Evensong by Ingrid Wendt (Truman State University Press)
Ingrid Wendt’s new collection Evensong provides powerful and persuasive poems of dusk and fall. The cover art, Gray Jacobik’s pastel painting Evening Light in Snow, sets the scene for the collection. The painting is of woods at sunset, the bare tree trunks suffused with a reddish light that intensifies both their starkness and their beauty.
Wendt’s last book, Surgeonfish, projected the same combination of sadness and love, but emphasized the whole-earth perspective, ecology, our role in the natural world. This book is a little more centered on the individual human being and loss, although the work too presents humanity as part of nature rather than separate from it. The poems provide an idiosyncratic metaphysics. The world contains the holy; it is both in nature and in human relationships. Her perspective is painful and consoling at once.
The book is divided into three numbered sections of approximately equal length, and each section has a slightly different content. The first section is about mothers and daughters, sometimes focused on the speaker's own daughter who is now grown up, sometimes analyzing her own mother. The second section is more miscellaneous, containing poems both about nature and ideas, and also short narratives that illustrate some quirk of human nature. The third section focuses on the death of the speaker's mother. It contains mostly longer poems, which pull outside elements into the narrative of human loss. As it describes the relationship between an adult woman and her dying mother, it explores the meaning of this kind of love, this kind of connection. Wendt’s poems are mostly free verse but not exclusively so. When she does use traditional forms, she tends to use them in an open and flexible way, so these poems do not stand out from the others as being different. And her free verse explores the various possibilities of the form.
Many of the poems in the first section are about difficult love. The mother-daughter symbiosis is practically the definition of difficult love. The mother controls, the daughter rebels, and this is how it has always been. The irony is that later the daughter realizes that this apparent desire for control was really a form of love, and so is the rebellion even. “Armistice” begins with an epigraph from Tolstoy's War and Peace: "The strongest of all warriors are these two—time and patience." “Armistice” describes how the daughter carries on her half of the war, figuring out the nature of her mother's offenses or defenses and trying to work around them, all in military terms. The poem ends:
After your death
I say: I was that girl. You were that mother.
Now, the small unexpected bells of forgiveness.
ringing, ringing, calling me.
to attention: what made you
someone to love. All along. I loved you.
And was too busy practicing defense to see.
Few of the poems in the mother-daughter section are this direct. Most have a kind of expansive exploratory flow as they examine the difficulties and contradictions of mother love, seeing the relationship with daughter as mirror of that with mother. But the conflicted love always has a goodness to it; even our missteps and mistakes are part of it.
The second section contains images and ideas engendered by travel and by daily life, but it's really about communication. It begins with a quotation from William Stafford: "The signals we give—yes, or no, or maybe—should be clear: the darkness around us is deep." The section also contains some short vignettes, most of which involve communicated or failed messages. Always at the bottom of Wendt’s work is the question of what language itself is: its reliability, its translatability, its music. "To A German Painter Who Asked About Poetry's Open Forms" begins "You show me your rhythms I'll show you / mine...." Poetry is the shape of its speaker. The lines dwindle and open out as they explore the music of poetry: both ear music and eye music.
no computer command to interface.
daffodils trumpets angels and swordfish, but here
they are anyway: psalms of images each with its own refrain
the echo of room to room: layer of paint on paint, shapes of stellae, steeples
tombstones reaching into the past and the past repeating: mass
graves in our own and fractals of history shifting:
patterns, not in the motion itself but in
The measure between:
flotsam and jetsam loves leftovers: spaces in which the spirit sings
The opening suggests the expansiveness of form’s freedom, while the images give a sense of the limitlessness of thought as well as of music.
Another intriguing poem in this section is "Tree of Joy at The Super"—an anecdote about one of the requests for gifts on the annual charity tree that makes the reader wonder and smile, because the events undermine our expectations, and because in this case the yearning is shot through with humor.
The last section provides a lyric elegy for the poet's mother, and in fact for all of life. Some of its poems are long and created in parts, and they explore some of the central mysteries. Do they claim that poetry redeems? Perhaps not quite. In one epigraph, Theodore Roethke desires “to be delivered from the rational into the realm of pure song." The other is from Maria Mitchell, astronomer: "We reach forth and strain every nerve, but we seize only a bit of the curtain that hides the infinite from us." These are poems that keen in a minor key as they look at end of life issues and ask what relationships ultimately mean. Among the most moving of them is “Benediction,” which describes the speaker’s washing of her mother’s body just after she has died. The poem brings to mind Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Leichen-Wäsche”—though, perhaps more as contrast than as comparison; the German poem describes the washing of the body as a duty, and here it is a chosen benediction, an act of love.
And though you had no choice but in acquiescing to my love, I did not.
revel in my power, but slowly lifted, washed and patted dry each limb, in turn,
your crooked toes and in between the toes; your shoulders, breasts...
at the conclusion she is both with her mother and alone.
For hours, sunlight was the only thing that moved. And soon.
would be gone. And your hand in mine, still warm!
I stood to kiss your forehead. It was cold. But I had been.
in the presence of holiness. World without end. And was done.
Who gives, and who receives, this benediction? Holiness shadows the grief with light. These poems have religious imagery and religious titles, such as “Benediction” and “Sanctuary,” but the sacraments that they propose are centered in the human. Nevertheless, the yearning for continuance of some kind is movingly represented in these poems—belief seems to flutter in the margin. What is holy, and what endures? these poems ask. The answer is love, and art as its record. But how does love remain when generations love and pass away? Is there some way, some dimension in which no love—recorded or not—is lost? The poems suggest that there is.
Janet McCann is professor of English at Texas A&M University. Her poems have appeared in New York Quarterly, Southern Poetry Review, Poetry Australia, New Letters, and a number of other literary reviews or anthologies.