Briny, Sharp, and Clear-Eyed
Last year was a banner year for books by Texas poets. The three titles in the final running for the Texas Institute of Letters award for poetry–Susan Wood’s Asunder, Betty Adcock’s Intervale, and R.S. Gwynn’s No Word of Farewell–were reportedly so close in quality that hardly even a knife blade could separate one from the others. It surely must have been a difficult decision for the judges, perhaps even a heartrending one, since but a single prize could be given. This, of course, is the unfortunate thing about such awards–they celebrate only one book when others deserve to be recognized and read just as much.
The 2002 Pulitzer Prize for poetry was awarded to Practical Gods by Carl Dennis, a book published, as is Wood’s, by Penguin Books. After reading the Dennis collection along with the volumes by the three finalists for the T.I.L. award, I’m sure that any of the three Texas contenders could have been picked for the Pulitzer, and in fact I prefer the three Texas books to Dennis’s. This may seem chauvinistic on my part, but I assert my preference on the grounds that the Texas books are more engaging as poetry, more penetrating in their thoughts and emotions, and more intimate on meaningful levels than Dennis’s rather exercise-like treatment of the mythological gods. If nothing else, the bumper crop of Texas books from 2001 demonstrates once again that Texas writers can compete nationally with the best, as attested by the fact that Susan Wood’s book won a national prize–selection for The National Poetry Series. Likewise, Betty Adcock’s Intervale has been named the “Outstanding Book of Poems Published in 2001” by the Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook.
Having already reviewed Adcock’s Intervale for Texas Books in Review (spring 2001) and R.G. Gwynn’s No Word of Farewell for The Texas Observer of August 8, 2001, I was surprised to learn before the T.I.L. award winner had actually been announced that neither the Adcock nor the Gwynn book had won. Although I knew Susan Wood’s work and had reviewed her previous collection, Camp Santo, for The Texas Observer of March 27, 1992, I was not aware that she had a new book out, even though I had seen a note in Poetry magazine identifying her as a winner in the National Poetry Series. I was not disappointed that this English professor at Rice University had beaten out Adcock and Gwynn, although I can fully appreciate qualities in the other two poets’ books that are not to be found in the Wood collection. Adcock’s nature imagery is evocative and moving in ways that neither of the other two poets can quite manage, while Gwynn’s handling of poetic form is magisterial. Yet Susan Wood has her own strengths that make her work as appealing as anything being published today. In the only rhymed poem that I have detected in her collection (entitled “Photograph, Circa 1870”), Wood has, like Gwynn, created an ingenious stanza form and handles it subtly and superbly. With regard to “Laundry,” the first poem in Wood’s new collection, I will admit to a certain bias in that this piece first appeared in my own 1999 anthology, Roundup. I should add that Gwynn and Adcock also are represented in that gathering of poetry by Texas poets from my quondam imprint, Prickly Pear Press.
Re-reading “Laundry” after a couple of years of not having looked at the poem, I was struck once more by the linguistic power of the poet’s diction. Wood plays with such words and phrases as “soiled,” “scale” (for weighing the sacks of clothes), “fondle,” “rinsed,” and “everything white” to work her way through motifs of guilt, “appraisal,” troubling memories, and a present sense of the precarious nature of relationships, arriving ultimately at a new respect for “the god of cleanliness.” This is not a mythological allusion, but just a realization that every washday is a type of offering to “the god of fresh starts.” As Wood frequently does in this new collection, she implies that everyone needs a chance to start over, to cleanse oneself of past mistakes, erroneous judgments, and deadening fears.
Much of Wood’s book is taken up with her facing up to her fears (in “de Kooning’s Women,” “Tenderness,” and “Balloons”), of a tendency to indulge in self-pity and suffering (in “The Venice Ghetto” and “Chekhov”), of being aware that she is perhaps morbidly drawn to sadness, loneliness, and loss (in “Loss,” “Quattrocento,” and “Last Resort”), and of lacking the courage to endure so much grief and the consciousness that one’s trust can be let down by those one believes in most (in “The Trick”). But ultimately Wood’s poems consistently register the fact that she, and others she admires, “still desire / to go on living,” which is “the human, / the remarkable thing” (in “Analysis of the Rose as Sentimental Despair”).
Some of Wood’s general claims may not ring true for all readers, as when she repeatedly uses such phrases as “we’re all, aren’t we, tricked in the end,” “lost the way / everyone is, or will be,” “Each of us wants what everyone wants.” But there is no denying that much of the power and appeal of her poetry derives from her ability to speak to the disillusionments and longings that probably every reader can share with her. Often she is talking about other writers and artists and their sufferings, struggles, and shortcomings (her depiction of Billie Holiday in “Strange Fruit” is a personal favorite), though always she comes back to herself at some point in the poem. Speaking of her friend and fellow poet William Matthews (“In Cortona, Thinking of Bill”), who died at age 55 in 1997, Wood observes that, like herself, he was afflicted by “a strain of terminal sadness. It could kill us all / in the end,” and that also like herself, he “had a nose for self-pity, especially your own,” just as she says of herself (in “Chekhov”) that she “sounded childish and self-pitying–laughable, really.”
In “Last Resort,” Wood speaks mostly of a stranded whale washed up apparently on the beach at Province-town where she had been staying for a time. But in this poem she also evokes the spirit of Anne Bradford, wife of the Puritan leader William Bradford, and her drowning herself from despair when the Mayflower was anchored offshore. The poet says bluntly that she knows “it’s courage I’m trying to find here.” She finds it primarily in the right whale, which she compares to “that vast ocean of loneliness, his own kind / dying out.” Her purpose in the poem, she writes, is “to understand / such sorrow, a great beached whale of sorrow / stranded in air.” Parts of the conclusion have to be quoted entire:
This is my grief. Not his. I know that. But what made him
trust them, those other mammals, made him swallow his need and his fear as if faith were his last resort? Made him open that secret cave of a mouth to her, one of his rescuers, and lie still as a passive lover while she reached deep inside the darkness to untangle the lines from the baleens.
. . . Maybe she knew then the world is lit from within. She saw
that she could never go back to the ordinary afternoon, with its mild, patient blue, its bland sadnesses and common self-pities, now that she had touched such otherness.
One of the remarkable features of Susan Wood’s poetry is to be found in the opening lines of each of her pieces. She immediately and very naturally leads us into the dilemma or question that she is confronting. For example, “Balloons” begins with these two-line stanzas, the form in which the poem is cast: “It was something I thought I’d never do, / be cut loose like that from all the ropes // of earth and float into the sky, but then / you told me not to be afraid and so // I followed you, one that I loved, my heart / in my throat, into the balloon’s small space.” Yet the best part is always still to come, as the poet maneuvers her way through so many associations between the particular object or subject and her discoveries (here) of the meaning of letting go, of trusting, of seeing life from a different, higher perspective. This is true for every poem in this fine book, which, like the volumes by Betty Adcock and R.S. Gwynn, has truly merited an award. Wood is especially deserving for her highly accessible style and her fearless delving into her innermost thoughts, including her confession about how she has “always chosen people who couldn’t love me, whom I couldn’t love. / About how much I’d hurt my children.” Wood, also like Adcock and Gwynn, deserves a wider readership than most Texas poets have been accorded, and one hopes Penguin’s publication of Asunder will assure that her work will indeed reach all those who need her “navigable sadness. Briny, sharp, but clear-eyed.”
Dave Oliphant is a poet and writer in Austin. His most recent book is The Early Swing Era, 1930 to 1941 (Greenwood Press).