Best Thing I’ve Read This Week: Greta Wrolstad

10 Sep

wrolstad-shadow-01From 2003 through 2007, Joshua Edwards, Anthony Robinson, and Nick Twemlow ran what I consider, heretofore, the strongest journal of this young millennium: The Canary. Over the course of five years, they released five issues (not including the first issue, which they released as Canary River), each one stacked top-to-bottom with some of the most notable names in contemporary poetry.

Every issue, though, contained two or three poems that stood out, for me, among a flood of top-notch writing; for example: selections from Joshua Beckman’s “Your Time Will Come” in issue two, Kent Johnson’s “The New York School” from issue three, Joanna Klink’s “Sea By Flowers” in issue four, Alan Gilbert’s excerpts from “Pretty Words Made a Fool Out of Me” from issue five, and Donna Stonecipher’s “Inlay” poems in issue six. Even to this day, these poems still haunt me.

Another poet whose writing in The Canary, years later, has stayed with me is Greta Wrolstad. Her poems “Metolius” and “Flickers of Light Become the Movement of Thousands” closed out issue five, which was released in 2006. While the latter received a Pushcart Prize later that year, I prefer the former of the two (although both are strong poems), which reads in its entirety:

Reclining in ourselves we were gathered
Under thistles the fieldmice entered a wild earth
Not far from the turning constellations
Our names rose in steam from our bodies
Braiding above us in the cooler air
The mountains succumbed to the carving wind
Delicate gestures opened notches in our chests
From every eye a widening darkness appeared
On the glossy surface of a restless sphere
The night bloomed on our attic window
Loosening seedpods hidden in puffs of dust
Threads of you and I woven in
Among the whorls of my fingertips

It was the time of tenderness
How the world once seemed to adore us. (124)

Metolius, both a city and a river in the state of Oregon (Wrolstad’s birth state), is the setting for this lyric poem where the speaker and her companion’s “names” rise “in stream from [their] bodies / Braiding above [them] in the cooler air.” And even though the wind carves “notches in [their] chests,” the speaker recalls this time as a moment when “the world…seemed to adore” them.

After reading Wrolstad’s poems in 2006, I remember turning to the contributor’s notes in order to find out where I could read more of her work. Instead of a list of publications, I, unfortunately, discovered she “passed away the summer of 2005 from injuries suffered in a car accident” (127). While incomparable to the loss her family and friends, no doubt, felt, I couldn’t help but be overcome sadness that such a beautiful poetic voice was lost at the young age of twenty-four.

So imagine my surprise when I recently discovered (if my mind serves me properly, through SPD’s weekly email blast) that a posthumous collection of Wrolstad’s poems, titled Night Is Simply A Shadow, had been released by Tavern Books. Previously, I had been unaware of Tavern Books, but their stated mission is:

to print, promote, and preserve works of literary vision, to foster a climate of cultural preservation, and to disseminate books in a way that benefits the reading public. In addition to reviving out-of-print books, we publish works in translation from the world’s finest poets.

In a time when a glut of new poetry titles make their way into world every week, it’s nice to know that there is a press willing to look backward at what has been cast aside, forgotten, or lost in contemporary poetry’s fast-paced, disposable culture (when viewed from a distance). In some sense, then, Tavern Books’ mission functions as both an ethical and aesthetic imperative that avoids the novelty of the immediate in favor of that which is a bit more time-worn.

To this end, Wrolstad’s collection fits in nicely with Tavern Books. Her poems, most often times focused on nature and the speaker’s surroundings, lack the furious velocity of much of today’s work; instead, the poet engages the natural world in a meditative, neo-Romantic (tempered by scientific discovery) voice that relies on extend thought and a dynamic idiom. Take, for instance, the following excerpt from the poem “Geography,” from which the book’s title appears:

            So much is invisible.
            Men have given
            the earth unseen shapes
            and these shapes
            are mapped on paper.

The world lacks edges:
dusk is followed by night,
and night is simply a shadow.
When I cannot sleep,
and toss and toss sweat the dark,

the sphere is lit on the other side,
unimaginably far away.
In the dark-light I know
we are parceled: every body
is bound countless times inside itself
before the final boundary
of the skin, and the physicists
say that nothing truly touches

            but is repelled
            by the approaching
            mass of another,
            on a minute
            of some separate
            If this is true,

everything is undeniably
And it cannot be true,
how terrible if it were true—
everything wants to

drift to safe harbor (21-22)

While men of science argue that “everything is undeniably / divided,” the speaker of Wrolstad’s poem forwards (or, at least, wants to believe) the counter argument: that the “world lacks edges” and everything bleeds into everything else. To intensify her argument, Wrolstad enjambs her syntactic units into her indented stanzas, which, visually, look different from the others on the page. Indeed, the stanzas flush to the left-margin and those indented may appear to be discrete entities, but they are, in all actuality, bound to one another at the sentence-level. In this manner, the poem speaks back to the moment in “Metolius,” when “Threads of you and I [are] woven in / Among the whorls of my fingertips.” Yes, men of science attempt to map our difference and claim everything is alone, but the world of the poem can connect us through what’s “invisible.”

Likewise, Night Is Simply A Shadow connects us to a voice that is, after eight years, in some sense invisible. But these poems manage to dissolve the divided between the living and the dead, reintroducing us to Wrolstad’s vision of the world, which, perhaps, satisfies the desire of the speaker in the closing moments of “Flickers of Light Become the Movement of Thousands”:

                                                                    Some nights
I find myself in an old mill town, sitting beside the train trestle,
watching rustling water flint the light. Across the river
a man weaves along the ties, his mouth gathered as if whistling.
It would be enough for his voice to reach me. (19)

At least for this reviewer, Wrolstad’s voice has certainly reached me.

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