his nature poems, there is nothing confessional yet the angles of observation and chain of associations are deeply personal; there is an erudite cosmopolitanism combined with outdoorsman’s expertise:
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.
(“Lamb ,” Voluntary Servitude)
His tone tends to be austere and Apollonian even in the midst of violence and savagery:
I shot the buck and he crumpled,
folded like a ladder in the snow.
He had bounded along a worn path,
jumped a fallow log and paused,
turning his flank toward me
and I saw his nostrils flare
through the ocular concentration
of the rifle’s scope. I placed the red bead
of the sight on the fur covering the spot
above the twin bellows of his lungs,
and squeezed the trigger to release the shot.
(“The Buck,” Voluntary Servitude)
Like his poems about the sometimes hesitant, sometimes ardent sexual encounters between men, his poems about animals are full of trials of strengths and vulnerabilities, tenuous moments, and an admiration of ferocity.
The Earth Avails is Mark Wunderlich’s third book. It is a project book born by the poet happening across “a small book of prayers written in German and published in 1876 in St. Louis.” This “small, clothbound book made of a size that could be kept in a pocket or reticule”—Der Kleine Gebets-Schatz, he tells us in an endnote—“exudes utility”: “during times of duress, this collection of prayers could be consulted, and herein answers could be found.” Wunderlich’s stated goal is “to bring these prayers into [his] own particular contemporary contexts by fashioning them into poems.” Though Wunderlich possesses a keen eye and a fine ear for his usual scenes and themes, in this situation those fail him. While claiming to have been moved by the “tone” and the “specificity” of the prayers and of the Himmelsbriefen, Wunderlich gets both wrong, for he does not seem to grasp piety except perhaps as the speech of fools.
Wunderlich is a poet of the sensuous, not the supersensuous. It is possible that if we were to hear Wunderlich read these poems, out loud, we might understand that the bulk of these poems are not sarcastic, condescending, rude, or insincere, but on the page this is how many of them read. These prayer poems and heaven-letter poems come off as disdainful jokes and parody full of hokey clichés. “A Servant’s Prayer,” a dramatic monologue, manages to make fun of both prayer and the servant who prays:
Help me to know that this is your will
and keep me from resenting
those, who despite their meager talents,
their pettiness and appetite for derision,
wield power over me.
An irreverent piety is possible to pull off without writing badly or being condescending. Maurice Manning’s Bucolics, for example, is a master class in crafting dramatic monologues in which a rough, rural obedient servant charmingly wonders at all things beautiful, difficult, and divine and that combine gratitude with jokes and complaints. And there are plenty of profane prayers in the poems of Andrew Hudgins, yet they somehow still leave us edified and feeling sympathetic with the realistic backslider. Oodles of a-religious prayerful addresses by Louise Glück make us shudder with the suspicion that, as Heraclitus says, there is a Logos that guides all things through all things.
On the whole, Wunderlich’s stabs at the religious poem and the apostrophic addresses of his confused, sentimental, semi-literature speakers are regretful:
You, the strongest, you swimming in the clouds
and churning in the soil,
this storm with its electricity and crashing thunder
reminds us of your fury and disappointment.
You call us through wind and thunder, from which
all creatures tremble and hide themselves in their dens
or in cellars, the birds clinging to branches,
or huddling under the eaves of our vulnerable roofs,
the cats tearing into mattress ticking from below.
We hear you, angry at your forge, your hammer
crashing and the bellows making the sparks fly.
(“Praying during a Storm”)
Perhaps it was just bad luck or bad timing that he stumbled upon that prayer book and in his seeming lack of familiarity with the power and majesty of liturgical language thought the stale, pleading, platitudinous protestant diction was good material.
The Earth Avails as a book, then, is not great, not because it is a project book, nor because a project book qua project book is bad, but because the execution does not do justice to the material’s possibilities. If the bad poems outweigh the good in Earth Avails, though, we should not be surprised any more than we are every time we imagine the disappointing swaths in the Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens will have suddenly become great while we weren’t looking. So what if the project in this project book fails? Or if we wonder why anyone would want to write about it? We read books of poems for the great poems, not the project, after all. Even at his worst, Wunderlich is better than so many contemporary poets whose language is often slack and whose subject matter is about as engaging as a Facebook acquaintance’s status update. His poems are never merely anecdotal; they are never silly and never posture. There are no sophomorically-deconstructive word games or oh-so-witty etymologizing, and there is no amateur surrealism. He is a serious poet who often experiments with form and content and style, and out of that comes some great work.
Numbers matter, certainly, but not all of them. William Logan, who we can count on to keep balanced accounts, notes that at 20,000, William Stafford probably wrote too many poems, especially considering how few his betters made: 70 for Eliot, 100 for Bishop, 120 for Larkin, 300 or so for Pound and Frost. Others also wrote too many—Wallace Stevens, for example, and who can stomach the entirety of D. H. Lawrence, or Ted Hughes, or Allen Ginsburg, or Robert Lowell, or Robert Creeley, or Thom Gunn, or Louise Glück, or Anne Sexton, or E. A. Robinson, or Randall Jarrell? Yet who would chuck the majority if that meant losing any of the perfect parts? Do poets who write fewer poems have a better on-base average? There is no calculus except greatness.
There are 32 poems in The Earth Avails. On my scorecard I’ve got 23 strikeouts, foul outs, fly outs, and ground outs, 5 hits, and 4 homers. Thus, he’s hitting .281 as I tally it—hardly a number that would get a player into Cooperstown but a poet really only ever needs to make solid contact once with sound and sense to secure a spot on Parnasssus, or at least that is how it looks to me in my dog-eared copy of Yvor Winters’ Handbook to Scoring Poetry.
The 23 poems that strike out with me all are “project poems,” and of the hits only one relates to the project: “Dwell in My House,” since the conversation it is having with Wallace Stevens’ “Less and Less Human O Savage Spirit” is more interesting than the other project poems’ caricatures of strongly-held personal beliefs. Wallace Stevens begins,
If there must be a god in the house, must be,
Saying things in the rooms and on the stair,
Let him move as the sunlight moves on the floor,
Or moonlight, silently, as Plato’s ghost
Or Aristotle’s skeleton. Let him hang out
His stars on the wall. He must dwell quietly.
Wunderlich’s less sophisticated speaker begins:
Dwell in my house. Take up your spot in the tightest corners,
in the cow-hair plaster mending the wall. Be found
bound in the blackest nook of the hearth from which
the intelligent eyes of the cats peer forth.
With your care, do dwell there, for otherwise I will be lost,
left to wonder the brackish marsh of doubt
left to nurse my small resentments, arguing with no one
while I hoe the sow thistles from betwixt the rows of greens.
Though we wince at the faux-bumpkin diction of that betwixt, this poem almost successfully marries Wunderlich’s greater talent and terrific ear with his project. There is a sonorousness reminiscent of Stevens as well as a seriousness lacking in the lampoons of common devotion elsewhere in the book. Where Wunderlich swerves from both Stevens and the other pseudo-prayers of the book is that the god who is invited to dwell in the house gradually becomes rather fleshly, becomes a lover, a companion who acts and is not “A vermilioned nothingness, any stick of the mass / Of which we are too distantly a part.” He is, instead, a comfort:
Come to me with your palms turned up, your brown hair
pulled back from that open face,
your ring of golden keys ready
to unlock the house of the Patriarchs.
Snuff out the tomato blight, the beetles in the corn, call the wrens
with their needle beaks to eat the green worms
ciphering the cabbages’ leaves.
Whereas in many of the other project poems, the faked-up sincerity of the ineptly-rendered believer falls flat, in this one Wunderlich almost falls into the comforts that faith provides on sleepless nights when there are “nodes swelling in my groin.” The poems ends like this:
There is more for me to suffer, though I wait for you to bare yourself,
to touch that bloody muscle in your chest.
Here there is no stereotyped groveling or Pharisaical sermonizing. There is an honesty and a sincerity—of thought, of intention—otherwise missing in some of the poems in this project.
The strongest poems in The Earth Avails are “Ram,” “Raccoon in a Trap,” “Winter Study,” and “Waumandee,” with its painterly description of “the imagined world / made visible”:
we stopped and saw
the albino buck browsing
in the oats—white dash
on a page of green,
flick of a blade
cutting paint to canvas.
Nearly as good are “Stone Arabia,” “Sand Shark” (a version of Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish,”) “Lent,” and “White Fur,” about a drowned albino buck that the game warden brings to show school kids: “We gathered around it, its whiteness a world / bled of distinction, its eyes pink and drying / in the prairie air.”
“Raccoon in a Trap” displays the full scope of Wunderlich’s intelligence, themes, and poetic skill. The poem’s eighteen unrhymed couplets touch on the nature of raccoons, haberdashery, human sexuality, the occult, prognostication, farming, mythology, revenge, and justice. These swift combinations are in Wunderlich’s wheelhouse, as in the first sentence:
The kidskin of his clever paws,
charcoal black and clawed like a witch
scratch at the turf.
In Dreaming by the Book, Elaine Scarry argues that great writers have “an unfailingly precise sense of the limits of the compositional powers of the human mind.” By crafting strict instructions for us to imagine “the pictures we can actually make,” the best writers “carry us beyond them.” The diction in Wunderlich’s first iambic tetrameter line primes us to push the limits of what we can imagine. “Kidskin,” for example, asks us to see and to feel something impossible—that a raccoon’s paws are gloved with the leather of a young goat—but by a powerful associative and sensory logic, and by our own memory of the touch of soft leather gloves, the image and the word get us to focus on these “clever paws” in an evocative way. Scarry claims, “A writer can heighten our compositional powers by calling attention to the elasticity, flexibility, stretchability, creasability, flutterability of the clothlike or papery mental images on which we work. It is the materiality or pseudo-materiality on which we, for a glancing moment, concentrate.” Wunderlich sets us to work on the materiality of the paws—soft, leathery, like gloves, like kidskin, like kid gloves—and already our minds are at work, sensing movement within a scene and handling the trapped raccoon as tactfully as the speaker. Wunderlich continues to manipulate our imagination by complicating that image with color and texture. The kidskin we probably had pictured as soft and light, as stained tan, becomes “charcoal black,” and we cannot see that color without our imagination itself being roughed up with sooty grit. Then out from these “clever paws” stretches a harder substance, claws, which we are instructed to imagine “like a witch.” Like the Wicked Witch of the West’s bony finger stretching out toward Dorothy’s sweet Midwestern face, the raccoon’s paws—dexterous, articulated, safe-cracking—“scratch at the turf.”
The erotic intimacy, close attention, and potential for violence that characterize Wunderlich’s best poems is here, too:
Hanging his head
he hunches like a bear and in his fur turns
a boggy funk, a whiff like the hairy belly
of a man.
If it is true that the more you know, the more you see, then Wunderlich knows many things. He sees the raccoon metamorphosize into a bear, which instructs us to fear the raccoon in a new way and to keep our distance; yet at the same time we are invited to get close, to smell the stink of the wild thing’s fur, so much like the sweaty, seductive belly of a lover.
In the first two metaphor-rich sentences of “Raccoon in a Trap,” each of our senses has been enlisted in a way that has thoroughly grounded us in the literal yet allowed us to move and think beyond it. Only then does Wunderlich begin to introduce a hint of narrative:
I carry the cage to the edge of the woods
and he barks, bares a grin of sharps,
points a flinty nose, moist and smart
to read his future on the air.
As anyone who has ever tried—and failed, and failed again—to trap a raccoon knows, this poem has already begun with a miracle, but not the sort that would elicit the kind of compassion the poet considers. To free the raccoon would only mean to welcome back the ravager, to become again his willing victim. Wunderlich never lets our imagination wander too far afield, moving us inside the trap as the little murderer flashes a look of enmity and plans future mayhem. The raccoon thinks and so does the man:
this is the thief who stole the nest of chickens,
tore the vent from a hen and ate her
in the company of her peers—
A trial occurs and a judgment is passed. This may or may not be the culprit, but it doesn’t matter; he could be. He will be “a husbandman’s / springtime menace, the glowing eyes / in the night.” The verdict, severe, remains silent but unalterable:
In the orchard, morning clouds
disperse. The sun returns for another run
pulled by the beasts of myth
before I put the muzzle of the gun through the wires
and fill his warm head with lead.
This simple, beautiful lyric description of dawn is finished off with a clean head shot. There is an economy and grace here that one finds in few besides Wunderlich.
In “Ram” there is another violent encounter between man and beast, but here a hierarchical relationship of respect is established:
He stands stamping in the pasture,
angry that I’ve come, angry
that I didn’t come sooner with my pail
The ram feels entitled to what is his and to what he thinks he is owed. The man notes this and recruits us to consider the litigant:
A topnotch of wool shields his eyes,
snagged with bits of hay, bunched with burrs.
He shakes his head, flares nostrils under a Roman nose,
curls a lip to show me his single row
of teeth like keys of a harpsichord—long,
ivory-yellow, pegged in a black gum.
In the man’s eyes, and now ours, the ram appears a bit comic, full of hubris, anachronistic, mismatched with his self-image, a creature who strikes an unrelenting pose yet who regularly relents:
In snow, he’ll stand all day
by the hay feeder, fleece parting at the spine,
grease saving him from the worst of it,
staring into the source of the weather.
In April, the shearing team will come
and tip him on his rump, ridding him
of a year’s worth of wool. He’ll submit
to the indignity,
his fleece peeled back in flocculent rolls.
Wunderlich describes this play of attempted dominance and actual submission with the same care he does when describing lovers, and he admires it here, too:
Back on all fours, he’ll trot off
to find his flock, sniff his harem’s
bare behinds, account for his many lambs
that nurse desperately, confused
by their mothers’ altered forms.
They call and call, while he remains calm,
stepping among his kind
assessing the newly naked.
Though looking a little ridiculous with his new haircut, the ram is also a little divine, like Jove in Stevens’ “Sunday Morning” who “moved among us, as a muttering king, / Magnificent, would move among his hinds.” But ultimately there can only be one god in this pasture:
Once he knocked me down
with a blow to my hip, three hundred pounds
and a thick skull crashed against my pelvis.
There must be an encounter, a contest of wills to determine dominance. At least that is how it seems when we study animal behavior, Greek myth, the Old Testament, and dudes:
Sprawled in the mud and dung
I pulled myself through straw
while he backed up for another run.
Before he could I hit him
with a broken rail, cracked it
across his nose. He barely noticed.
Now he regards me
with golden ovine eyes,
rich with a pastoral flame.
While Wunderlich may not persuasively “bring these prayers into [his] own particular contemporary contexts by fashioning them into poems,” he does a fine job of updating the georgic and making it a container for his thematic obsessions.
“Winter Study,” a poem in the ut pictura poesis tradition, may be the finest in The Earth Avails. In it, Wunderlich teaches us how to comprehend winter by slowly staging an image:
Two days of snow, then ice
and the deer peer from the ragged curtain of trees.
Hunger wills them, hunger
pulls them to the compass of light
spilling from the farmyard pole.
As much as anything thematic, this poem seems impelled by the composition of a scene: the circle of light tentatively breached and shadowed by cold, hungry deer who we imagine, because of the ice, glide from the darkness of the trees into light. Wunderlich continues to choreograph this routine move by move:
They dip their heads, hold
above snow, turn furred ears
to scoop from the wind
the sounds of hounds, or men.
They lap at a sprinkling of grain,
pull timid mouthfuls from a stray bale.
By vividly describing each small, slow, and subtle movement—the downward motion of the head, the cold feet relieving themselves from the snow by lifting, the swaying of ears that seek to capture invisible sounds in invisible wind, Wunderlich enhances our senses as he simultaneously transforms the solidity of grain into a liquid that can be lapped and makes us feel the fear of eating hay from this bale. Once we have learned how to see the scene and feel its coldness and anxiety, Wunderlich trains his eye and ours on an easily undetected detail in the picture:
The smallest is lame, with a leg
healed at angles, and a fused knob
where a joint once bent.
It picks, stiff, skidding its sickening limb
across the ice’s dark platter.
Instead of all the deer moving gracefully, as we are wont to imagine, the smallest one moves clumsily as it darkens the circle of light where there is sustenance but from where a quick escape may be impossible: “Their fear is thick as they break a trail / to the center of their predator’s range.” Wunderlich aims to teach us something about “the mind of winter”:
To know the winter
is to ginger forth from a bed in the pines,
to search for a scant meal
gleaned from the carelessness
of a killer.
The Earth Avails may not be Mark Wunderlich’s best book, but it contains some of his finest poems and, in it, he continues to develop his remarkable skills of observation, description, and characterization. If he cannot persuasively turn his eye heavenward and create sympathetic prayerful speakers in his dramatic monologues—a form he might consider avoiding—he continues to make his readers feel the fine line between daring and fear. Wallace Stevens wrote in his Adagia, “Accuracy of observation is the equivalent of accuracy of thinking.” Above all, Wunderlich’s greatest talent is portraying uncertainty by observing both man and beast edging up to and often past the edge of danger. When Mark Wunderlich aims his eye on those things, he does not miss.