is beautiful and sad: beautiful
because the poems describe
and evocatively the natural
world, and sad
because so much of beauty
must be destroyed.
Each new poetry collection by Ingrid
Wendt is a new direction, a new experience. Her last book, The Angle of Sharpest Ascending,
examined the meaning of heritage in determining both identity and
destiny. This new book describes the relationship between
individual will and social justice, and asks what could create a fairer
world. These poems raise awareness of the hunter-prey
relationships throughout the human and the natural world, and explore
the ironies inherent in them. Often the poems catch encounters
with nature that are breathtaking and terrifying.
is beautiful and sad: beautiful because the poems describe precisely
and evocatively the natural world, and sad because so much of beauty
must be destroyed. Many of these are travel poems — located in
Italy, Utah, Norway, and elsewhere — but they haven’t the “distance” of
most travel poems, in which the speaker’s perspective always
presupposes her or his own national identity. Here the traveler
acquires characteristics of the places she moves through, she does not
merely observe. As Wendt’s poems nearly always are, these are
records of a quest — a quest for wholeness and peace in the traveler
and in the world.
The book is filled with animals and birds: bears,
porcupine, herons, egrets, geese, pheasants, bears, rattlesnakes,
pigeons, owls. The animals are the sentience of the earth, and
their place is uncertain, always challenged. The reality is that they
must destroy other life to survive. “A Question of Grace” links
meditations and narrative loops centered on varied experiences of
eating — the fact that everything we eat, even the plants, deprives
something of life.
Some of my friends, of course,
only that which is brainless,
which never had
even the slightest song of its
own. To whom
but the Norwegians can I confess
not only have
I eaten reindeer stew, salami,
But it destroys life to eat vegetables, too – she
speaks of the experiment which measured the cry of a tree being cut
down, and the echoing cry of the rest of the grove. Even the
inanimate may have a kind of consciousness.
She speaks about how cultures that respect nature
may consume it but do not waste it:
the way the skin of the skull is
on birch-twig frames just the
right size for boots;
and sinew turns into thread,
antlers, to buckles...
She weaves back and forth from the necessity of
killing to eat and her mother’s grace before meals; consumption must be
hallowed, the sacrifice marked with words:
day do we not trade
at least one voice for our own?
and with what words
do we place our feet?
Grace is the words spoken before meals but also a
ritualized acknowledgment of our role as eaters. The poem seems
to suggest that we need to be in a state of grace with nature. We
cannot, of course, stop consuming, but we can be aware of our place in
nature and offer our words of gratitude and honor.
Indeed, Wendt’s work has a transcendent sorrow that
makes it an elegy for sentience. The tiny sparks of life that are
individual beings are mourned and celebrated in this book. To name
something or someone is a sacred act, a way of commemorating.
Thus, naming the towns and cities of Italy becomes a way of fusing past
and present and giving homage to the spirit of place. Some
notable poems begin or end with the sound of names or with some
reference to naming, the one appropriation that is not destructive, but
which can be seen as enhancement. The appreciation of nature in this
book is balanced by a pleasure in language, in languages, in the sound
But the transcendence also points toward joy. There is
delight, even bliss, in natural beauty and in human connections,
in discovery, in articulating that discovery. The delights
of travel, nature, speech go together to give these poems
movement and incandescence.
The book as a whole is an attractive package.
The painting by Nils-Aslak Valkeapaa, representing a kind of cosmic
wholeness, makes an appealing cover. The four-part arrangement of
the poems paces the reading nicely. The notes at the end are
useful for locating places like Finnmark that aren’t familiar to most
readers – and they don’t go too far; they do not “explain” poems but
only add a few words to locate them in the odyssey that is this
Form adds frame to sense in these poems, a few of
which are rhymed and rhythmed, but freely, almost unnoticeably.
In the others she uses sound — echoes, falling rhythms, foreign words,
occasionally repetitions. But her characteristic style is a
pouring narrative, one line rhetorically cascading into the next as the
reader waits in suspense for the concluding insight or reflection.
The title poem is exciting. A surgeonfish is a
bright-colored tropical marine fish, startlingly beautiful, having
sharp erectile spines near the base of the tail. It is thus
attractive and dangerous. The surgeonfish is the hero of a
prize-winning story by a grade-school friend of the speaker; he is a
yong socially committed child who has made his surgeonfish good — he
saves the reef from the shark without fighting, although of course he
is equipped to fight.. The speaker tells the writer of her
experience with real surgeonfish, swimming in their area, after a real
war. She remembers the rest of her experience, the history she
was caught up in the Gulf of Suez. The poem seems to suggest at
the end that both idealism and natural beauty are redemptive.
The book has an unobtrusive politics of wholeness
and tolerance. These are poems about what is holy: nature,
language, human connections. They narrate a search throughout
time and place for what Wallace Stevens identified as “what will
suffice” — a search that Wendt sees as the writer’s calling and duty,
and that has no end.
Wendt, Ingrid. Surgeonfish.
Cincinnati, OH: Word Press, 2005. ISBN: 193345606X $17.00
© by Janet McCann