Jul 4, 2014

The Earth Avails by Mark Wunderlich (Graywolf Press, 2014)

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 problem with staring at an animal for more than thirty seconds is that we start seeing the similarities (more than the differences) between them and us: the eye-lashes, the teeth, the joints, the feet, and all the other bodily features that fuse our natural history with theirs. Couple that with their disturbing obliviousness to human taboos, observing animals can be somewhat bewildering. In the case of the “Wild Boar”, the speaker’s gaze is so grimly committed that it quickly dissolves the boundaries between the civilized and the wild. As a result, the reader’s humanity almost vanishes into the “whiskery maw” of description, and as the poet begins “sucking” out every detail of the poem’s drama, our erasure feels like an eventuality. That is until the poet cruelly rescues the reader by none other than a “penis big as [his] wrist”. I never thought I’d make a claim like this one, but if that penis is compared to anything other than a human body part, say an axe-handle or water-pipe, the speaker puts into doubt our humanity and his. But he doesn’t. And by putting so much pressure on one word – “wrist” – the poet saves us from obliteration. It’s a trust-building moment between poet and reader, and to Wunderlich's credit, not an easy one to pull off. Often, poets invite us to feel vulnerable by directly challenging how we read. But Wunderlich seems to challenge how we imagine, and as a result makes intimacy a precursor to wonder. 

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.

(from “Ram”)

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") 

The Earth Avails is one of my favorite books published this year. In it, Wunderlich is hitting on all cylinders (I've always wanted to write that!). In his earlier work, his ambitions seemed tethered to an urgent need for self-definition or to be witnessed. Now, though, the poems seem less the crystallization of an authentic voice and more like a voice that speaks into the world rather than at it. Instead of hearing him, we overhear him, and therefore sense that an invitation has been extended to us with no strings attached. And when we enter The Earth Avails and listen closely, when we press an ear to the chest of Wunderlich's savage verse and close our eyes, we hear a rare and “unspoiled” music being played. 

-John Ebersole

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