Sunday, December 02, 2007
Intimations of Survival in the poems of Richard Wilhelm
Review by Michael Todd Steffen
A thread of tradition in the cycle of the calendar year weaves the sequence of Richard Wilhelm’s book of poems, Awakenings (October 2007, Ibbetson Street Press), beginning with death in dull winter, proceeding to rebirth and awakening in spring, maturity and confidence in summer, ripening to harvest in autumn with premonitions of death again, still with the poet’s affirmation in the final line of the final poem,
A PASSENGER, “seeking yet another rebirth.”
Yet Wilhelm’s year is incomplete, denoting a sense of loss that resonates throughout the book. If William Carlos Williams tells us to invent “not in ideas but in things,” Wilhelm’s opening poems argue persuasively that intuitive invention is not so much in things, but in the resonance of things after their moment,
tree after Christmas tree,
put out with the trash,
some still decked in tinsel,
still fragrant with all that is over. (WHEN TOMORROW’S TRUCKS COME)
Perusing the first five poems the reader of the mainstream American poetic confidence has to ask: Where is the song of himself? By WINTER (p. 4) it is Wilhelm’s absence that has become most present. It is the world around him, the poems softly protest, in this early 21st century of aerodynamics subtly suggested in the book of nature by the creatures of the air:
An array of starlings
settles down on the Norway
maple’s snow-dusted branches.
as if by script,
then a few more birds
flit to other branches.
Down from the same atmosphere of maneuvered flight, snowflakes are described as “sputtering,” as though from a mechanical sky, a sky that has overextended its patrol and interest:
cling on well
This intense awareness of things present in their denotation of “all that is over” (over, also “above”) conveys a sense of oppression, typified and announced in CRUMBLED BRICKS AND BROKEN GLASS, where Wilhelm feels “bored to a muted nausea,” more or less bound to follow his father around on a Saturday in an overheated Studebaker, fidgeting in a hardware store, riding along out past an abandoned railroad, places where his father’s memories are stirred, but the child’s are not. The visions are described point blank as seen, ominous in their state of dilapidation:
Rusted rails led past stands of sumac,
a chain link fence devoured by vines,
to an empty factory, its painted logos all but faded
from brick walls.
As if we lived in a super-constructed world already, the poet’s great fear is that demolition and deterioration are all that remain for the future, a ghetto-ization of housing and industrial parks that were erected and used up too fast:
this is all there is, this is all
there will ever be. Crumbled bricks
and broken glass…
The poet is unique in his subtlety of communicating things present, yet liberation of consciousness from the determined Now begins in the imagination, finding its first avenue to something possibly different, some change, in memory, the source of the shift in voice in AWAKENINGS where,
My senses soon whisk me
to my rural boyhood—
and in the rejuvenation of his mind, Wilhelm plays again:
We were soldiers or
Indians or desert island-
survivors. We’d crouch
in bushes, sneak up a hill
then hurl our spears into
a gully of soft wet earth…
The spears the boys hurl into the wet earth, the poet’s primary sense of manhood, only in the prior poem, NONES OF FEBRUARY, Wilhelm had discovered, “a fallen branch, dead but strong,” from which with his penknife he begins to carve out his poems, “smaller branches and knots” and a staff to sustain him walking “like a wandering monk.”
In the space allowed in this article I have touched on only a few poems, to make a point about Wilhelm’s sensibility: it is subtle, careful in the placement of word and line for connotation, and powerful when given a patient appreciation. The death of Christmas and rebirth and awakening to spring is so critical and vital to human survival, and Wilhelm has not failed to acknowledge this wondrous operation, however great the struggle against these birth pangs, however great the obstacle posed by civilization in our day which demonstrates its reliance on aggressive technology rather than on our curious communion with the earth and its plants and creatures, the suggestion of its cycles, so carefully heeded and portrayed in these poems.
We are given Wilhelm’s wide range of acceptance, from the beautiful and hopeful WE’LL GROW NEW FACES, where
If the dream comes again—
Sweet May will scent the air,
to the foreboding visions, in NIGHT OF THE BLOOD RED MOON, of an equilateral moon rising through sunset red, with the poet’s senses overcome by an equally unusual
from somewhere deep in the blood,
yearned for one I had not yet met.
Well worth reading and rereading, Richard Wilhelm’s Awakenings does the work of piercing through our superficial civilization, relating us to the cycle of our source and mother, the earth and her bearings, using familiar settings and images, set out in simple yet striking language.
Ibbetson Update/ Michael Todd Steffen/ Dec. 2007
* Michael Todd Steffen is the winner of the Ibbetson Street Poetry Award (2007)