It’s the cruellest month: lilacs, dead land, spring rain…you know how it goes. For several reasons this April has seemed particularly dismal to me, not in small part due to a car accident that occurred earlier, in March. There’s nothing like a face-to-face encounter with Death to make clear how little control we have over our lives, how powerless we are when it comes to protecting those we love and even those who are strangers to us. In this case, thankfully, everyone involved was physically okay after the collision (and I am, of course, deeply grateful for that), but grappling with the idea that we are ultimately helpless in the face of greater, uncontrollable forces launched me, for a good part of the spring, into a deep funk.
So I find myself drawn to a poem called “The Morning After” in Eleanor Wilner’s latest book, Tourist in Hell, a collection that (as the back cover states) “attempts to absorb the shock of the wars and atrocities of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries…[the poems] display an increasing horror at the bloody repetitions of history, its service of death, and the destructive savagery of power separated from intelligence and restraint.” Wilner recently gave a reading at Villanova University, offering such droll tidbits between her dark poems: [taking a sip of water] It takes a lot of water to keep me going… there’s always a question of whether I will drown before the reading’s over or, as she announced her concluding poems, It’s always good to tell the audience that there are only two poems left… it gives them hope.
“The Morning After” begins with an epigraph from a poem by Spencer Reece: “…or so I once dreamed and wrote down, / until the dream became what I believed and what I wrote.” Wilner opens her poem with reference to the writer grappling with the limits of perception and language while also acknowledging language’s small comforts.
Now it’s 12-point type and you’re on your own, the lovely lines of another’s dream must shrink, and what you think, however it was formed, is what you’ve got to live with on the brink, what you believed, and wrote, and see!—how sweet it is to lean upon the hitching post of words, that tie us to a world where we would otherwise be just bits of wafting chaff, fallen from the threshing fan, gone to seed for what grows next—and who are we to disagree, be vexed at what we are, literate specks of carry-on, winnowed for the grain. No bloom resides in theory, which makes carrion of flesh… .
In the lines that follow, Wilner depicts the writer mining a broken world, one of rich debris and fleeting beauty. Here, “peonies/ unfold in silks as intermittent as a season’s show” and “ducks/ float by, and tails up, look underneath for fodder/ in the mud, their beaks … green and tasseled/ with the weedy compost of the pond.” In Wilner’s poem, hope has long been relinquished to despair.
…all our hope (we’d hoped to trade our fear for that) is like the boat whose rotted hull leaks everywhere, the hands are busy bailing around the clock… .
However “sweet” it is to fasten words to experience, Wilner reminds us in this shattered pastoral that writers—“keepers of the hypothetical beyond”—like everyone else, will “sink slowly/ like a Northern sun in dusk, phenomenon purkinje, / violet synapse, the colors worth the disappearance of the light, perhaps….” For this speaker, the value of our experience in the physical world—an experience limited to the function of our own gray matter, of neuron and synapse—is conceivably worth the cost of the knowledge of death – the end of life, the end of language as we understand it, the end of meaning. Wilner’s use of “perhaps” reveals an uncertainty that kills me every time.
Amid the devastation, a kind of movement arises as nature–ignorant to what might “vex” humankind–continues its cycle of death and rebirth, though the land is no longer the pristine, untainted environment it once was.
…with just the usual winter’s lapse, the sap can’t help but rise, and rise again, while the old mill turns its rusted wheel by rote in a stream whose passing water will not pass the test of potability. .
Wilner’s closing lines force us to confront not just the ruined world and its fallen language, but the certainty of death.
…our life, that sparrow’s flight from dark to dark across the lighted mead hall, till darkness swallows all— our sun a spark in boundless night, and the beacon of the lighted hall—a firefly in a well. .
Wilner expertly delivers the blow with the lulling rhythms of blank verse, hypnotic word repetition, and the sonic comfort and surprise of slant rhymes mill/will/all/hall/well.