Nevertheless by Wendy Videlock (Able Muse Press)
Speaking of the physicist Richard Feynman, biographers have distinguished between ordinary geniuses and magicians. An ordinary genius is a person more or less like us, just much better at what we are trying to do than we are. But magicians, they are another story. Even after someone explains to us what magicians have achieved, we still cannot imagine the process whereby they have achieved it.
So it is with Wendy Videlock. It is possible to identify the features of a Videlock poem. Just as one can walk into a room in an art gallery, see a painting for the first time and immediately recognize it as a Van Gogh or a Cezanne, one immediately knows when one is reading Videlock. The elements out of which she creates her poems are so fundamental, one feels one ought to be able to construct an algorithm that would make it possible to generate endless varieties of Videlock poems. But it isn’t.
Videlock usually works in short lines. Her images suggest a Western landscape and yet they are also oddly abstract or surreal. Her protean yet familiar voice is wry, whimsical, self-effacing and wise. In her “Foreword” to Nevertheless, A.E. Stallings notes that she hears in Videlock’s verse the echoes of a roomful of poets, and Stallings warns reviewers away from blithe comparisons, based on short lines, internal rhymes and slant rhymes, to Emily Dickinson and Kay Ryan. Those features in Videlock’s poems also call to mind Timothy Murphy and Stallings herself, the only two contemporary poets I can think of who could go toe-to-toe with Videlock for slanted virtuosity. But I find Videlock’s voice and imagery most reminiscent of Joni Mitchell songs from albums like Hejira and Hissing of Summer Lawns (“Who,” “My Moses,” “Myths of Innocence,” “Moving Moons”). When she wants to, she can also channel the Bob Dylan of Blonde on Blonde (“Snag,” “North of Mist”).
In “A Tribute,” dedicated to Alan Sullivan, Videlock, likely intending nothing more than to urge herself on, reveals the reasons that we mere epigones have no chance to transform the base materials of language into gold as she does. Sullivan was a poet and translator, and he reigned ferociously over the advanced formal poetry forum, “The Deep End” on Eratosphere, an online poetry workshop. Someone with Sullivan’s merciless editorial acumen can fix the mechanics of a poem that are out of alignment,
but the dark spark
and the clear bead
at the center of all
and tirelessly up to you.
The admixture of darkness and clarity is somehow just right in Videlock, and her tirelessness in simultaneously exploring internal and external worlds is evident in each page of this long overdue first book of poems.
How to do things with words
Nevertheless opens with “Of Coverings,” a list poem in which each word gets its own line and thus far more semantic weight than it might otherwise bear. The list includes words like “pods” and “wool” that are easy to think of as coverings and other words, like “phantoms” and “paws,” that stretch the concept. The first eight words take us from “[c]rystals” to “gods”; the second eight from “talons” to “gauze,” and invite us to fill in the blank space of the page. As is often the case with Videlock’s technique, it seems a simple trick, but the mastery resides in the precision of the word choice and the way in which, as Videlock puts it in a poem about form (“Enjambed”), meter, rhyme and sense conspire to ordain word choice. The sixteen words in “Of Coverings” are like the chords that determine the course of a musical improvisation. Videlock’s poem establishes a realm in which immense freedom of interpretation can reign, but the outer boundary of that freedom is structured by Videlock’s guiding hand.
Videlock repeats the performance (with variation) in “Charge,” a 24-word and 24-line poem that proceeds from “[w]onder” to “master.” Again, one feels one could write iambic pentameter lines to surround Videlock’s verbs, but there is no need to. There is enough emplotment in these 24 words to fill a Bildungsroman. But not just any Bildungsroman, because Videlock’s singular whimsy colors the story through verbs like “stew” and “blather.” The poem also highlights Videlock’s perfect pitch in the sound combinations she produces. The poem is rich in consonant clusters that interact with one another in pleasing ways without, for the most part, exactly rhyming. In addition to its stark clarity and sonic beauty, the poem is a miniature essay on form. Its 24 words are mostly presented in four-line stanzas, but two stanzas have only three lines, one has five, and the final word stands alone. It would be a different poem if she had broken up her stanzas differently, but Videlock’s choices all feel justified.
At the heart of Videlock’s technique is her ability to make familiar words resonate with others to create new clusters of semantic possibility. Literary theory tells us that when one contrasts black and white, one is really only saying one thing. But what if the binary pair is not an obvious opposition but a pair of words that are not ordinarily associated with one another or are only associated with one another in certain contexts and then not as an opposition? Videlock’s “October Ode” consists of little more than a list of the line-blurrings that Videlock attributes to October. She begins with familiar pairings—holy and ghost, the intimate and the remote—but concludes with two striking oppositions: the parachute and the riverboat; the omen and the grace note. Similarly in “Mercury,” she posits an opposition between “fastidious” and “delicate.” In “Comfort and Oy,” we have "love and treason, / schlock and meaning." When Videlock brings together concepts as if they are an opposition while pointing out how a word can elide into its opposite, she enables her reader to imagine words, relationships, and thus the world of thought and things in new ways.
Another technique that she employs with great effect is the fractured stock phrase. She takes a familiar phrase, alters one word and comes up with a new phrase that resonates with the meaning of the old. As with her strained oppositions, the technique opens up what has become a cliché to a palette of meanings. We have, for example, her ambivalent “Comfort and Oy,” a Christmas poem for the hopeful and jaded. In “Myths of Remembrance,” the "starving spirits . . . clean their slates." Above all, Videlock credits the intelligence of her reader and trusts us to do the work and tease out the possible meanings of her verse.
Sic transit gloria mundi
Nevertheless contains poems of consolation without any traditional poems of loss or nostalgia. There are no elegies, and when romantic break-ups are the subject matter of the poems, they are never rueful. Break-ups provide occasion for Videlock, the poet who writes for those "who’ve settled near the river, / having failed to walk on water" (“I dedicate these words”), to explore her themes of imperfection and impermanence.
In “When Prufrock Takes a Formal Lover,” a poem about unrequited love, the lovers move on, and generate "one hundred sonnets for a sideways kiss." Love is briefly realized in “With Large Dark Eyes” and reveals its power to make us conscious of our own vitality, but in "the crooked light / of time, we no longer can remember what love knows when it is new." Videlock offers wise counsel for every disappointed lover who wonders if love’s failing is a personal one:
This is the best that it can do.
Love and eroticism appear in unexpected places in Videlock’s poetry. In “About Certainty,” a seemingly abstract reflection on the significance of letters suddenly turns into a meditation on love and absence (or perhaps death):
a breath away
from the fervent curve,
from the i and the u
is the certain fear
of a kind of dark:
the abrupt chagrin,
the erasure mark.
Anyone teaching poetry and struggling to persuade students that poems can achieve a climax should have a look at “The Various Ways Oh My Can Be Said.” Videlock’s “There’s Nothing More,” a very successful riff on William Carlos Williams’s “This Is Just to Say,” finds eroticism in a plum “slumbered” in the palm of the “right man.” “Snag” seems to be an experiment in '60s diction and surrealism until we come to the final line and discover that the poem’s stream of imagery is triggered by a break-up. Videlock can be jokey and coy about sex, but she can also be earthy and direct, as in “What Humans Do,” a hilarious list of the manners, moods, techniques, and modalities of human copulation, which like her Oh My poem, climaxes asymptotically towards transcendence.
Videlock’s poems come to terms with finitude, with incompleteness. Videlock eloquently explores the tension between the marvels and limitations of interiority in “Moving Moons,” in which the speaker contemplates "all the mysteries of the world" and finds herself in Faust’s position in his first scene: "I knew nothing more / than on the day that I was born." But I do not read her concluding comment—"who knew that it could feel like this"—as despairing. The poet confronts the greatest of all fears and, like Goethe’s Faust, enjoys redemption, although through very different means.
Videlock is torn between her ability to value lived experience and the recognition that experience is fleeting and will not be recaptured. It is for this reason that autumn, a time of waning light and expectation, is her favored season. In “September,” she acknowledges that as the month when
burst into bloom.
She repeatedly writes of the fading of summer’s greens and the primal hunkering down through the greys of winter. There is “Domestic Poem in Autumn,” in which she links the season to a bodily surrender, as if to hibernation, that necessitates human communion for warmth and companionship. “Mantis” is also set in the time of the year when "summer / is being swallowed, bit by bright / green bit," and “The Time of Just Before,” which is set somewhat later in the season, again associates winter with exhaustion, sleep and “reams and reams of dreams.”
“The Nature of This” is also set at summer’s end, and here again Videlock offers consolation for life’s limitations. Having noted that we have not bested fear and that "in spite of love we die alone," Videlock concludes:
It is enough to fall in love.
To fall in love and watch the world unfold.
The final poem in Nevertheless, “Winter Cracked Open,” reminds us that despite seasonal losses the world will unfold anew. Autumn is followed by winter, which for Videlock shelters the "murmurings / of these things / on subtler wings" (“Poem for Yeats”).
Videlock looks to nature and especially to the moon as a source of stability and solace in a world irrevocably committed to change. Her poems constantly flirt with but then depart from the pathetic fallacy. The title poem “Nevertheless” describes the speaker coming upon some random natural phenomena—a speckled egg, a swarm of gnats, an army of ants—and in the midst of this ordinariness, "Something in me collapsed." Similarly, despite the hair-trigger emotions of the speaker in “Snag,” the sky remains "un-intense. Just blue." Although nature does not mirror the emotionality of Videlock’s “I,” it is not uninvolved. It is a vital, benign and watchful presence, and that presence gives comfort, even if it cannot register the emotions over which it stands watch.
Videlock is a painstaking observer of nature, and in some of her poems, she manages to emulate the role of nature as passive observer. This enables her to be a poet in whom a hawk with yellow eyes and busted wing (“Hawk”) and a praying mantis (“Mantis”) can silently confide. In “The Owl” she neutrally describes a predator, whose nest sits atop the remnants of her kills which
the owl devours
Videlock’s poetry achieves a philosophical and spiritual depth that, because of the warmth and intimacy of her voice, bears not a trace of pretension. Her great gifts as a “brooder” are coupled with an extraordinary ear and a disciplined prosody that makes her poems as aesthetically satisfying as they are intellectually demanding.
Reserve and judgment
In some of her poems about people and relationships, Videlock manages to observe without judging much as she does when contemplating natural phenomena. It is no mean trick to reconcile oneself to the universe’s indifference. It is far more difficult still to regard humankind without an axe to grind. Videlock’s “The Idle” is a four-line poem worthy of Wendy Cope:
He watches ball.
She throws a fit.
She cannot stand
to see him sit.
But if Wendy Cope had written the poem, the perspective would have been that of the woman. Videlock simply sets out the facts of the case. She judges neither the conduct of the man—after all, the poem is called “The Idle,” not “The Idler”—nor the intolerance of the woman.
Perhaps the key to Videlock’s ability to relate to nature and to human nature in the same way can be found in “On Promiscuity,” in which the speaker lists the various deities to which she has been attached. She concludes:
I have slept with the gods.
With the goddess.
I have never belonged
to any of them.
The ambivalence of "Alas" is telling.
In two poems about the experience of being a parent, Videlock provides additional motivations for the reservation of judgment. “From a Great Height” first describes a daughter’s lofty view of her mother and then contemplates how disorienting it will be for both of them when the illusion of parental perfection and omniscience evaporates. “Disarmed” is written from the perspective of a mother who comes upon a child’s room in disarray. Out of the chaos, Videlock is able to re-create a narrative of the child’s imaginative play, and thus the mother overlooks evidence of petty theft. She cannot leave "uncharmed by this / your secret world, your happy mess."
But Videlock is intolerant of political posturing. As she puts it in “A Poor Excuse,” "the strident merely weary me." She has as little use for bigots as for "those who / relish the word" (“Is the bigot”). She is suspicious that those "who talk a streak / on world affairs / and love and peace . . . / seem to love / and peace the least" (“A Word on Verbs”). Her poem “Change” begins by noting that "Change is the new, / improved / word for god, . . ." and concludes, "Please god, / we seem to say, / change us." Since this poem appeared at the tail end of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, it seems likely that Videlock was voicing her suspicion of election sloganeering, but here her treatment of politics is more generous. She recognizes the depth of human yearning for fundamental change, but she knows that such change occurs in the realm of nature, not politics. Videlock’s poetry mostly associates change with cycles; otherwise, change entails evanescence.
Nevertheless is an invitation to imagine the world as described in a fresh vocabulary consisting entirely of familiar words from which new meanings are carefully wrung. Videlock writes with the urgency of personal experience, but her perspectives also encompass her readers’ experience. Her dedicatory poem (“I dedicate these words”) describes a poetic project to give voice to a set of life experiences and to merge the poet’s being with that of her intended audience. Readers should welcome her. Videlock is very good company.
D.A. Jeremy Telman is a professor of law at the Valparaiso University Law School and the editor of the ContractsProf Blog, to which he contributes, among other things, legal limericks. His collection of limericks summarizing cases covered in first-year contracts courses appeared in Volume 61 of the Journal of Legal Education (2011).