Thursday, December 31, 2020

Jeanne Wagner: Everything Turns Into Something Else

 Everything Turns Into Something Else, Jeanne Wagner, Grayson Books, West Hartford, CT, 72 pages, $15.95 paperback,

Although the poems in Wagner's seventh poetry collection do fulfill its title's promise of wrestling with transformation, they are so much more. In a voice with tones both clear and mysterious, Wagner gives us lyrical narratives of longing, disappointment, and fulfillment. Her proem is emblematic of this diversity.

Dog's That Look Like Wolves

When my dog hears the neighbor's baby cry, he begins
to howl, his head thrown back. He's all heartbreak and
hollow throat, tenderness rising in each ululation. He's
a saxophone of sadness, a shepherd calling for his stray.
I've read that baying is both a sign of territory and
a reaching out for whatever lies beyond: home and loss,
how can they be understood without each other?
Once I had an outdoor dog who sang every day at noon
when the Angelus belled from the corner church.
She was a plain dog but I could prove, contrary to all
the theologians, that at least once a day she had a soul.
I've always loved dogs that look like wolves, loved
stories of wolves: the alphas, the bullies, the bachelors.
We have to forgive them when they break into our
fenced-off pastures, lured by the lull of a grazing herd,
or a complacent flock, heads bent down. Prey, it's called.
At night wolves chorus into the trackless air, the range
of their song riding far from their bodies till they think
the stars will hear it and be moved, almost to breaking,
while my poor dog stands alone on the deck, howling
into the canyon's breadth, as if he's like me, looking
for a place where his song will carry. Dogs know,
if there is solace to be had, their voice will find it.
This air is made for lamentation.

Similar dark notes are sounded throughout all three sections, unifying the collection as one long cry into the night sky. In "Stomping on the Threshold," the two-page title prose poem to section I, we glimpse:

     ...late autumn now; the gathering darkness feels expectant, like the voyeuristic 
     excitement of sitting in a theater as the lights go dim.

With an epigraph acknowledging Larry Levis's "Childhood Ideogram"--"It's the past tense that turns a sentence dark," Wagner opens her poem, "Turning a Sentence Dark," with

     It's the action words that darken first.
     Tense we say,
     savoring the tension as a single synapse
     feels its neurons lunge
     then recoil,
     recording in a binary code of joy or pain.

And in "The Ocularist Talks About His Craft," Wagner has chosen to write about the making of artificial eyes, a veiled ars poetica that encapsulates the mimetic task of poetry:

                                                          ...I know I make
     a simulacrum, not a window of the soul,

     but I keep trying to get it right. For the final touch,
     I'll draw red veins the width of a whisker,

     like a forger adding crackle lines to his copy
     of an old master's work.

But Wagner does get the poetry right. And if there is a flaw in the book, it is a reflection of poetry's own limitation, it's own attempt to say the unsayable, the longing and striving permeating tight, musical diction:

We Were Sirens

Like all hybrids, we were liminal; we were
child-women, bird-women, nobody's daughters.
We were birds of prey, we prayed to be beautiful,
we believed in seduction as a victimless crime.
We hung out on beaches and boardwalks, on
piers and sidewalks, on porch-swings and perch
swings. We milled through the parks, the malls.
At home we wrapped our new bodies in fables,
in pious cages of silk, in soft libidinous songs.
In spring we envied the swallows who whirled
like lariats over freshly sown fields. In summer
we dreamed of sailors, of sinners; we listened
for the sound of speedboats skimming the bay,
our ears tuned to the thrum of escape. We
were bird-made, were bridesmaids, we dived
down so fast our hearts became weightless,
our throats made shrieks like Stukas splitting
the air. Some heard this as a warning, some
as a wail. Still, others knew it was song.

Other poems in this collection where I find need and desire and longing turned into memorable imagery include "Everything Turns Into Something Else" ("Because soup needs the savor of cabbage, / the way we need the raw, / the heady, a bit of gaminess to sharpen / our lives."); "After Losing Her" ("Lately, he finds himself looking for seams, soft clefts / where an embryo's mirrored sides weren't sealed. // He scans the palates of orphans in magazines, / the silent palaver of their tongues, their unhealed // mouths laid open like a flower."); and "Voyeurs" ("I step out on the deck, see my dog's rapt stare, his tail pointer-stiff-- / a pose that's almost reverence.").

Just before the final section of the book, I sense a shift toward action driven by the feelings of earlier poems. In "Defense of Goldilocks," the penultimate poem of Section II, we are told in the final line that "...all life can be seen as one great cycle of breaking and entering." 

Although the following lines stand in stark contrast to previous lines in their content, their tone is still one of wonder: "Remember how they set the marginalia on fire: / blades singed // from their slender stalks, nights with the smell / of cane burning in the fields, // mornings of stubble. The dead odors of smoke / and stillness filling the air" (from "Controlled Burning); "Years later, I need rain, need cool water to ' stay in touch with my skin. Need waves // to hug my flesh till it's raw, swimming / to slake my body's hunger for buoyancy, // its lechery for salt" (from "Scalded"); and from "Walls:" "Walls can't stop night-blooming jasmine / from breaking and entering..."

So successful is Wagner in utilizing memory to hold both lamentation and celebration, we are likely to forget they are separate.  Examples can be found in "The Perseids": "...I listened to my mother / scream in her sleep, / as if darkness were a cage. / Glad now we slept too far away to hear, / glad these nights were braver, / stars transgressing, a sickle moon, bird asleep in the trees," or from the following passage in "The Understory"--"...the name / for the sheltered greenery that flourishes / on the floor of a jungle or forest, / like the place where she was standing / under the redwoods, / tending the maidenhair and baby tears, / the kind of growth / that thrives in filtered light, fed by rain and / strained through branch and limb / till it's as thin and shadowy-blue as breast milk." 

The final poem contains the fullness of poetry's "upper canopy," its understory, and all things in-between:

The Vanishing Point

Even this tree outside my window
feels complete,
as if each branch in its fractal halving
is paying homage to the past,
like the dwarf in the Velazquez painting,
Las Meninas,
who stands at only half our height,
dressed in the soft luster of silver and black
ruffled satin.
She spreads her arms expansively
as if she's too irreverent to curtsy.
Her size alone deferential,
like a memory, resilient in its diminution,
and with that same stubbornness--
because tonight, like every night, I'm thinking,
what if you could come back
to me again,
framed by door light,
like those times you were about to leave
but then turned back,
because you'd thought of one more thing to say.
You, who were my single vanishing point,
like the courtier in the painting
who stands in the doorway holding the curtain
open--or closing it--
and there's so much light behind him,
beckoning to me, the way
it beckons only to Valazquez and to the dwarf,
Maria Barbola,
though they both have their back to it,
and the room is full of people.

In Everything Turns Into Something Else each line and each poem is followed by one that we couldn't have predicted, but after reading it, could not have been anything else.

Jeanne Wagner is a native of San Francisco. A retired tax accountant, she graduated from University of California, Berkeley with a degree in German and has an M.A. in Humanities from San Francisco State University. She is the author of four chapbooks and two full-length collections: The Zen Piano-Mover from NFSPS Press, 2004 winner of the Stevens Manuscript Award, and In the Body of Our Lives, Sixteen Rivers Press 2010. She is the recipient of several awards, including the Inkwell Prize, The Saranac Review Prize, The Thomas Merton Poetry of the Spiritual Award, Arts & Letters Rumi Prize, and Sow's Ear awards for both an individual poem and a chapbook. Her work has appeared in Alaska Review, Cincinnati Review, Hayden's Ferry, Shenandoah, Verse Daily, Poetry Daily and American Life in Poetry.