Jul/Aug 2010  •   Reviews & Interviews

Cinderella Story

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

On Speaking Terms.
Connie Wanek.
Copper Canyon Press. 2010. 84 pp.
ISBN 978-1-55659-294-2.

In April 2005, Ted Kooser—then U.S. Poet Laureate—kicked-off his weekly newspaper and internet column American Life in Poetry, with South Dakota poet David Allan Evans's "Neighbors." Each week the column continues to feature a single poem. The poem is necessarily short, contemporary attention spans (and Kooser's predilections) being what they are, and introduced by a brief comment by Kooser. As the rule, the introduction mentions the poet's home state.

Over those five years Kooser has been characteristically laconic in his descriptions of the aesthetic of the column. The poems are chosen for being immediately accessible to a general audience. They are decidedly not "elitist" (a word he uses often enough, perhaps, to suggest a wound). The rest of the aesthetic can be drawn from the poems themselves and Kooser's comments about what he seeks to do in his own poetry. The traits of the poetry are those that won him a Pulitzer and the Laureateship. That is to say that they were already ubiquitous, before the column, if they might not quite yet have been gathered together into the style he has since come to exemplify.

From Edgar Lee Masters, through William Carlos Williams and six subsequent decades of various versions of populist poetries, the quintessential American poem has been in the process of development. It is humble, even self-effacing, empathetic and quietly strong. It is never overtly political. It generally fits on a single printed page and rarely exceeds two. Description is spare, depending upon a few careful details, chosen for their homeliness, to stand for all of an experience or even a life. It is resoundingly middle class and small town. Family and pets tend to feature prominently. "Immediate accessibility" is the catch phrase and formality only engaged in on the rarest of occasions in an attempt to argue that its absence is entirely a matter of choice.

Not long after Kooser became the Laureate, he attended a reading in Duluth, Minnesota, where he heard a poet whose work embodied the aesthetic of the American Life in Poetry School. He particularly liked her poem "Umbrella":

When I push your button
you fly off the handle,
old skin and bones,
black bat wing.

The poet was Connie Wanek and her poems would soon appear in American Life in Poetry available to as many as a million readers. Kooser's largesse did not end there. He also appointed her a Witter Bynner Fellow of the Library of Congress.

Connie Wanek had already published two volumes of poetry with two of the small small presses that have also become a distinctly American feature as the aesthetic of the ALP School has been taking final shape. The brief biography that appears on her website was her curriculum vitae:

Poetry was a constant, whatever her circumstances and enterprises. While raising two children, she worked in a family solar heating business, and later she learned the skills necessary to restore old houses. Also, she worked for years at the Duluth Public Library, from which she retired in 2007.

It is the c.v. of tens of thousands of poets for whom M.F.A. programs, and publish-or-perish competitions for tenured teaching positions, were, for one reason or another, not an option. In 1997, her first volume, Bonfire, won the New Rivers Press (Minnesota State University Moorhead) New Voices award, however, and there could be hope that the award would expand her publishing horizons.

Five years later, her second volume appeared with a smaller smaller Duluth press. It is a common pattern and a measure of just how difficult it is to stand out among the tens of thousands of manuscripts before editors each year.

Ted Kooser's magnanimity sprang from refreshingly honorable sources. Kooser knew Wanek only by virtue of that single reading. The Wanek poems that appeared in the American Life in Poetry column were quietly effective and could only have strengthened his impression that he'd made a "discovery." Suddenly Wanek stood out from the crowd again. Her next manuscript, On Speaking Terms, caught the eye of the editors at Copper Canyon Press, among the finest poetry presses in the U.S. Hers is a genuine Cinderella story.

The poem "Umbrella" is only one of a considerable number of delightful ALP School poems in Wanek's present volume On Speaking Terms, each with a similarly bland title like "Six Months After My Father's Death":

It was Mother on the phone, and she sounded
well, finally out of his misery.

If, in spite of the well-chosen line break, this seems a bit off-key for the ALP School, a balance of empathy is restored a few lines later:

He hadn't meant to hurt her.
drowning people will do anything for air.

If there is anything in which Wanek outdoes her mentor, it is in the faint undertow that inhabits the daily life portrayed in her poems. It is time almost imperceptibly drawing her down with just a bit more force as the cost of each moment of joy and fortitude. In this deceptively simple poem it resolves itself into a final image ironic at a level seldom achieved.

In others it is felt as a child's empty room, the death of a father, of a town. When three remain in the bowl, it is even felt in "Jelly Beans":

Always there is some useless reminder
of better times, something absently picked up
and quietly laid back down.

It could almost go unnoticed among the cherished memories, the moments of here and now that come in profusion nevertheless, the innocent fun of poems about snowmen and blue ink.

Even in a poem as filled with life as "Fishing on Isabella Lake," and so much about the natural world this Duluth librarian loves, the undertow sets the tone:

The portage smelled like dust
and fish guts—a little altar on a stone,
a pile of viscera and heads, shining with prompt flies:
someone cleaned a few small walleyes.
                  Don't be sorry—they felt nothing.

By the end of the day, events have been so little magical, the undertow so persistent, that there's no way to rescue it by an optimistic cliché.

We take things; we leave things behind—
and the sum of all this is zero,
or rather, one more day.

Only the mild depression remains that blends together events and days, an experience as universally human as any.

But more often the poems of On Speaking Terms are homespun and pert, resilient and unaffected. They are laced with images drawn from the small details of our lives, and with playful metaphors, like the next to the last poem of the volume, "Leftovers":

After you have read all you possibly can
there may be a few lines left.
Please don't feel obligated!
They're cold by now
as conclusions often are.

It is a poem that ends even more lightheartedly than it begins:

And you: you're already going home,
leaving me with this mess,
wrinkled napkins, bones and crusts
and onions teased out of the salad.
If only I had a pig to fatten
on last words.

Throughout On Speaking Terms this kind of playful poem alternates with portraits of family members and incidental characters who have wandered in and out of Connie Wanek's rural life.

Where Wanek does not approach her mentor is in his ability to be surprisingly sophisticated, on occasion, within the limitations of the ALP poem. The topicality of her "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" is heavy handed. The attempt, in the poem "The Parting," to imitate the T'Ang parting poem, is stilted. There are few such attempts in On Speaking Terms and they generally come across as contrived. Hers is a thoroughly natural talent and does not thrive outside of its element.

The American Life in Poetry poem is every bit the definitive American poem its adherents believe it to be, even though most of them would deny that there is any such school or aesthetic or that they belonged to it. (But then that, too, is definitively American.) As such it can only reflect an abiding satisfaction with the world it inhabits while it also portrays the disappointments that are inevitable in life. It can only assume a continuity of the world which it celebrates, a rate and depth of change sufficiently limited that its world continues to bear a meaningful relationship to the world the poems evoke.

The poems of Connie Wanek's On Speaking Terms are exemplary: modest, imbued with a love of the small details of our daily lives, strong but sensitive. Their angst is proportionate. They are lyrical not with poetic feet but with the rhythm of our colloquial speech and concerns. They are, as the rule, a particular pleasure to read.

And they exhibit another trait, more important than all the rest, which has made Connie Wanek's manuscript at last stand out, from among the tens of thousands, for an editor of a distinguished press. They were read on a Thursday night, in Duluth, Minnesota, when Ted Kooser happened to be sitting in the audience.


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