In the great Preston Sturges movie, The Lady Eve, a dowager turns to the late-arriving dinner guest as he slips in next to her and proclaims “The fish was a poem!” in perfect high-haughty English. Sometimes it does seem that anything called a poem is a poem. My happy task here is to offer three books of poetry with Northwest pedigrees to rival the best cooked Copper River salmon going.
Heavenly Questions, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, comes from Tacoma native and resident Gjertrud Schnackenberg. It is the most elegantly written, intelligent, and moving work of poetry I have read in ages.
Schnackenberg’s late husband, the philosopher Robert Nozick, died of cancer in 2002, and this book bears witness to his death. While Heavenly Questions certainly is an elegy, it is also a staggeringly beautiful meditation on existence and love. The six long-ish poems, which serve like movements in a symphony, are written (this seems miraculous to me) in blank verse. For those of you who’ve forgotten the poetry terms from your English classes, blank verse is comprised of lines with five stressed syllables, usually lines which are ten syllables long. Think John Milton’s Paradise Lost. What stands out in Schnackenberg’s blank verse is how utterly supple it is. Never calling attention to itself, the persistent rhythm serves to bear the weight of grief as well as the burden of life’s continuance in grief’s wake. I’d like to close this small consideration of a major achievement with one of Schnackenberg’s touching and crystalline stanzas.
Shells are among her recurring images and in the poem “Fusiturricula Lullaby” that particular spiral seashell becomes a sweetly apt metaphor:
The Seattle-based poetry publisher Wave Books recently published “Selected Poems” by the delightfully quirky Mary Ruefle. I was told that Ruefle once said she used to think writing poetry was about saying something, and learned that it’s about listening. Terrific! Reminds me of hearing on a PBS. documentary William Faulkner said “I believe the voices.” In Ruefle’s case the resulting poems move seamlessly in the most natural and unusual directions. Her poem “The Cart” opens with:
In consideration of word count, I’ll stop this poem at about its halfway mark. There is true pleasure, and a bit of giddy liberation, to be had in following Ruefle along as she hears her charming and unpredictable poetry.
The long-time Idahoan Robert Wrigley, he the spouse of the well-known prose writer Kim Barnes, had his eighth book of poetry, Beautiful Country, published this fall by Penguin. The book’s title comes from a line spoken by John Brown on his way to the gallows, a condemned man at mortal odds with his culture and government and enamored of his land.
While Wrigley’s poems are rarely overtly political, they convey a complex relationship to the institution of the nation and the fact of the country, in this case the country being the Inland Northwest. Beautiful Country offers detailed and vibrantly aural poems that celebrate the landscape and the flora and fauna (including three quite lovely poems containing horses) he so clearly admires. His fellow citizens, too, are celebrated in their kindnesses and their ability to be annoying and worse. Wrigley’s poems are personal, personable, direct and generous. His embrace of the American West is rare in contemporary American poetry, and, as such, he is an able advocate for life in our corner of the nation. Here’s a small piece I’ll leave you with, from Wrigley’s recognizable rural litany titled “County.”
John Marshall, along with Christine Deavel, co-owns and operates Open Books:A Poem Emporium, the fifteen-year-old poetry-only bookstore in Seattle. He publishes poetry under the name J.W. Marshall because the late, lamented Seattle Post Intelligencer had, as its book editor, a John Marshall whom this John Marshall was not. He won the 2007 Field Poetry Prize, and his first book, Meaning a Cloud, was published in 2008 by Oberlin College Press. He has poetry in recent issues of Seattle Review and Talisman, and forthcoming in Raven Chronicles.