Sunday, April 24, 2005

At the Bookstore . . .

My good friend R had to cancel this afternoon, as she was not feeling well. I was so disappointed! But I was at University Village anyway, so I went to the bookstore there and bought: The Orchard, by BP Kelly; Wedding Day, by Dan Levin; and Voluntary Servitude, by Mark Wunderlich.

I read the Wunderlich book this afternoon, and it is absolutely amazing. Its opening poem "Amaryllis" begins: "You've seen a cat consume a hummingbird,/scoop its beating body from the pyracantha bush/and break its wings in tufted paws . . ." And we know now that we are in the grip of the world in all its "survival of the fittest" mode.

One of the beams upon which this book is structured is the idea of "master & servant" (yes, imagine the Depeche Mode song of the 80's, and you've got the gist). It's a theme that pervades his examination of our dominance/servitude relationship with the animal world, with language, and with our more "human" pairings. In "Lamb," for instance, the narrator is called upon to help deliver a pair of lambs: "Inside the sheep's hot center, lambs tangle,/soft joints press a tender twin./. . . I will bring them forth, bleating into January./ . . . They will come when I call . . . even though I call them to the gleaming hook."

Later, in "I Too Am An Animal of Great Beauty," a prose poem in which the narrator is partnered with another man for a sexual liaison: "Hogtied and hemstitched, gag in my mouth, I want your damage, your tight strung racket batting me back."

In "It's Your Turn to Do the Milking, Father Said," he recalls a summer spent as an erotic dancer, and melds it to a memory of milking the goats as a child on the farm (the euphemism of an older man's semen being "goat's milk" is not lost upon this reader): "The poor goats. I brought them in and milked them, they were so uncomfortable."

The final poem, "The Meeting" is a wonderful explication of an encounter in the woods: "What was it like to touch him?/ . . . I recall only the weight of an arm,/trees crossing out the sun/and a path leading out into the open."

What a pleasure to discover this book! Thank you to Rebecca for "standing me up."


jeannine said...

Peter - you have to tell me what you think of Dana Levin's latest - I've been wanting to buy it! PS Hope the gardening was not too bad.

louise said...

Voluntary Servitude is awesome. Besides it's lyrical beauty, I found it so instructive-- I'm writing a lot of poems that deal with a similar paradigm, and it's fairly uncharted waters in poetry, though there are a number of fiction writers (Mary Gaitskill is one that comes to mind) that seem to understand the intricies) it was great to see what worked well and what worked not so well-- though I think he pulls it off pretty flawlessly.

Peter said...

Jeannine: I just started Dana Levin's book. I just LOVED In the Surgical Theater, and so have high hopes for it.
Louise: I know what you mean by "instructive." I think I can learn a lot from this book. --P

Ali Davis said...

Hi Peter. For the exercise, I had my students look at an excerpt from Susan Straight's novel "Highwire Moon" and we talked about the idea of writing about something--either literally or metaphorically--that is on the brink of being gone, like childhood or a friendship or an old house. Thanks for reading!

Charles said...

I was actually a little disappointed in the Wunderlich book. I loved the first poem as you did, but only one other poem really stood out to me. Maybe I need to reread it. But my first reaction to the poems was that they seemed too elevated for me.

Radish King said...

I feel like a shit for standing you up, sorry, kiddo.

Erin B. said...

Yes to Voluntary Servitude. But not with as much vigor as my yes to The Anchorage. Maybe it's our first encounter with a poet that just holds on tighter to us than their other books.

Voluntary Servitude has quite a few merits, many of which you've outlined here. The role of stillness and quietude in the self, the speaker, in the book, among so much--often natural--movement and sound, is astonishing (see 'The Bruise of This', 'Difficult Body').

The Anchorage, though, somehow seems more, well, fresh, and less presentational. I'm not saying Voluntary Servitude is presentational in nature, only that it has a quality, a tone if you will, that seems to enjoy being on a sort of poetic stage. The poems you mentioned are good examples.

This 'on stage' quality isn't bad, or damaging. In fact, it serves the book's subject matter quite well. I guess the wall-flower in me appreciates the less performed feel of The Anchorage.

But I must say, I'm a fan of both of Wunderlich's books, both syles, neither so distinct from the other that they can be summed up by one of his book titles. Which may seem to contradict what I've just said. But it's not contradiction; it's dialectics.

jenni said...

Thank you Peter for this review and the excerpts from the poems. It sounds right up my alley, I'm gonna buy it.

*rushing to amazon*

Peter said...

Interesting discussion, Charles, Erin, Jenni, et al. I'll have to check out The Anchorage: I missed it first time around.
Rebecca: You are so sweet. Don't give it another thought.

louise said...

Sure, but isn't role playing, which is much of the territory he covers, in terms of the master/servant dynamic, an "act" which necessarily, by it's very nature, is *performed*, and therefore, presented with a certain staginess? The submissive as willing object of desire, and any willful objectification involves a certain "pose" by the objectified. I'm just saying, the style is part of the subject matter in this case, so it works for me.

Erin B. said...

Louise: I agree, the style is part of the subject matter in Voluntary Servitude. My point doesn't lie there. Like I said, 'This 'on stage' quality isn't bad, or damaging. In fact, it serves the book's subject matter quite well.'

What I'm talking about here is a certain tone--not the intended tone I'm sure Wunderlich aimed at, for a sort of meta feel-mimics-content move on his part, an admirable and highly effective poetic tactic that shows his skill within the craft--where it almost feels the narrator of the poems gets off on the presentational feel of the book.

And like I mentioned before, not a bad thing. In fact, quite fantastic. Don't get me wrong, there's no shame in role-playing. In fact, it's part of life, it's what humans do. Enter a debate about the merits of identity politics and standpoint theory.
Just personal preference here, the inherent tenderness in his other book The Anchorage appeals slightly more to my personality. This is not a criticism on craft, it's a mere assertion of preference on my part.