Oct/Nov 2012 Reviews & Interviews

The Sum of Our Parts

After the Point of No Return
David Wagoner.
Copper Canyon Press. 2012. 144 pp.
ISBN 978-1-55659-382-6.

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

Buy now from Amazon! Sampling, recently, from a range of literary journals, I could not help but reflect that, for all that has changed, some things have stayed very much the same. Among those things was the presence in journals large and small of a familiar poetry. In mid-range journals (and sometimes in the elite) this tends to establish a pattern: among the run of the poetry, generally dedicated, these days, to the poetics of identity, one poem stands out. The poem is clear, crisp, well within the grasp of every reader, a bit more rhythmical than its comrades, apolitical. Taken altogether, the poem is among the better (if it is not simply the best) in the issue.

In short, the poem is the work of David Wagoner. The pattern has remained the same for many years.

Long before MFA programs were liberally sprinkled over the U.S. landscape, Wagoner attended Theodor Roethke's writing course at the University of Pennsylvania. His name is often linked with those of fellow students Carolyn Kizer, James Wright, and Richard Hugo, as a Son/Daughter of Roethke (who tended to rub up against the daughters as occasion presented itself). In the late 1940s, the elder poet had begun to be recognized as a great "American" voice in poetry. His classes burgeoned, and he was more than up to the task.

While Kizer, Wright, and Hugo went to the front of the class, as it were, Roethke recommended Wagoner for a teaching position at the University of Washington. Ensconced in Washington state to this day, he began to familiarize himself with a natural world that had not been available to him, having been born and raised in the industrial Midwest. His days would be filled with teaching and nature and writing poetry and novels there for some 60 years.

Nature was a revelation to Wagoner. His first several volumes of poetry, after arriving in Washington, were dominated by it—by his exploration and his love of it. Subsequent volumes slowly grew more suburban, more about the life of a tenured professor and his family, about memories. Daily practice made the loft of the poems less lofty, the level of craftsmanship generally higher, with new each volume.

The present volume, After the Point of No Return, continues the pattern some 60 years later. The poems are clear, precise, whimsical. They expertly wield the muted rhythms inherent in suburban life. No shamanic insights are offered or implied. The volume is exemplary of what confessional poetry was supposed to be back when it was supposed to be the text of a life we once believed Americans shared in common.

In "Breakfast with Salesmen before the Poetry Reading," Wagoner comes to realize a relationship to his fortuitous companions:

...but now I'm heading down
the same steps and the same rough road with them
to make my pitch, my own prepared, polite
cold calls this morning...

He reflects that his reading amounts to a "cold call," like the round of sales calls they will make during their day. He labors, as a poet, to assure that he shares their life.

In "At the Ostrich Farm," the poet has taken his two daughters up to a pen holding 11 ostriches "gliding slowly our way / inside the chicken wire." The strange creatures are a wonder to the girls, and—the ostriches' eyes wide open—apparently the human beings are every bit as much a wonder to them:

Now all at once
all twenty-six eyes are looking
at me, astonished, demanding
some explanation.

It has to have been a good many years since the 86-year-old poet went to the farm with his young daughters. After one fashion or another, this poem, this delightful and unadorned event, has to have patiently waited decades for the final text we now receive as the poem.

And among these stand-out poems, so obviously the result of daily practicing life and poetry, are one or two (or maybe three) poems that take flight after a fashion that the quotidian approach can not quite "add up" to. In After the Point of No Return, "Going Back to the Sea" is one such poem, with its adroit metaphor describing a deeply mystical (but nonetheless common) experience the reader will recognize, in the final lines, as his or her own. Another is "Rain Dance in a Rain Forest," where, back in his beloved woodlands:

In our boots and raincoats
we can enjoy being light on our tangled feet
anywhere in routines we don't have to learn,
movements with no mistakes or traditional steps...

For just a moment, we can be simple, innocent again.

Perhaps these poems make David Wagoner's After the Point of No Return just a bit more than the sum of its parts. But that is decidedly not Wagoner's primary aim. It is precisely the sum of the common parts of our lives that he has diligently worked at depicting, for some 60 years, gathering up common stories, common words, uncommon craft.


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