Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Robert Wrigley in the UK

The Church of Omnivorous Light
Bloodaxe Books
ISBN 978-1-85224-966-3
223p, £12.

If you live in the US, it takes a determined effort to read anything of contemporary UK poetry.  Writers like Wendy Cope, Lavinia Greenlaw, Gillian Clarke or John Burnside, widely published and acclaimed in the UK, lack (so far) any U.S. publishers.  The reverse is not so true.   Both Faber and Bloodaxe regularly publish U.S. writers, often first in selected volumes.  So it is that Robert Wrigley, Midwesterner by birth but staunchly Western by long habitation, has reached a place in his career where Bloodaxe Books (of Tarset, Northumbria, UK) has published for UK distribution his selected poems, The Church of Omnivorous Light (2013). 

What UK readers might make of Wrigley’s narrative music must really, of course, be left to UK readers, though one notes immediately that Church carries a Poetry Book Society (London) Special Commendation.   But it seemed like an interesting idea to take Church along in the suitcase as I traveled in the UK, and so it has proved. 

One senses that UK readers – particularly those from Wales and Cornwall – would recognize immediately the mining references in the book’s second poem, “From Lumaghi Mine”: “Dear Father, / Eleven days without sunlight.  We go in / in the black morning fog, work, and come out / having missed it all.  But we begin to appreciate the dark.”  UK readers would, I speculate, recognize, too, the unflinching attention of “Coroner’s Report,” which in its imagery treats the human body as both geology and flesh.  And though “Lull” seems to report the effects of a near tornado, it could almost as easily be read as a new incarnation of Keatian observation applied to a cracking September storm in the UK north: “Wind piled husks at the door / and made us sleepy. / Sacks of onion hung from the cellar beams / like scrota and swayed -- / or stood still while we did.”

Wrigley’s American influences (Frost, Dickey, Warren, Hugo) may not necessarily be uniformly well known to UK audiences.  But should a UK reader go back far enough – to Wordsworth’s Prelude with its emphasis on “spots of time” (moments of intense experience that carry within them large import), then Wrigley’s work would certainly be seen as consistent with this broad tradition.  For early or late in this book, Wrigley’s poems are frequently small masterpieces of storytelling.  Often they invoke questions surrounding mortality.  Here’s an early example, from “Majestic,” the title referring to “The only word for it, his white Lincoln’s arc / from the crown of the downriver road / and the splash it bellied in the water.”  Thus begins a story of a car that has evidently sailed off a road, killing its driver.  And a much later example, “Triage,” in which the speaker works to save a well-loved tree that a weight of snow has split: “…I tied it off to a stouter tree // winched it upright again, braced it with a two-by-four / plank notched and swaddled at the notched end / in innertube ribbons, then guyed it off to the fir / that was to be the engine of its reascension.” 

Neither “Majestic” nor “Triage” ends with any sort of summing up.   Neither the speaker nor the reader of “Majestic” understands why that car and driver took short flight off the road and landed in the river.  A suicide?  A momentary lapse of attention?  A medical crisis in the seconds before?  No answers.  And in “Triage,” does the split tree survive its crisis?  Again, the poem doesn’t say.  So the moments, while intense and fraught, remain unclear as to their implications.  Rather they become more valuable for the questions they evoke and make sharper.  Wordsworth might have done more interpreting for us, but the impulse to (paraphrasing him) “recollect in tranquility” remains evident and foremost.

While Wrigley’s subjects are never trivial, it may be that the music of his lines offers the larger frequent, consistent pleasure.  In the earlier examples quoted, it’s hard not to love the use of “swaddled” to refer to the wrapping of a tree.  And in “Majestic,” that car “and the splash it bellied” seems exactly apt to the picture it means to make.  Wrigley takes pains with his descriptions and listens attentively to his own ear (“the engine of its reascension”).   In doing so, he honors and elevates a reader’s attention.

UK readers might find in this book at least this striking contrast: The Church of Omnivorous Light consistently features poems that originate in a distinctly Western American sense of landscape.  Wrigley’s poems are often deeply sensitive to the vagaries of this landscape and its animal inhabitants.  His poems take for granted a backdrop that UK readers might struggle to recognize – a backdrop of landscape and ecosystem left mostly to itself.  

Such landscape and its assumptions underpin the book’s title poem, which centers in the “fundamental squawking [of] / little Pentacostal magpies, diminutive / raven priests” who are making a considerable fuss over what the poem’s speaker notes is merely that “Someone’s gutted out a deer is all.”  And this same sense of residence in a landscape alive with the wild also informs “Art” – another poem in which that wildness (again in the form of a deer) has tangled itself in a barbed wire fence: “He must have hit it full tilt in the dark, / momentum spinning him through / and in, every thrash thereafter / sawing flesh, by the time I arrived, / just past dawn, sawing deeper than bone.”  Wrigley’s west is often imperiled, making poems like “The Church of Omnivorous Light” and “Art” register as eulogies for a wild neither fully wild nor fully disappeared.  

The American West offers wide skies, a few mostly undomesticated wilderness areas, often considerable distances between population centers of any size, wide roads, and a cultural history that’s more veneer than solid plank.  The island of Britain, in contrast, offers sometimes similarly wide skies, frequently narrow roads and streets – sometimes made narrower by cars parked with one set of wheels on the road and the other off – a landscape of relatively dense human habitation even in rural areas, and a cultural history that, for writers, stretches back at least to Beowulf, though it might better be said to begin with the first writer in Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner: Geoffrey Chaucer. 

For all of that, UK readers familiar with Wordsworth, Hardy, or John Clare – or for that matter, Alice Oswald – will have, one suspects, little difficulty connecting with Wrigley’s images and varied music.  Rightly a winner of numerous awards, Robert Wrigley’s work will surely take its place as a continuing and formative influence on writers in the American West.  As writers and readers, we in the West are in his debt.  It’s at once gratifying and about time that his work now finds a wider readership in the UK and beyond.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

from Grasmere

Wordsworth and Coleridge knew The Lakes as remote and sparsely populated, their beauty some ambivalent combination of rocky uplands too poor in soil to support more than sheep combined with long vistas, rapidly changing light, and a sense of the severe sublime. 

The Lakes are not now remote; it does not take days to arrive here: a dual carriageway takes cars from Penrith to Keswick.  But the landscape itself has not altered much.  The rocky ground still supports mostly sheep, and even now they may well outnumber the weekday, nontourist population.  The stone circle Keats referred to as "Druid" still commands its view, and most people still walk to it, as Keats did.  And the fells (mountains, hills, ridgetops) remain mostly bare except for grass and bracken, their silhouettes sharply lined against sky when they are not clouded.

Grasmere is (or was) the home, for a good while, of William Wordsworth.  The house (Dove Cottage) is larger than it appears from the now-paved road.  His barn adjoining the house is gone (it has become a side garden), and his view of Rydal Water has been blocked by a rather imposing pile of dark green Victorian lakeland slate.  But the stone floor he walked on is intact and functional, as are the stairs he and Dorothy (his sister) and Mary (his wife) and Sara (her sister) climbed.  The house has running water now -- not so in Wordsworth's time.  The Wordsworth Trust burns coal in two grates (two separate rooms), if it's chilly -- Wordsworth might more likely have burned peat, but peat is harder to get now than then.  One is guided through the rooms, told not to sit in any chair, for they date from Wordsworth's time, and the whole tour is at once brisk if not quite brusque.  Such are the demands of a tourist destination.

Better to walk the Coffin Trail that starts up the hill.   It's called the Coffin Trail because for years it saw the transport of coffins to the church in Grasmere.  One can still see resting stones used to set the coffin on while its bearers rested.  If one goes in reverse, starting from Grasmere's Town End, the trail goes to Rydal (the hamlet) and to Rydal Mount, Wordsworth's last and (by the standards of his day) luxurious home.  Alas, as Wordsworth moved from house to house, he wrote less and less of interest.  He seems to have known this and felt himself helpless to alter things.  One can speculate that some essential aspect of his imagination had been shut off at great cost, and once off it stayed off.  Perhaps this is what can come of leaving a wife and child in another country and pretending to oneself that they are no longer part of you.  Perhaps you simply wall off the imagination that would miss them and wonder about them.  That Wordsworth left a French woman he felt married to, and their child, and rarely acknowledged them afterwards is simply accurate.  The effects of all that can only be speculation.

Rydal Mount itself is now (and has for some time been) back in the hands of the Wordsworth family, who, one is told, occasionally still use the house themselves.  Many of their photographs and portraits are featured on the walls.  One can see where Keats left his note -- having planned to visit the great man, he arrived to find the house empty.  Wordsworth may not have been much of a writer of good poems while he lived in this house, but he was quite a landscape architect.  The gardens and grounds reflect his plantings and his design.  And one element of his writing while there -- his prose Guide to the Lakes -- is partly responsible for the entire area's development as a destination to visit.  Our afternoon there is rainy, with an occasional exclamation of sun to tease the sympathies.  It's still possible to see out Wordsworth's study window at the top of the house and quite easy to imagine being taken by the distraction of merely watching the weather change.