A review by Helen Frost

Helen Frost is the author of Skin of a Fish, Bones of a Bird (Ampersand Press, 1994)
and the editor of Season of Dead Water, an anthology about the Valdez oil spill (Breitenbush, 1990).
Her poems have appeared in the anthology The Sacred Place (University of Utah Press, 1996) and in
numerous magazines including The Antioch Review, Calyx, Calliope, and Ascent.

She teaches at Indiana University/Purdue University in Fort Wayne Indiana,
and is often invited to schools to teach poetry to children.

The Sanity of Earth and Grass by Robert Winner

$19.95 hardcover, $12.95 paper
ISBN 0-88448-139-5
Tilbury House, Publishers
132 Water Street
Gardiner, ME 04345

I went to sleep one night with personal and political concerns combining in a weighty confusion, and woke to a sense of clarity, with a poem scrolling across a computer screen in my dream. In the dream, I was thinking "I should write this down when I wake up," when the name Robert Winner appeared at the bottom of the poem, the closing line of which carried a comfort something like: "Yes, it is really hard, but not too bad."

The dream sent me back to his poems, which are indeed a comfort. I have had this book for about a year now and already it has become one of my nine or ten most essential books of poetry. A manifestation of love and vision, it offers strength to its readers, rewarding repeated readings with its humble intelligence, its subtle humor, and its spiritual wholeness.

I speak of the entire book when I call it a manifestation of love and vision. The poems manifest these qualities throughout, but, equally important, the publication itself, the editing and design of the book, the forewords and the quotations on the back cover, all come together in a great celebration, important to poetry.

This is a posthumous collection, edited by Winner's widow, Sylvia, and by Jane Cooper and Thomas Lux, who wrote forewords in which they describe some of the circumstances of the life of this poet, admired by so many. (At the reading celebrating the book's publication, the poems were read by Galway Kinnell, Sharon Olds, and Edward Field, as well as by Cooper and Lux.)

At age sixteen, Robert Winner was injured in a diving accident, and his poems do not avoid facing the quadraplegia and numerous hospitalizations which resulted from that. He understands, perhaps more deeply than most of us care to, our dependence on each other and on the physical world. The physical world of these poems includes nature ("a stream's white-flecked scrambling over rocks"), business ("this stone of money dark Manhattan"), hospitals ("how the insect wings / of nerves swarmed over me") , and home ("our lives / in tapestry complex as the Bayeux, / or Bach."). In one remarkable poem, "Dawn," these elements are drawn together:

You lie on my bed at daybreak.
Your pale skin draws the faintest
light to itself like water.

How many dawns I waited!--
in childhood sleep, the years I lay awake
at war with my body--

to see you rise from my sleep all fresh,
like snow fallen overnight on dead grass
nailing my testament of sadness to a tree
for the wind to finish.

Such love and joy, present within even the most difficult of the poems, gives these poems a luminous quality. Winner faces the most humbling of situations and finds, not self-pity, not cynicism, not even (what must be a temptation) self-deprecating humor, but, of all things, sanity: "The Sanity of Earth and Grass." I imagine being in a wheelchair, of necessity living in close proximity to the earth and grass, and I wonder if I would have the strength to find within that circumstance the artful clarity of these poems. In his foreword Lux remembers Winner telling of his two ambitions following the diving accident: to become financially independent, and to marry. Lux notes that Winner accomplished both of those things more happily and thoroughly (he uses the word "sanely") than most people manage to do. Lux does not mention an ambition for poetry, and perhaps it was so private as to remain unspoken. But this collection gives the strongest evidence that whatever poetic ambition Robert Winner did harbor, he combined with vision and hard work to earn his secure place in the world of American poetry.

More Info