Earthly Meditations: New and Selected Poems
by Robert Wrigley
The poet inclined to write about the family dog had better manipulate language like a MOMIX contortionist or offer the truly unexpected if he hopes to create great poetry – and Robert Wrigley does. From the stolid boy who knows his dog is as good as dead when the farmer arrives with a gutted chicken to the quiver of the dog’s ears as the girl holds him down and commands the pet to say he loves her, Wrigley’s poems hunker down and quick-step away from our expectations. Earthly Meditations: New and Selected Poems is Wrigley’s first book published since Lives of the Animals in 2003, winner of the Kingsley Tufts Award – and a book much needed, since many poetry readers are not familiar with his earlier work, which dates back to 1979.
In almost thirty years of publishing, one might anticipate aesthetic alterations (for example, James Wright’s shift from formal to free verse). Yet Earthly Meditations surprises by its consistency of craft and its hard-edged insistence to see life as it is, not as the poem would like to insist it is. Wrigley’s fierce allegiance to the unsentimental, and consequently to the surprising, powers most of his work. Consider these two lines from “Lull,” which describe the aftermath of a tornado: “Wind piled husks at the door / and made us sleepy.” From 1979 to 2006 this focus on honest precision is consistent. It can be seen in “News” as the speaker holds an exhausted bird: “I stroked it lightly as I could, as I might not my lover’s breast.”
A welder of lyrical and narrative impulses, Wrigley manages to not stall a poem in the details of the narrative, but quickly pushes forward into the universal insights. For example, in “Religion” the word “last” provides the backstory of the family dog’s death: “The last thing the old dog brought home / from her pilgrimage through the woods / was a man’s dress shoe, a black, still-shiny wing-tip.” The decision to not rest on the narrative but provide it in a single word allows a more elegiac poetic movement, characteristic of his older poems. I think of “Agency” from Lives of the Animals, where he watches a doe fall on ice and then rise with a “slender dead weight.” We don’t need more words to know what will happen to the doe.
One pleasure in selected collections is discovering a new poem that one appreciates as much as an older, well-worn one. “American Manhood” from What My Father Believed (1991) is one of these poems. Waking one night to see his teenage son playing with the hose under moonlight, he writes:
He crouches on the curb
In just his pajama bottoms, barefoot,
Swirling figure eights into the air trafficked
By insects and the fluttering, hunting bats.
Tonight he speaks a language I believe
I must have known, in the time before, those years
When a boy’s body imagines the world, the heartbeat
Rhythm of water on the road, the riches
Coined by streetlights, the smell of the night
That is everything at once, alterable
Yet the drawback to selected collections is that recently written poems do not have the years to test and retest their agency. The result: a few (and I do mean only two or three) of the new poems such as “Morelity” do not needle with their insights as do the older poems. In “Morelity,” the subject of frying mushrooms doesn’t develop beyond just what it is.
Yes, compressed language, pelting rhythms, and unsentimentalized details draw me into Wrigley’s work – but when I read his poems and pause, as I must, to linger in that world the poem created (the crepe myrtle outside my window replaced with the mesquite tree from the poem) I question the efficacy of poetic technique. The precision in these poems suggests that his work does not result from hours at the desk rubbing the line just right. Rather, the poems develop in the hours away from the desk, seeing the world not from a rush of to-dos and gnaws of better-nots, but that of another, indefinable perspective: one which notices how a wife’s black bra hung first from its right strap on the bureau knob – and then, after the carpet cleaner arrived – from its left.