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Contemporary Poetry and Poetics

Review of Ingrid Wendt's Book of Poetry




Surgeonfish 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.

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.
    Surgeonfish 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, will eat
        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, blood balls...

    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:
                                   I’ve seen
        the way the skin of the skull is stretched
        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:

        Reader, what
        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 of names.
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 book. 
    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


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