Wednesday, June 19, 2024

When Our World Was Whole by Elizabeth Weir

Kelsay Books, American Fork, Utah, 2022, 87 pages, $20, paperback.


Elizabeth Weir’s second poetry collection, When Our World Was Whole, holds to a theme of connection—in subject matter, call and response relationships between poems, and prosodic devices within them. Divisions are not indicated in the table of contents, but there are three distinct, yet inter-related, sections. In the first (roughly half of the book), poems are connected by the frequent topic of family. A supportive mother tends to her daughter’s physical and emotional needs through influenza (“On string legs, … / Mother supporting my elbow, / I stepped through our French windows / into an English spring garden”); through doubts about remaining in nursing school (Mother and I sit on the garden step / as I tell of my new life as a student nurse / of bottom-warm bedpans, soiled sheets, / lifting and turning heavy patients, / learning to hold kidney dishes to catch / vomit and not to retch, myself—” and through emigrating from England to Minnesota. A less empathetic and more distant father adds a practical (“Vegetables, my dad swore, would see us / through the thin years, post war…”), yet quirky side to the family (“I was thirteen and falling out of love with my dad. / He was unlike other fathers, with his teakwood / cigarette holder and fresh rose buttonhole. / I worried what my friends would think / of his large ears and habit of humming….” A brother enters and slips away, both in this section and in life. An entire family with beauty marks and warts, connected by substance, makes its appearance, and then this one person comes along that changes life forever...

            The Fabric of Family

            I wouldn’t have called it burlap—

            not exactly. No. It was more

            common cotton, thin thread,

            A bit worn, but comfortable.


By chance, silk happened along.

            Charming, yes, a cocoon to love

            and new well-being but, oh,

            the effort to keep it pressed.


            If you are cotton, true to your core,

            can you ever do more than

            slip on filmy silk, assume

            your place with learned grace?

            The connection articulated in these poems is enacted by repetitious diction, musicality, and poem placement. For example, the opening poem, “Early in Nonsuch Park,” images whiteness in each of its two stanzas, and sets up the next two poems that include “Nonsuch” as well. The “fat white fingers” of “Awakening” echoes the whiteness of the first, and “Mum” in the third poem sets up the mother in the fourth poem, “A Distant Day in April” (“Mother feared that the coal man / might deliver us one sack short”) which connects with the fifth (the mother supporting the daughter’s elbow). The father introduced in this latter poem “puff[ing] his Players Navy Cut,” appears in the next poem (a Petrarchan Sonnet”) in the sestet, making the turn with

            I was thirteen and falling out of love with my dad.

            He was unlike other fathers, with his teakwood

            cigarette holder and fresh rose buttonhole.

            I worried what my friends would think

            of his large ears and habit of humming, but still

            I loved the sweetness in his mashed parsnips.

And so it goes, poem after poem, one poem introducing an image, a family member, a relationship, and the next poem embellishing or amplifying it, riffing on the idea of connection with concrete, specific images, actions, or characters. That enactment of abstract ideas with specificity is one of the strengths of this poetry collection, as evidenced in the penultimate poem in section I, “Improbable.” 

Improbable that I should pass by

at the moment

            a dragonfly alights on

            the wing of a dragonfly sculpture,

            a lone piece of art, planted

            in a Minnesota prairie.

            Improbably that I should be here,

            in distant Minnesota, with you,

            that you should have come, uninvited,

            to a Polish party in South Africa,

            that we should have met,

            you from Ireland, me from England.


            Improbable that I should happen to land

            on the apex of your cardiologist heart

            that long-ago night, that we are here,

            contented, far from our origins

            among summer prairies, sun-glanced

            wings, unlikely sculptures.


            The epigraph for section two points the reader toward the tension between male and female that has both propelled the species forward, and threatens to be its undoing. Patriarchy is like / the elephant in the room. / How can it not / affect life when it’s / the superstructure / of human society? —Ani DiFranco, songwriter and singer. A cursory reading of these poems can miss the connection between content and structure and how the forms of these poems support their individual messages and the interplay between them. “New Orleans Bronze” and “Apple Honored Eve,” for example, although ten pages apart, call and answer to one another both in ideation and structure.

In the opening ekphrastic poem, three stanzas with a decreasing number of lines (quintain, quatrain, tercet), paint the picture of a three-tiered statue of colonialist Jean Baptist le Moyne de Bienville, a priest, and a Chickasaw chief, “features finely cut, deep-set eyes down-cast, / his people’s peace pipe empty in his hand,” commemorating the founding of New Orleans. The descending number of lines enact the artificial hierarchy of state and religion lorded above a conquered people, now diminished in number and position. The message and form of this poem are contrasted with “Apple Honored Eve” exalting the tale of blaming the first woman for eating the forbidden fruit, when in fact that act “…gave us / the ability to analyze and deduce, / to grow in thought and to manage / the world for our species’ advantage.” The form chosen to contain this message is the reverse of the cascade of diminishing stanzas in “New Orleans Bronze”—these three stanzas increase their lines geometrically from four to six to fourteen, honoring women for their contribution of capacious growth for humanity.

Whether the poet was aware of this underlying structural message is unimportant—it exists as an inherent feature of the poems, and is emblematic of how structure supports message in several poems throughout this section and collection as a whole. The facing concrete poems of “Craft” (shaped as the bonsai in a shallow dish which is the subject of the poem) and the poem “It’s That Look” that reduces line-length over twelve lines from six words to one, forming a wedge or knife enacting the piercing look of a man that objectifies a woman—as well as the occasional “American” sonnet juxtaposed with Shakespearian sonnets, and the one left and right justified prose poem “Trespass” (although found in section three), which seems to enact humanity’s obtrusiveness into the natural order of things—all are examples of Weir’s inventiveness and craft that forward the messages of these significant poems, making them even more delightful to read.

            The final section broadens the theme of connection to the current state of brokenness of humanity’s way of organizing by means of domination the natural way of things. In the collection’s penultimate poem, “Earth Casts Its Shadow Across the Moon” (with the epigraph January 31, 2018, at 6:53 a.m.), the poet has carefully chosen each word and line in the best order to add to this dire message:

            Drowsy in dressing gown and boots, I idled along the driveway,

            Cody’s nose interpreting the happenings of the night.


            Lifting my gaze from the dog’s cheery tail, I chanced

            to glance westward and saw through dark branches


            a great orb, a bruised-looking eye, mottled

            in shades of purple and ruby, its lens a brilliant disc of light,


            focused downwards, as though studying its parent, seeing

            how Earth burns and suffocates in the smog of our needs,


            the moon, itself, trespassed by our ambitions,

            our planet home, burdened by our burgeoning demands.


            I shivered. The moon’s eye blinked shut.


In my typical way of wanting more connection with the reader for my own poems, I might rush to suggest to the poet to change the tense of this poem from past to present—since this state of burden upon the natural we have caused is far from in the past. However, there is a subtle message of hope that would be lost if Weir were to have followed my advice—a message of hope that is more fully developed in the title poem that follows it, a poem so organically connected, that it can be seen as additional stanzas to this same poem.

            When Our World Was Whole


            We near the refuge as skeins of moonlit mist lift

            and we hear the music of a thousand cranes

            roosting in the shallows of restored wetlands.

            Behind us, the sun crests the horizon, feathering

            white the needles of frost on reeds and grasses.


            No wind, just the constant calling, as though

            from distant beginnings in an Eocene dawn,

            when creatures lived in common symmetry

            before our coming. In a clamor of wild voices

            cranes rise into morning on slow wings.

If you enjoy Mary Oliver’s work, you may find this second collection by Elizabeth Weir even more compelling, as she spends a more appropriate amount of time on the human factor: familial and other relational groupings; humans found in tension with the natural world, but deserving of equal time, speaking to the false dichotomy between the two—the same mistake made by those who would subordinate women to men, subjugate one race over another, one calling over another. Weir has answered the “constant calling…from distant beginnings… / when creatures lived in common symmetry…” Hers is one of the “wild voices… / rising into morning on slow wings.” May we hasten her by heeding her warnings and answering the same call in accordance with our hearing.

Elizabeth Weir has two books of poetry, "When Our World Was Whole," and her first, "High on Table Mountain." The latter was nominated for the 2017 USA Midwest Book Award. She’s the recipient of four S.A.S.A. Jerome Awards and recent work has been published in The London Reader, Evening Street Review, Comstock Review, Agates, Talking Stick and North Meridian Review.