Triptych image: Juliana Romano, "Girl Smoking, Klimt," 2011
A GAME I LIKE TO PLAY at certain convenience stores is “juxtapositions.” Outside, sun blares on the white stucco, gas pumps, and door-glass signage, but inside it’s dark and mysterious. I loiter in the narrow aisles, looking for provocative pairings of merch: packages of shotgun shells shelved next to organic tampons. A can of pig’s feet in cream gravy beside a box of “Boudreaux’s Butt Paste.” A dusty liter of decent red wine shouldering a can or two of Spam, or a little display of handblown glass water pipes and rolling papers laid out next to packages of Red Vines next to lube for cows’ udders (“bag balm”) beside a cold case of sushi and ground bison, pre-packaged nut-logs, and the latest John Grisham novel …
This month’s pairing of a second book of poems published 20 or more years ago with a second collection appearing within the past year brings together two poets who possess an uncanny ability to combine the unlikely — high and low diction, the ugly and the beautiful, the personal and the political, pop culture idiom and traditional formality, lyric and narrative impulses — in poems of strikingly consoling moral compass and human circumference. Deceptively forthright, the poems in David Wojahn’s Glassworks and Paula Bohince’s The Children deliver their respective fluencies with an astonishingly complex register of vulnerability, dark humor, and revelation.
I have been reading David Wojahn’s work ever since Richard Hugo selected his Icehouse Lights for the Yale Younger Poets award in 1982. Wojahn’s second book, Glassworks, appeared with the University of Pittsburgh Press in 1987, and another six books of poems have been published since then, all with Pittsburgh, including a New & Selected in 2006 and Wojahn’s most recent collection, World Tree, which came out in 2011 and was the winner of the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets. With each book (and I’ve eagerly awaited and read them all), I have the same response: “This is Wojahn’s best yet.” This is remarkable because it is not easy to write and publish books for over 30 years and not lapse once in a while into self-parody or repetition — stylistically, thematically, aesthetically — something Wojahn has avoided for reasons, I think, discoverable in his second book.
Re-reading Glassworks again some 26 years after I first encountered it, I’m struck by how originally and well David was doing what so many of us were attempting in those years: to make intimate vignette matter; to take emotionally difficult material and push it beyond a merely confessional mode into a poetry of conscience; to situate pop-cultural energies (cinema, rock music, politics, art) beyond camp, deploying them daringly and intelligently into the discourse of poiesis. Over the course of his career, Wojahn has pressed into, deepened, and expanded his concerns — the heartbreaking alignment of damage and tenderness, ire and forgiveness, shame and unlooked-for compassion — but it’s all present from the start, as much so in these early poems as in the masterful World Tree. In “Steam,” for example, the speaker, vacationing with his wife in a resort town in the Ozarks, confronts his inability to help her, or to keep himself from being destroyed by her implacable pain, as well. The very personal here is implicated in the historical, the achingly private with the universal blurring of the self and the other in love:
[…] I remembered the Belgian doctor from the 1890s
and the baths he prepared here
for burn victims and lepers, who came
from everywhere. With his white-smocked
assistants, he’d lower them with silken ropes
into water that churned out
boiling from the mountain. The idea
was to burn them twice, exhaust their pain
into simple numbness. The cure, he wrote,
is admitting no cure. The echoes of their cries,
clear summer nights, could be heard by passengers
of trains far across the valley.
Those nights you’d wake, crying for
a lover who was dead, I wanted
to merge your sorrow with my own,
pain into love, or wisdom,
and when you raised yourself in sleep
from the brass hotel room bed and called
someone else’s name, I felt I was lowering you
into water so hot I could only
see steam, and your cries for him,
by this time so familiar, began again.
Or was it you who lowered me,
my arms already thrashing, the mineral
steam enfolding me? Mist on the balcony window,
the gray arabesques erasing everything.
The poem from which Glassworks takes its title, “Glassworks at Saratoga,” is dedicated to the Midwestern poet James L. White, who in his lifetime had a strong influence on the young Wojahn. In a memoir about White in his Strange Good Fortune: Essays on Contemporary Poetry, Wojahn writes discerningly about the complex dynamics of literary influence and inheritance:
When I set a poem down in my notebook or on the screen of my laptop, I sometimes feel that it is the presence of James L. White that helps guide my pen or fingertips. Yet I am not Jim White, although I now am nearly as old as Jim White at the time of his death. When, then, does mentoring end? And when it ends, what then are we left with? Jim White, like so many of those who have meant the most to me, now dwells among the shades, and it is said that the shades seek for themselves only the balm of forgetfulness; they are indifferent to our eulogies, indifferent to our problems. That I conjure him for selfish reasons should come as no surprise.
Re-exploring Glassworks reminds me that Wojahn’s poems have always been, either overtly or figuratively, stalked by mentoring: homage, appreciation, pushing back, resistance (as Wojahn says later in the essay, “it goes without saying that mentors needn’t give the best advice in order to be of crucial value. […] [M]audlin Leigh Hunts, trigger-happy Verlaines, and bone-headed Higginsons abound”), empathy, growth. Whether talking back to, conjuring, or conversing with the likes of Jim Morrison, the city of Houston, an eccentric painter of postage stamps of imagined places, Wilhelm Reich, Lot’s Wife, Ezra Pound, Richard Hugo, Pablo Neruda, or a parent, Wojahn’s poems are ever mindful of life’s “difficult masters — as legacy, as elegy, as homage.” As he says of marriage in the poem “Shadow Girl,” intimate human relationship is “a pact with memory beyond ourselves.”
Wojahn’s awareness of the ways in which any debt and redemption possible in acts of memory depend on what is “beyond ourselves,” accounts, I think, for the way (and why) his work has remained vital, urgent, and daring throughout these several decades. His lyric narratives juxtapose their speakers with “others” in a way that makes even the most seemingly insignificant gesture consequential, “the smallest event the most elegiac.” Because of his concern with influence and gratitude, and perhaps also because of the grace of his long apprenticeship, he has become his own mentor and mentee, learning from his own work even as he pushes beyond it into the territory of each new poem. Wojahn himself is widely known to be a generous, rigorous, devoted teacher and friend to generations of writers. What Wojahn says of his own preceptors, many contemporary poets might also say of him and of his poems, early and late: “It is of them, my masters and my master’s words, that I am now composed.”
Paula Bohince’s second collection, The Children, pulses with a child’s capacity for the “serious business” of imaginative play. Whether explicitly concerned with the turf of childhood or not (and there are many children — real, imagined, fabular, lost, longed for — in this book), Bohince’s speakers (who belong “to the bewildering / adult kingdom”) receive and translate the world, especially as experienced in the selvage realms of a populated pastoral, in which cornfields, backyards, and lots are littered and coursed through with a mix of condoms, fox prints, glow-sticks, dogwoods, daffodils, and sewers (“Little childhood river”). They offer a primal attention made all the more powerful by Bohince’s gift for evoking the essence of things with a child’s mythic and inventive partiality. Pussy willows “scraped past / my window like antlers, / half-cleaned of velvet,” for instance; an opened mailbox is a “falling drawbridge, the cymbal / of sunshine let in.” Like her darkly beautiful and riveting first collection, Incident at the Edge of Bayonet Woods, winner of Sarabande’s inaugural Aleda Shirley Prize, this second book delivers, in poems of precise, anvil-stroke clarity, worlds suffused by a mix of pre-Lapsarian astonishment and the difficult knowledge of adulthood, with its “broken vials of gravity // and enthusiasm. Pulses / of blue hidden under that shade, / in veins’ what-could-have-been” (from “Yellow Leaves”). Each poem evinces a belief that even the smallest word, like the larger worlds these poems conjure, possesses the germ of a ravishing power both wondrous and violent.
Here is “Robin’s Egg”:
Oval and still
as the heat that holds it: blue
bejeweled on all sides
by goldenrod —
Scratch that. Bedeviled
inside and out by those gold-
cultivating an essential
Thimble buoyed by needling
beauties, in opposition
to what it loves
Which is not itself, held aloft
by its subjects, nor
Art, nor peace.
but the universal
wind, who enters as a tyrant,
Here a bird’s egg, symbol of fertility, new life, hope, generation (The Children is rife with images of eggs and ovaries), has fallen, and we come upon it, “oval and still” and “aloft” in a proxy nest of goldenrod. Even as Bohince, in a meta move, revises the regnant “bejeweled” into the more vexed and threatening “bedeviled,” she keeps alive a thread of domestic safety and rescue in words like “cultivating” and “held,” and in images from sewing, before the poem darkens with a complex truth about the “love” that must perforce exist between life and drama. I love how the images themselves carry, even embody, the metaphysical “subject” of the poem, which is, finally, the precarious and “essential loneliness” of all life (the doomed yolk/yoke), which is inextricably linked and ever subject to fate, whim, those powerful and unseen forces, which, like “the universal / wind” delivers “struggle to everything” — despite art, despite peace, despite beauty or volition or poetry.
Each poem in The Children possesses the rich mix of sensory and meditative prescience of “Robin’s Egg.” In the masterful “Hare in Snow,” for example, whose two stanza panes evoke the canvases of Rothko, the poet almost miraculously pairs and blurs depictions of a vulnerable rabbit and the speaker’s aging mother. At least two of the poems — “The Dogwood” and “Gethsemane” — offer as moving an exploration of aspects of Christianity as I have read (Christ’s cross is purported in legend to be made from the dogwood tree):
[…] But when the infernal sun
would finally sink,
it took the dogwood’s halo with it. The tree
lifted out of goodness.
Dress gone fiery at the edges, naked
emotion was what we felt,
recognizing ourselves in stark wood, weak
uplift of branches.
gave us solace. Courage rushed to each
bare place and filled it.
(from “The Dogwood”)
In what is a Bohincian signature move, the epiphany or moment of revelation in “The Dogwood” comes as an envoi or coda, signaled by three asterisks: “drawings” or symbols perhaps standing in for words at powerful moments (at the close of “The Bracelet,” Bohince writes: “Outside, juvenile / daffodils rise, debutantes / from canopies. // In a wreck / of sheets, I let them / languish. Who am I // to speak for anything? / All forms of youth lost, / finally, on me” and in “Greylock,” Bohince’s Herman Melville asks, “Is it wrong to say I want no word / to represent me anymore?”).
All of the poems have a spiritual fuse, and seizures of gorgeous sound abound as well, which is another way in which Bohince keeps the “viruses” of beauty and childhood’s luster alive amidst the sorrows of adult brokenness, even in the seemingly quotidian circumstance of an “Evening Walk”:
The raccoon’s hiss is lost
to rigor mortis.
Almost comic figure
he is, before his new perfume
Rosy cobs lying at field’s
edge are the antidote.
and lovelier invoking
the deer who creep,
in triplicate, to the ultraviolet
leaving hearts bared.
I idealize the deer, the dead
who give pleasure
only in recollection.
As the vatic cat trots a path
to the junkyard,
leaving the occult of his bad
luck body intact,
his curse is in the carrying on —
making anyone going or gone
bearable and borne.
In “Reveries toward Childhood,” a chapter in The Poetics of Reverie: Childhood, Language, and the Cosmos, Gaston Bachelard writes, “In the child’s reverie, the image takes precedent over everything else. Experiences come only later.” It is by attending raptly to images that Bohince’s poems create their numinous experiences. In the book’s last poem, “Spring,” the speaker rests on the “corpse” of a rotted oak tree, “watching the air fill with the born-again.” Bohince’s lyrics juxtapose what Bachelard would call childhood’s “primitive immensities” with adulthood’s complex gravities. The result in The Children, as in Wojahn’s Glassworks, is a cosmos of complex and regenerative humanity.
Lisa Russ Spaar is the editor of Acquainted with the Night: Insomnia Poems and All that Mighty Heart: London Poems, and a collection of her essays, The Hide-and-Seek Muse: Annotations on Contemporary Poetry, is due out from Drunken Boat Media in 2013.