New and Selected

As part of a recent book-buying spree, I purchased the (recent) new and selected poems of two poets: Robert Wrigley’s Earthly Meditations and Elaine Equi’s Ripple Effect. Wrigley I had been referred to a year or two ago by a friend, and after initially being not terribly impressed with his work, I later warmed to it, at least as manifest in his book Lives of the Animals. So he was something of a known quantity. Equi I had never heard of until reading about her new collection I forget where — linked from a link off a blog I’ve recently begun following, I believe. She’s described as being influenced by the New York school, so I should have known to expect what I got (which sounds less flattering than I really mean it to sound).

I’m about halfway through Equi’s book (all the way through the new work and into the selected) now and needed a break. The poems are all very accessible, so my needing a break isn’t a matter of having trouble reading them because they’re difficult. If anything, they tend to be lighter than what I’m really aching for these days. Some of the poems are very funny. Take the following:

Perversely Patriotic

Terrorism has ruined
S & M for me.

Now it just seems
like watching
the news.

It’s a laugh-out-loud and pretty biting observation, and I like it a lot, but its lack of heft makes it hard for me to do more than read it a few times, say “oh,” and move on. The observation is memorable but the poetry is not.

Other poems use accessible language but seem neither to mean much nor to be especially artful, and I find these puzzling. For example (excerpted from “1 + 1 = 3”):

Heard
enough
of your silence

Gold
fisheyes
in aquarium glasses

Lightgeist
iceberg
blackboard and cigarette

River
runs
through a bullet

The stanzas each contain lines of one, one, and three words, so she’s imposing structure on her poem. It’s interesting as wordplay in some cases (“lightgeist”) but seems a flirtation with the cliche in others, and I just don’t understand what Equi is doing here or why she or her editors think some of this stuff should get past the editorial chopping block. She’s by her own admission influenced by the New York school and by Eastern forms, and those influences are certainly in evidence within these poems. It’s distinctly possible that my lack of particular interest in the sorts of poetry that influence her colors my reception of her work. In any case, there are enough little “oh, neat” moments that I’ll go back to her book soon, but I predict that I’ll find very little among the pages memorable as poetry. But then, I warmed to Wrigley on a second reading, so perhaps I shouldn’t write her off so quickly.

I read the new poems (about 20 of them) in Wrigley’s new book in one sitting tonight and was bummed when I flipped ahead to see that only a few were left. As I wrote in an earlier review, he writes smoothly and elegantly of rustic things, and he does so in such a way that I feel as if I’ve experienced the thing when in fact I haven’t. As someone who has trouble getting drawn into movies and TV, much less stories and poems, I think it’s quite a gift for someone to write in such an evocative way.

Almost without exception, all of the new poems in Wrigley’s work are satisfying to me. They tell me stories while helping me to think about more abstract things. He writes about the World Trade Center attacks, of forging a river, of the war, of peace, of a couple of disturbing encounters. For all of his seriousness and peacefulness and quiet philosophy, he also tells a funny joke. The poem I’ll quote in its entirety and hope the copyright police will figure is fair use within the context of a review (if not, I’ll cease and desist, etc.) particularly resonated with me, and while it’s not the richest of the poems in the book, it is I think certainly a lovely one:

For One Who Prays For Me

I do not wish to hurt her, who loves me
and who asks for me only every blossom and more,

but in fact, when I say God I mean the wind
and the clouds that are its angels;

I mean the sea and its enormous restraint,
all its fish and krill just the luster of a heavenly gown.

And while it is true there are days when I think
something more must be in the wind than air, still I believe

the afterlife is dirt, but sweet, and heaven’s coming back
in the lewd, bewhiskered tongue of an iris.

Wrigley’s assessment is a little more new-agey than I’m personally willing to go in a literal sense, but boy does he say it nicely. There’s such placidity in those lines, and understated but oddly strong imagery. The phrasing is smooth, the diction entirely within reach. It’s good writing that I can hardly wait to read more of. It’s something to aspire to.

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