Book Review: The Earth Avails by Mark Wunderlich

 photo 291329a6-45dc-4785-991d-c98101d39488_zps76d636a3.png The Earth Avails
Poems by Mark Wunderlich
Graywolf Press, 2014


Reviewed by Barrett Warner

God appears to be making a comeback. Six months ago Flannery O’Connor’s spiritual journal was unveiled in The New Yorker. The break came on the heels of former child evangelist Terry Lucas’ If They Have Ears to Hear (Southeast Missouri State University Press), and Edward Mullaney’s Figures for an Apocalypse (Publishing Genius Press)—a dark minimalist collage of nouveau romans and the Trappist monk Thomas Merton.

These works raised a few issues for postmodern reader such as how do we save ourselves from our own subject matter without a place to escape. They also hint that anarchy in poetry—a music of forms—is a critical push back against impenetrable and predictable layers of order in our society. Regrettably, these authors lacked the stamina needed to subdue the answers to questions they provoked. They’re poets for Christ’s sake, not bloodhounds, and poets readily grasp that it’s far easier to question the meaning of life than to actually live it. Still, the authors O’Connor, Lucas, and Mullaney—one from the past, one from the Golden State, and one from Brooklyn—ushered an important vertical dimension, bringing some sorely needed longitudinal thinking to the latitudes of the alt lit poetry community. Not since Saint Ignatius threw down his Consolation of Desolation has there been so much fuss about the up and down escalators between Heaven and Earth. Hang on tight, that handrail is there for a reason.

Mark Wunderlich makes a solid entry into this conversation with his third book, The Earth Avails. The title comes from an Anglo-Saxon charm, or ritual prayer-song, said or sung during the honey harvest to prevent swarming. It also seems to link him in a strange way with those curious bee poems in the last pages of Plath’s Ariel, as if we’re about to read of morbid sadness, a sadness that must nearly overtake us. In The Earth Avails, the poet’s soul seems in a constant state of surrender to an unhappy universe, the seasons, and all the possibilities for destruction—blights, illnesses, infertilities, coyotes. When it’s not shaking the white flag Wunderlich’s rustic soul is in the barnyard bleeding-out a lamb or taking a shotgun to a raccoon, but not before taking the Have A Heart cage trap to a reasonably beautiful and quiet setting at wood’s edge.

The Earth Avails mercifully is not divided into sections. There are no commercials in this drama. Nor does one need to read one poem in order to grasp another. Some of the poems are autobiographical. He visits his youth here and there, and commingles these with some reports from the limestone rich ground in upstate New York where he resides, but the majority of these poems are what Wunderlich calls “house prayers” after the late 18th Century prayer book models written by German immigrants to central and western Pennsylvania. For anyone keeping score, this was the onset of the Enlightenment Era.

Wunderlich’s house prayers are occasional poems. Some address very specific agricultural fiascoes, some are written as simple conversations with God, and so forth. Each prayer also serves as a prompt for the speaker to reveal himself as he loosens his meditation on us. Since many of them are written in second address, written to “you,” these prayers have the added bonus of making the reader feel like God. When he begs God for rain in his poem “Prayer in a Time of Drought,” Wunderlich is also in some way begging the reader to unlock our own shut doors that keep “the skies from opening / and cooling and sending the quenching, / sweet smelling rain.” His closing words, “Father please,” made me ache.

Wunderlich’s God is not necessarily a Christian one. In true Lutheran fashion the Messiah doesn’t even show up the first time, let alone a second coming. This gives the Lord a very Old Testament feel, which in turn imbues the speaker’s misfortunes, and blessings, with a larger proportion. Still, there is a reason that twenty years ago this book would not have been optioned by Hollywood for a film starring Charlton Heston. As William Carlos Williams said, each poem is a small universe. Wunderlich adheres to this wisdom while tackling a much larger universe. In other hands, the scope of these poems might have swallowed the poet, and even metaphor itself, but Wunderlich’s gifted use of language, his familiarity with older syntax and construction, and his ability to find the precise noun during some very imprecise moods alert us that these poems are shaped by someone skilled in the art of the beautiful and the true.

Americans have always had a restless bone (did somebody just say Manifest Destiny?), and we’ve come to associate a spiritual record as a journal of discovery. That usually means going places in a poem. No thank you, Wunderlich seems to be saying, as if he’s perfectly at peace being engaged in labor-intensive routines on his small piece of ground. Rather than write himself outside of the box, to use poetry as a way to leave what Bruce Springsteen calls “his own small town,” Wunderlich climbs deeper into it, lushly revealing its habits and rituals and horrors.

The way some people put bumper stickers on their cars to show where they’ve been to I imagine Wunderlich has a sticker that says “Mail Box” or “Corn Crib.” Maybe going on the road meant something fifty years ago, but Mailor’s American Dream is not quite the same with 7-Elevens dotting the turnpike like punctuation. Wunderlich prefers to stay at home and let the world—and its loving, vengeful God—come to him: “Once I walked out and the world / rushed to my side. The willows bent // their pliable necks, tossed green hair hugely. / The hawk cried by the well.” Thus it’s ironic that The Earth Avails begins with a journeying poem, but the discoveries are all within his own midst, his waking up and his gratifying slumber. “Once I Walked Out” concludes with a desperate yoga that might have added ten years to Frost’s life:

I swung my arms, pulled air into my lungs—
pine pollen, dust mote, mold spore, atomized dew—

bright wheel of flame twisting in the heavens
flushing the eye with light.

Wunderlich’s deft handling of images in series takes us from a dust mote to the solar system within just a few paces without the reader feeling hurried. He does this again I “prayer for Sunshine During a Time of Rain” when he writes: “The corn, stunted in the fields / presses green tongues to the sky, / desperate for a lick of sun, the garden bloats / and goes to seed, pebbled with slugs.” In those two brief couplets the reader is handed the cosmos, weather, dirt, rocks, time passing, and even ecological French kissing.

Another poem, “Heaven-Letter” also goes back and forth between God—a great force, a blinding light—and the day to day as represented by particularly mundane tasks on the speaker’s farm:

With your sorghum broom you sweetened my path, pulled
the woolen shawl around me while I slept.

That the lightning struck the willow
and did not fall—for this I am grateful.

Help me to work. When I mow or plant,
when I seal the summer fruits in jars,

slaughter or pluck, slit the rabbit’s throat, butcher the fallow hen,
when I mend my rended garments, stitch the blanket top,

it is for you. When I wash or scrub upon my knees,
it is to see you more clearly.

Poetry about subject matter has been frowned upon by some critics, and rightly so. The feeling among Beats that one had to live a poem before writing it was actually a lot closer to Hemingway—who believed one had to die in order to write about death—than to Mark Strand. The problem with subject matter by itself, writing what one knows for example, is that it becomes too difficult to get at the mystery of something. The world of the poem becomes very two-dimensional and it’s not enough to merely rely on Time to add another dimension. The result is a very horizontal condition which we access by reading how the experience or the concept of the experience made the speaker feel or else made the speaker think of something. Wunderlich’s use of poems as prayers acknowledges his subject matter, but shifts the focus onto a seductive, faithful and spiritual realm with which one never tires for its many surprises. And it’s all about the work, the work of writing: “Urge, with your holy claw, the scratching of my pen.” In “A Servant’s Prayer,” Wunderlich prays: “Remind me that behind this knotted tapestry / of tasks and humiliations // is a shining world that must remain hidden / so it may remain unspoiled.”

It is important that we have enough knowledge to more or less get by, but not so much that we lose contact with subtle harmonies. Like strawberries, those harmonies will turn in an instant and we’ll miss them if we’re too smart. It is precisely because those subtle harmonies are the source of mystery in his writing that Wunderlich has created this uniquely traditional and oddly experimental form of collecting them as house prayers. Consider the closing lines of “Driftless Elegy,” a long sad poem—I kept blinking though its middle parts—describing a return to the depressing Wisconsin territory of his youth:

In an early photograph I have, part of the town
goes up in flames—a premonition from the 1880s.

A group of women, corseted, skirts infested with lace,
watch from behind a buckboard as ash flings itself

into the sky. To the right the blur of a girl
rushes away like a ghost. No face. Hardly a form.

Just a hat and a dress, and the news of a fire,
though no one is alive who knows her name.

A hundred years from now would any of us be writing so sweetly and so sharply about the twin towers? The desolation of the postmodern poet is that even in community he feels isolated and alone, lonely, and afraid of death. This is why the focus has to be outside of ourselves completely, just shy of a light year away, and yet we must bring to bear on that outward focus all of the intimate, boring details, all of our clarities, to that aim. Consolation is only possible through empathy and empathy requires some sort of spiritual focus to transcend contradiction. Wunderlich carries this to extraordinary measure. At times, the speaker and God seem like lovers, and yet the God is also an executioner. In “Prayer for a Journey by Sea” he writes: “The day will come for you to draw / the bright sickle of the moon // across my wooly throat. / Do it with love, without regret.” Wunderlich also addresses empathy dead on in “A Husband’s Prayer” when he concludes: “our hands / barely touching as we sleep.” The empathy, making a connection, is more important than romantic love.

It is remarkable to me that as I read these poems, each one reporting an often very foreign context to me, I found myself saying, that’s exactly what I’ve been trying to say all this time. And yet, I hadn’t really been trying to say those things. It’s just that Wunderlich has such an indirect, even plain spoken way of “controlling the interview” between the poem and the reader. He lets us pray these poems with him.

The phrase that sticks in most readers minds from O’Connor’s spiritual journal was her comment about God being the only true atheist. That line kind of morphed in my head with advice from novelist Bob Bausch to “write what you know,” and poet April Bernard to “write what you don’t know.” The conflicting wisdom says a lot about the difference between genres. In fiction we create stories. In poetry, we create mysteries. But what if you’re not a poet or a novelist? What if you’re a minister; how would you follow this logic? Writing what you believed, I reckoned, was writing what you didn’t believe.

Maybe Christianity has it wrong. Maybe instead of creating us in his image, God destroyed us in his image. No one is afraid of mortality like a ghost. And if we’re not fully engaged in life, in our own autobiographies and the possibilities that defy them, then we’re all ghosts. “Come Lazarus,” Wunderlich seems to be saying. “Step out from behind that boulder. Grab a plow. Glance at the sky. Let me show you what you’ve been missing.”


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