Mark Wunderlich’s The Earth Avails is a book of verse that feels as if it was written under duress, as if he composed these poems while the brute fact of the world had one hand pulling back his head, exposing his throat to God, while the other was a fist pressed into his back:
Meat. Bristled hide that can’t be called skin
never skin—too bristled for that, too dry.
Hooves dainty as a doe’s. Furred ears.
Rusty wool along the belly. Their shape
sharp and narrow, an axe of muscle,
bottled urge. Two tusks sickle up
from the split of a whiskery maw.
Here at the game farm, they mill and snuffle,
tear the corn shuck bale to bits. Pigeons
and sparrows make the atmosphere overhead,
chipping at the air, cobwebbed beams.
These beasts do not doze the way a pork chop
hog will doze, like a meat pie on a concrete plate.
Here, the piglets daubed in racing stripes
clamp their nozzles to a tit
sucking with sleepless vigor
while the boar eases out a penis big as my wrist.
(from “Wild Boar”)
The poems in The Earth Avails relentlessly tease out the interplay of perception between animals and humans. Whether he’s encountering a resentful ram, a diseased coyote, a hooked sand-shark, a misfit raccoon, a hive of bees, or even a lounging cat, the poet not only sees these creatures possessing abstract mythic properties, but also startling tactile ones. Since we are barred from animal consciousness, how an animal lives in our imagination always collides (at least for Wunderlich) with the hard fact of that animal:
Once he knocked me down
with a blow to my hip, three hundred pounds
and a thick skull crashed against my pelvis.
Sprawled in the mud and dung
I pulled myself through straw
while he backed up for another run.
Before he could I hit him
with a broken rail, cracked it
across his nose. He barely noticed.
Now he regards me
with golden ovine eyes,
rich with a pastoral flame.
The painful physicality of these encounters will strike many readers as foreign. We’re more likely to wrestle with unread emails in our inbox than a pissed off ram. In poem after poem, one realizes that The Earth Avails is a book about pain played out on a georgic stage. And not just physical pain. Spiritual pain is treated with the same severity as his portraits of manual labor, and Wunderlich relies on old religious and folk forms (prayers and letters essentially that the poet discovered tucked away in his family’s home in Wisconsin or in various libraries) that provide a stunning reply to the poems about difficult work. Where those poems explore the triangulated camaraderie between animal and landscape and person, in these other poems we're shown the utterance of prayer is an exclusively human behavior, an animal cry refined in language. In Wunderlich’s universe, prayer isn’t only a reaction to suffering, but an expression of it, as we see in this poem where the speaker petitions God to remind him why life's drudgery has purpose:
Part the curtain and let me glimpse
your gleaming hem.
Remind me that behind this knotted taperstry
of tasks and humiliations
is a shining world that must remain hidden
so it may remain unspoiled.
(from "A Servant's Prayer")