Kim Lockwood reviews
To Build My Shadow A Fire, The Poetry and Translations of David Wevill, ed., Michael McGriff (
Press, 2010) Truman State University
by David Wevill
To Build My Shadow A Fire should position Wevill as a cornerstone of the poetic canon. This is no mean feat, as many of his contemporaries – Atwood, Larkin, Heaney, Hughes, Lowell and Plath – are part of a mainstream cultural consciousness: they’re poets who people who know nothing about poetry, know about. That Wevill doesn’t already lead this list is staggering. His work has won numerous awards, and spans forty-five years and several continents, drawing from his birth in
his youth in Canada,
emigration from North America to England and subsequent return. In
terms of willingness and ability to address social and personal identity, it’s
difficult to think of a poet better deserving of mainstream attention.
McGriff’s selection highlights the thematic preoccupations with individuality and language which endure throughout Wevill’s career. It’s a wide-ranging and ambitious selection, which makes it clear that Wevill doesn’t need to become a ‘name’: Wevill’s work should appeal primarily to people who do know poetry, who understand the constant refinement required to produce work that remains accessible and relevant, fifty years after it was first written. To Build My Shadow A Fire reveals Wevill’s stylistic devices, showcases his development and shifting poetic focus, and highlights his continued ambition and experimentation.
Wevill’s early poems are in love with language. McGriff’s opening gambit, ‘The Two-Colored Eagle’, is wracked with consonance: soft ‘b’s pepper the verses, (‘Her back is against the south,/Her brackish beak is raised’); the opening line wrings its paired ‘w’s (‘The last days wrenched her inward completely’) for all their worth. Adjectives are stacked in Jenga towers, almost giving way to the indulgence of sound over necessity in ‘the perfect dead breathless quiet’ and ‘the blind deep drumming of barges’. ‘Puddles’ similarly overflows with linguistic quirks. Most notable are the coupled contractions, which prove tricky to get your mouth around: ‘This deep puddle’d split, diminish, and with a gulp/Involve me, so my lancing fury’d break its bottom’. Alongside the overt cleverness of the alliterative ‘Clean as a cupcrack’, this display of linguistic flair initially seems slightly bizarre in contrast to the sombre fear of loss articulated at the poem’s close:
Out, the weight of water, slimy tension of skin,
Might rise to collect me, much later,
And suddenly, when I’m feverish or weak.
But Wevill’s firecracker flourishes reveal their own façade: language’s sounds are bravado, brazenly hiding the fear of being unable to control or order the surrounding world which frequently paralyses the speaker.
By his third collection, A Christ of the Ice-Floes, these creeping fears have caught up to Wevill’s speaker. The titular poem and ‘Wherever Men Have Been’ form the culmination of Wevill’s meticulous revelation of language masking, rather than illuminating, external reality. These poems exist in the liminal space: what is unsaid and left unwritten becomes more glaring than what can be wrangled onto the page. Dashes jab at the end of lines, ellipses rise and fall in the centre of verses; the previous assuredness of Wevill’s tone falters as the poems leave space for images to move outside language: mallards swim ‘away downstream…’; water is ‘Swaying, rising…’. These poems demonstrate one of the defining qualities of Wevill’s appeal: his poems are leaping off points, the reader dared to plunge into the space beyond the explicit.
This crisis of faith in language coincides with an ‘I’ appearing in the book for the first time. Stripped of the illusion of language as transformative (or even as a reliable crutch), the ‘I’ is necessarily passive, ‘lit from behind’, walking ‘where the axis spins’, unable to keep its ‘footing in the whirl’. This ‘I’ remains engaged with the external throughout To Build My Shadow A Fire, entertaining masks as it searches for a temporally and geographically grounded identity which exists outside of language. Wevill’s poems frequently pose simple questions – ‘Where are the words?’, ‘And you, what can I tell you?’ – without offering any answers. When words do appear, they haunt: ‘Words spoken at dusk/still echo’, and hearing a retold reality is unbearable, as ‘Memorial II’ reveals:
Now I do not want to touch
the real body and the real grass
see the real trees
your voice will begin to describe
the leaves, the ladybugs
roots as they are
Yet, Wevill’s speaker is trapped: without language, ‘life//is another form of time/without substance, breathing’. While the more playful adoration of language’s neat tricks has faded, the deeper focus on the frustrations and limitations of the tools of his craft seem to celebrate the essential nature of language, for all its faults and flaws. McGriff’s Firebreak selection closes with the wish for simpler, purer language, more honest in its intentions: ‘I could talk like that//spare word that needs no mirror/that does not dance for itself’.
The pieces from Where the Arrow Falls is the collection’s first stumbling block, for the simple reason of logistics: ‘Part One’ offers excerpts from an untitled poetic sequence. Just as listening to The Beatles’ ‘1’ isn’t the same as firing up ‘Revolver’, the necessary fractioning of the sequence makes it less cohesive and accessible than the selections that surround it. That said, ‘Part One’ draws together the imagery hinted at in Wevill’s earlier works and thrusts it into the limelight. Masked Navajo and Cheyenne vie against the elements as time alters (and yet doesn’t alter) the landscape; snakes rot ‘broken’ S’s ‘in the stony dust’ while the speaker launches more overt attempts to locate themselves spiritually, temporally and geographically in relation to the ‘venom/in memories…’ and the blood-soaked ‘stones/of dry Texas’. In contrast, ‘Part Two’ strips these associative masks back, leaving the poems rawer, appearing structurally more vulnerable:
the weather and
our nerves make love, we
tear like webs
burn in the late day sun
There is an endearing simplicity in ‘Part Two’. The poems are grammatically sparse, grow slowly in line and stanza length, and speak with a conversational wonder and frankness which, after the loftiness and declarations of ‘Part One’, is refreshing. Nakedness creeps through the poems: ‘Quiet as stones, but/unable to weather as stones//our skins/are in love’; ‘we wear clothes/for the trees and birds/not for each other’. ‘Part Two’ unfolds like a slow exorcism, culminating in ‘12’s wild, unconscious circus of freaks and Fools, and the relief that desire can be transformative, ‘as even the stones fitted to one another’.
‘Part Two’s sense of openness echoes in the sonnets Wevill returns to throughout his career. He is at his most direct when toying with the weight of tradition, using his contemporary, deconstructed sonnets to play with ‘the search for a form/that doesn’t exist’. In ‘Spain’, bitter, fractured narratives are cinematically cross-cut, the seven couplets switching focus between quiet oak trees and ‘an abandoned police barracks’, while railing against the speaker’s unnamed ‘you’:
earned the silence you wanted
You held your sex
like a bouquet of lilies, close to your face.
You gave yourself away at noon like a bride.
This fracturing of a form which inheres completion continues in ‘Shallots’ (‘When she spoke/the little shell-like syllables fell apart’) and ‘Late Sonnet V’s declaration that ‘Virtually nothing is whole’. The sonnets are poems of voices, of ‘Walt Whitman’s voice crying out’ and ‘imagined […] voices singing’, until even silence itself is entertained as ‘a way of speaking’. The speaker’s own voice is at its most brutally frank in the sonnets. ‘Namelessness’ opens with the simple, explicit:
I don’t know who the “you” is any more
when the word writes itself instead of a name
Wevill’s at his best when he’s at his most frill-free. Many of the masks he dons, often openly discussed as guises, shadows, not-selves, are undoubtedly well-constructed, but feel like obstacles that get in the way of the more effortless and unflinchingly ‘honest’ tone Wevill is so capable of.
Wevill’s confessional side dresses up for its audience again in his prose poetry. To put it simply, these poems are cooler than his other work. The mock insouciance and open pain of the collection’s title, Casual Ties, gives good indication of what lies ahead. The dense paragraphs come at the reader with a fractured bravado, a battered Dirty Harry shouldering too many troubles and using cigarettes and nonchalance to stop any of them cutting loose. ‘The Big List’ showcases Wevill’s wittier side, (‘The other day a scrap of paper crawled in my direction, wanting an immediate answer […] Scrap of paper, I said, get fucked’); ‘Birthday’ offers film noir via Baudrillard, (‘The gun might be empty, like the two notebooks. Or it might be loaded, like the two books, one of which I wrote myself’); ‘Talking’ has a self-defining fugitive logic, (‘driving beyond the sound of my own name’). When this directness wanes in the face of increasing panic and finally retreats into the familiar territory of literary myth (‘Such is art, Orpheus – what was your secret?’), you can’t help feeling a little sad that there aren’t more glimpses of this persona throughout the book.
McGriff closes To Build My Shadow A Fire with a selection of Wevill’s translations. These focus largely on Ferenc Juhász, the award-winning Hungarian poet translated by Wevill for the Penguin Modern European Poets Series. Wevill’s own introduction to Juhász’s work illustrates the thematic overlap between the two writers, as both enter into ‘a dialogue between the poet and the wilderness’. Wevill’s translations exude grandness and assuredness that isn’t present in his own work, capturing Juhász’s poetic extremities of emotion. ‘Comet-Watchers’ and ‘The Flower of Silence’ are terrific in the traditional sense, one speaker watching ‘a stallion with wings and a diamond mane,/a mane of fire, a streaming tail of blood’ and the other declaring ‘My nerve-tentacles weave through the dripping stars/Squeezing and sucking the blood of starfish’. ‘Thursday, Day of Superstition’, perhaps best demonstrates Juhász’s stylistic quirks, a panicked eulogy for a vanishing sense of national and individual identity, where the speaker is ‘LOSING [HIS] MIND!’ in a hedonistic Hungary, figured as ‘a neon medusa drifting above’. Wevill’s talent for conveying the voice of another is clear, and Juhász, Fernando Pessoa, San Juan de la Cruz and Alberto de Lacerda are undoubtedly poets deserving great attention (the line ‘Every day I discover/The incredible reality of things’ by Pessoa, under the pseudonym of Alberto Caeiro, alone should set readers frantically Googling), but the inclusion of the translations in To Build My Shadow A Fire does feel slightly out of place. On one hand, it takes McGriff’s collection into territory which Wevill’s earlier Departures: Selected Poems (Shearsman Books, 2003) did not cover, but on the other, it becomes another mask in a book already littered with guises. Wevill is an elusive figure, and these translations place him that little bit further beyond reach.
In a post-Tweeting society, it seems appropriate to summarise Wevill’s appeal and relevance in as few characters as possible. Thankfully, ‘* 49’, the final poem in Wevill’s own works, does this eloquently:
say something, but
toward something, I think
In an hour the sun will rise.
There are no clouds.
Watch with me.
Although Wevill undoubtedly has the ability (and cause) to be cocky in his work, as in ‘*49’, his instances of poetic grandeur are tempered by the persistent awareness that poetry is an eloquent, but ultimately substanceless, shadow.
Kim Lockwood has just completed a first class BA Honours in English Literature and Creative Writing at Kingston University and is taking up a place on the MA in CW Poetry at UEA autumn 2012. She is the co-editor of Lung Jazz.