GAIL WRONSKY’S Imperfect Pastorals signals allegiance to a pastoral tradition situated on the Pacific Rim. Taking their titles from Virgil’s Georgics, her lively, ironic, energetically digressive poems are in love with the beauty of language and nature yet alert to the threat of mortality in every breeze. Wordsworth’s ode “Intimations of Immortality” sets a precedent for her vision (“there was a time when meadow, grove, and stream […] did seem appareled in celestial light”), but her idiom is 21st century, a pastiche of gleanings from a cultural pantheon. She tweaks quotes from her luminaries, who unsurprisingly include the Romantic poets Shelley and Keats as well as Woolf, Yeats, Apollinaire, Mallarmé, Robbe-Grillet, Cixous, Kali, Ganesh, and the Argentine novelist César Aira. Echoing Shakespeare in Richard II (in the poem “Pitch-Pines or Guilty Yews or Dark Green Ivy”), the entire world is a text she reads from and writes:
you may as well turn Platonic
philosopher and look death in the mirror
permanently and seriously make dust
your paper so to speak
Her poems banter with the large questions: Can we trust our senses? Is it our responsibility to bear witness? What will all our attention to phenomena get us, anyway? Will the natural world and its jarring beauties offer a reprieve from despair? On this idea, however, she is sure: our perceptions are momentary and only make us more aware of our temporality. We lurch and jerk amid the shimmers. The poem “Dry Cracking Sounds Are Heard,” says: “The path ahead glitters in dialectic. / / Why do we feel instinctual — / motley-clad? // It // overwhelms logic.” She continues:
[…] Don’t you love other people’s
bits of thought —
walking through words like a
and avaricious zombie
Wronsky is unafraid to try to nail down these feelings that are part of the eternal, macabre romance between life and death. Seeking to locate them in poem after poem, her project feels important. She understands that although the bursts of pleasure our perceptions afford distract us, they usually successfully urge us to live another day. Oh, to have the awareness of animals and not be caught unaware. In “Light Chaff and Falling Leaves or a Pair of Feathers,” she calls it “horse ophthalmology,” the eyes of horses perceiving “the threat of annihilation in every windblown / dust mote of malignant life,” what for humans is hidden “inside friendly-seeming breezes, behind / soft music, beneath the carpet of small things one can barely see.” In the poem that follows, “Drawn by a Team of Three-Legged Fish-Tailed Horses,” she writes, “How much more difficult for poor humans caught between / the names of things and the iridescences of perceptions”:
Last night I stood beneath
a coral tree whose black branches were full of snowy egrets
squawking and shifting before settling down for sleep. It was
a picture for a Roman tapestry! Almost an image for a poem!
And then I felt another plummeting. It had something to do
with beauty; something to do with the dogged willfulness of
specificity and its opposite, all the alienated noncommittal
wavering of the sea. The beautiful sea. What could be more
The image created by the surprising synesthetic reference to the breakability of water — in which the liquid moment is objectified, made frangible — resonates with emotion brought on by thoughts of mortality. Literary critic Calvin Bedient reaffirms that the signature quality of the lyric is emotion, occasioned by a struggle with “evanescence, loss, and death,” part of “the unwritten and unbreakable contract of life” that leaves us divided between “a yes to life and a yes to life’s passing.” The result, he finds, is “a coalescence of contraries.” The emotion of Wronsky’s poems derives from the lyric tradition, but the unpredictability of her angst-tinged tropes has its source in the cultural and psychic displacements of the contemporary moment.
In building emotion, these poems take full advantage of the contribution that can be made by the weight of a line, the tension created from fractures and the silence space can impose. Combined with surprising perceptions and a nervy tone, a well-defined persona emerges. It’s a large voice, that of a playful, ruminative cultural cosmopolitan who has experienced domestic love and has memories of passion, and is okay most of the time with the former (“The Heron Leaves Her Haunts in the Marsh”):
Let me go domestic air, inner conflict and anarchism.
Let me replace
the thick veil of separation
with a thinner veil.
off-guard and slip out for some whiskey
why don’t you —
I’m not the one in the leather coat and the
Over me the wind’s dumb moan, beside
me the foam and glitter of the Pacific. The
heron has “one of the most begrudging avian takeoffs.”
Oh fucking hell I’ll go. Have I had a tetanus shot? Not
The persona of the poems is an obviously educated, hip, traveled woman of experience whose portion of despair is incompletely solaced by the world’s natural gobsmacking beauty. Urgent telling evokes emotion she dances away from. The voice is infused with a grand timbre that seems reflexively undercut as when confronting “[w]hatever it is that climbs out of the dark at daybreak in its thick fur gown and operatic helmet” (“If Once That Well Known Scent Comes Down the Wind”). There’s a polymorphous quality to the persona, constructed from the bric-a-brac of culture and phenomena, “always some selfhood stalking an object” (“New Treatments Made Things Worse”). In the poem “Alone, Rather Because Not Otherwise,” the self clarifies its awareness of a constructed nature while watching itself in a movie. “How did that // mouth kiss, I wonder. How did that ruined, magenta / hair beguile? In sepia, darling, // like all dreamed sex: solitude and object-hood a-bountiful.”
If the persona is a large one, it’s because the stature of the foe — death — demands it. Humor becomes a disarming strategy — the Seine is “weeping incoherently but in French” — and points to her interest in the playful, undermining discords of French surrealism. The Argentine César Aira is another writer making an appearance in the poems whose work is based on surrealist subject matter. In his short novel Ghosts, the title characters suggest that in death we fail to transcend our ordinary concerns as they lounge nakedly around an under-construction condo in Buenos Aires. In the poem “How Lucky, if They Know Their Happiness,” the Aira’s ghosts lecture the poem’s persona: “All you think about is sex. / / There you go again, talking about Paris.”
How necessary is the need to call out all that our senses miss? For some writers, the experience of the world is less existential than definite in lives where death’s arrival is sudden and specific. Wronsky’s poems articulate the nature of experience that changes at the moment of perception and is, in that sense, ungraspable, as in “The Trees That Lift Themselves Spontaneously”:
And now the preverbal seagulls of San Pedro
cry by, above high-reaching greenery. I had nothing
to do with their rising, or with the trees meeting
united like lovers in the sky. The wind spins as quietly
as smoke here. I’m the woman filming it.
After all, “the day’s just handed me a glass-bulb pipe and an / energy drink despite my death-fetish.” There is still the possibility that witnessing will continue.
Karen Kevorkian is a lecturer in creative writing at UCLA. Her poetry collections are White Stucco Black Wing, Lizard Dream, and Seeking Quivira, which is forthcoming. She is published in numerous journals, including Antioch Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Denver Quarterly, and Volt.