Friday, October 04, 2013

On The Geese at the Gates

The Geese at the Gates
by Drucilla Wall
ISBN 978-1-907056-59-8
Salmon Poetry (Ireland), €12.

Waking next to a lover (and, it would seem, then waking that lover), the culture (can one call it that?) of Kansas football, how to feel (if not be) invisible, time’s losses and the pathos of diminished places against the pleasures of Irish new ones, the large-scale sense of chance or possibility shutting down, “small actions, lives touched” – Drucilla Wall knows these and many other things, as her book The Geese at the Gates readily attests.

Though these poems range across the globe – from Canada to the aforementioned Kansas to Nebraska, Yellowstone Park, to St. Louis, to the Ireland of Enniscorthy and The Burren – they remain united by a consistency of voice and the inclination to story. They can be fruitfully and pleasurably read as a sort of unhurried checking-in: what does Drucilla Wall have to say today? Thus this book does not so much make one narrative or accumulate a single set of focused concerns as it does make, poem by poem, a sense of human company: a visitor in the house, someone you can count on to say something smart, well-considered, and not necessarily what you expect. One poem might talk about the speaker’s son, Michael, another about a dog, then one about a painting or a spider or a cat.

Yet the variety of subjects paints a consistent ambition to talk back to the clutter and rush that now seems inevitable in contemporary western life. Perhaps this rush and clutter is at least as old as Thoreau? In any case, Wall’s poems seek to carve out a space in which thoughtfulness might get itself worked out, a space in which genuine feeling might declare itself. Sometimes it’s merely a moment, one, say, in which a hiker confronted by a bear remembers “how close to God he felt / in the wilderness, how he hadn’t planned this hike / until the ranger called the area off limits…” So he hikes, and finds the exact closeness he’d hoped for, a mama bear “reared to full height, her cubs / crashing in the brush.” What’s so interesting about this poem is how it ends. This hiker, as Wall imagines him, registers not so much fear as a recognition of what he’s risking at that moment: “As she [the bear] considered him and began to bellow, / he remembered his loveable, fat-assed son, / left asleep and alone back at the camp, / thirteen years old and awkward as a duck on skis.” No pulling of punches here. And that’s it: the poem ends with “awkward as a duck on skis.”

That last image is not expected – and made more delightful as a result. What began as a hike towards some elemental truth becomes a reminder about the obligations of family connection and the risk of a thoughtless narcissism. The poem doesn’t push this agenda; it does not baldly announce. Rather it makes a space in which, in the moment of the poem’s action (surely not more than a few seconds), a flawed character reacts convincingly. We don’t have to be confronted by a bear; all we have to do is read “Trail Closed, Yellowstone.”

The great majority of poems in The Geese at the Gates work in just this way: they focus attention on something, and then in smart, well-constructed, humane ways, they repay a reader’s attention. Thus, they can serve as an example of what one sort of reading, at its best, might enact. A well-spoken speaker – someone canny, intelligent, sympathetic, unpredictable, critical, balanced – makes (or invokes) via language a presence based in intelligent, idiosyncratic regard. Such work rewards readers who bring similar a similar regard to their reading. In some odd way, this compact between work and reader enacts one kind of ideal human relationship. The best and fullest expression on the page asks from us those same qualities as we read – if the writer does her job, if the reader can manage to do the same.

The Geese at the Gates is not a poetry of ecstasy or religious fervor, nor does it seek to create some mythic reality. Rather, to borrow a phrase from Czeslaw Milosz, these poems stay “loyal to reality” as they attempt to describe, examine, and consider it.  Their comment, thoughtfulness, and perspectives make for rich rewards.

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