On W.J. Herbert’s Dear Specimen: A Review by Jane Zwart

W.J. Herbert’s Dear Specimen is full of apostrophe; these poems address, in absentia, the “you”s of trilobites and millipedes; of eagles, errant and fragile; of red birds and red wolves; of beavers and meteors. Like toasts raised at a wake, some of these verses sincerely if mordantly drink health to species pickled in formaldehyde. Others whisper entreaties over fossils, just as pilgrims mutter prayers over reliquaries. Dear Specimen is full of apostrophe, in other words, because its writer understands the precarious nearness of absence and presence. More: she understands the vivid temporariness of life on earth.

It is, of course, no secret that each life on earth ends, and no secret that these endings vary wildly in scale. Neither is it a secret that we human beings have a poor sense of proportion. A cancer diagnosis can devastate us more completely than a mass extinction. Myopias of this sort, however, are mostly love. And it is unmistakably love–for this impermanent kingdom of earthly creatures–that shapes Dear Specimen, including its technique of twinning disproportionate phenomena. Love, for example, tucks odes to a millipede whose “shelled head is an embryo” on either side of a poem about miscarriage.

Which is not to say that Herbert twins disproportionate things coyly. Rather, she surrenders to the eye’s natural knack for foreshortening. Her poems embody distortions in the scale of griefs and wonders because such distortions are a consequence of our human, finite vision. Not out of archness, then, but out of honesty, the writer puts one particular man’s deathbed next to hundreds of fossils, casketed and displayed at the George C. Page Museum. The apparition of these losses’ symmetry–the singular human life and the scores of extinct creatures harvested from La Brea’s tar pits–has nothing in common with the tourist’s photographic trick of putting the distant Eiffel Tower under the thumb of a child. Rather, the distortion in scale mirrors the way we human beings experience this perishable good called life.

If all that makes Dear Specimen sound heartbreaking–much of it is. In fact, the book’s last poem, a not-futuristic-enough epilogue, uses the past tense to narrate how

blue whales starving for krill

                                           stopped calving,

               manatees ate poisoned

                             sea grass, polar bears

                                          sank in open sea.

And this poem, along with the book, ends with “a magic caribou boy who […] no longer wanted to be human.” I suspect the boy’s longing for metamorphosis matches the writer’s, her hunger to find another, more approximately harmless way of being in the world. Dear Specimen spends much of its paleontological tenderness, after all, sifting regretfully through the remains of other creatures: the “downy sausage” of an auk “primped” by a taxidermist, the copperhead’s “shed skin,” even the decrepit basketball hoop “missing whiskers.” But not all of this book’s tenderness is lament.

That said, the alternative to lament, in Herbert’s poetry, is not the story that ends docilely, happily. Instead, it is the story that refuses to end, that skates out of tragedy’s reach on the thinnest ice–because that thin ice is love. Not the abstract love that resorts to conjuring a “magic caribou boy” who, in turn, disavows his humanity to protest the “poisoned / sea grass” that manatees eat. On the contrary, it–these poems’ thin ice–is the particular love of a grandmother called up in the middle of the night, of a poem balanced halfway through a book, of a story calculated to parry a child’s interrupted nightmare. It is love right now, as glaciers melt.

Yet at the beginning of this tale she tells her grandson, as in the tale contained by the collection’s epilogue, the speaker of the poem floats manatees. She here adds, however,

                                                   a boy

            who, paddling his kayak,

            would watch water lap over their great

                                                            gray backs.

Then she stops, worried that the grandchild listening is quiet because “he imagine[s] fevered / soil, poisoned sea grass,” and the pause lasts long enough that her daughter, the child’s mother, presses her to finish. A hard command: the speaker of the poem will not imagine her grandson whose unmagical, miraculous self she adores into a “magic caribou boy,” and she will not lie to him. So she confesses, “I don’t know how it ends,” and in lieu of an ending she offers the boy creaturely love and a likeness and an ocean. She tells him

                              the boy loves

the manatees’ whiskered faces,

flippers tipped with fingernails,

                                         like his,

and he wonders if the calf

               feels as drowsy as he does,

                                 and where

the tide’s cradle will carry them.

Disproportionate twins: the appalling mortalities of the child and the manatee calf, the epilogue’s dread and the bedtime story’s buffering of dread. And also the double-edged promise of endings, a promise that plays out in the way absence both erodes and illuminates our being.

No wonder Dear Specimen is rich in apostrophe, a literary device suited to trouble the boundary between presence and absence. And no wonder Herbert pries open spaces between lines, between stanzas, and suspends everything in them.

For instance, bequeathed a picture of clouds by a dying man, she writes

            I’ll become as light

                                      as he did that day,

            between the time I closed my eyes

            to escape his labored breathing,

            and the moment after.

Hemmed in by absence, the “I” shines. Indeed, the reader cannot, for a moment, tell the self from effulgence. The self “become[s] as light” as in “become[s the same] as light” (italics mine), a transfiguration that owes everything to the break after that first quoted line, the brilliant word at its end. And then the sentence continues, turning the “I” back into matter; fleetingly the same “as light” itself, the “I” resumes its ordinary (measurable, comparable) substance, light in pounds rather than lumens.

Throughout Dear Specimen, Herbert fixes poems like this one (“A Pastoral Topography”) that catch absence and presence flickering–poems that forgive us our poor sense of proportion, poems that absolve us for distorting all that we lose and all that we have. Through such poems, she turns people into specimens, just as in other verses she transforms the stuffed deer into a “dear.”

All told, this book–chosen by Kwame Dawes as a National Poetry Series winner in 2020–is as unflinching as it is gentle. And vice versa. That is, without sentimentality or bombast, without irony or apology, W.J. Herbert foreshortens time such that the Permian extinction and the snuffing out of one woman’s life become a single grief.

But there is also this: these endings keep turning provisional under the writer’s hand. For my part, I count this heart-filling glitch in Dear Specimen’s mastery of time as one of its profundities, too.

Jane Zwart teaches at Calvin University, where she also co-directs the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing. Her poems have appeared in PoetryPloughshares, and TriQuarterly, as well as other journals and magazines.