“She had to possess the courage to enter, through language, states which most people deny or veil with silence” ~ Adrienne Rich on Emily Dickinson
Developmental maps of great poets often chart a three-fold course: initial encounter with the muse or inspirational “spirit”, followed by intense identification with and “voicing forth” of personas within and without the writer, and ultimately (if we’re lucky), to the formation of a relentlessly observant, imaginative, and transformative poet like Gail Wronsky. Her latest collection Under The Capsized Boat We Fly: New & Selected Poems provides exquisite retrospective testament to this writer’s mastery and dedicated “Life in the Art of Poetry” feminist envisioning. These intense and complex meditations on the world and the self, sometimes stun, sometimes perplex, but alwayscaptivate with their bold, incisive strokes rife with surreal and searing beauty. Wronsky’s garden of “psychic extremity” may be entered beginning with the poem “Twenty-Three”:
The she, the stone,
to her ghostly form quickly
returning, made me, alas,
an almost live and frightened woman.
(It was as if a swarm of
trying somehow to speak,
in a cloud of gauze.)
This is how I met her.
This is how I met my muse.
While imagery here shimmers with whimsy and mystery, be assured that alongside each dazzling ethereal turn, there likely lurks a shadowed edge, a critical shard the poet meticulously tugs and thrusts, weaving and maintaining a tension to her truths, dispelling any easy solutions to her serious and complex perceptions. Often effervescence and a flair for the absurd are braided with sober confessions. So, it’s no surprise that Leonora Carrington inhabits a thirteen-part sequence poem titled “She and I”—Carrington, the extraordinary surrealist painter who rejected the male counterpart gaze, and is quoted to have said: There are things that are not sayable. That’s why we have art. I think that in some fundamental way, Wronsky’s poetry reaches for a similar uncanny and ineffable knowing; that to “say it slant” as Dickinson famously suggested is the only “reasonable” way to tap the impossible marrow of being-ness. Like Carrington, Wronsky mesmerizes and captures what’s fleeting and eludes us through lucid, unconventional visuals. From “She and I”:
The last time she came was in yellow October.
It was strange, a vaporous night.
(I say that, but the moon had risen
tough and clean above the vivid canyons.)
She woke me with cowbells
and spoke with her blue
xenon lips. What she said,
I wrote down.
As this collection continues to mount its astonishing panoply of conjured entities, memories, and illuminations, Wronsky ignites the reader’s consciousness and thinking with her fierce, critical insights that never overhand but always strike concisely, somewhat brutally, and with sly humor that is as edifying as it is marvelous. So, too, her landscapes are rich in myth, alchemically potent, and infused with sensual delight that can quickly pivot to blunt query. In “Elegy From A Nightingale’s Point of View”, a breathtaking reflection on past mentor Larry Levis, she imagines:
He wanted to be like the man in the
Magritte painting whose
was only sky—absolved of all of it and
but maybe he wasn’t able
to forgive the rapist of Philomel.
In her handling of significant beloveds and influences, Wronsky’s eye maneuvers with the same depth and alacrity as the “quick bright things” she tracks and praises, often layering Shakespearean and foreign landscapes into bewitching lyrical imaginings of the domestic and interpersonal, as exemplified in “Jade Night”: “Scenes of mad love. Days laid down / like rags around their feet. / Titania stands / with Oberon [ ] looking at the ruins / in Mexico. / A fountain in the middle of the room:” Also notable is the manner in which Wronsky apprehends the unsayable, subtly disturbing ways power plays out between generations, between genders, and within the divided poet persona that must continue to complete, heal, and “see” itself into new purviews of existence. Perhaps this follows, again, in the spirit of Adrienne Rich and her urgent work for “collective restoration” to “un-erase” unheard voices and the long history of diminished female personhood. In her epic, episodic poem “The Earth as Desdemona” Wronsky scaffolds fragments of vision, dialogue, and time into haunting meditations on the maternal and disempowered:
Certain elements of the dream are open
to revision. But the body is always
Instincts, the psychic says,
the man had no pity.
(I feel sorry for his mother, said the mother
of the dead girl. To raise a child
that vicious and just not know.)
And later, dealing with her mother as a fledgling mother herself:
How did you do it? It’s the question
all new mothers ask: their own mothers
flown in from anywhere, holding,
for the first time, their daughters’ trophies.
Unerringly. She winks at the infant.
Erratically. Like everyone else—
I did as well as I could. No better.
Why did you make it so hard—
my growing up—
my leaving? This, well, her
weak point as a mother—why
do I pursue it?
Fear of the mirror, she says, and holds
the baby’s wobbly head, fontanel pulsing
like crazy, to her face.
If, as Gaston Bachelard posits, true home is a place where the imagination finds shelter, then Gail Wronsky’s poetry offers abundant resource and refuge for the creator spirit to thrive and expand their transformational arts, which, I like to believe, is an opportunity every creature on this fraught planet should possess. And maybe for a few lucky ones, awakens a serious desire to scribe one’s stories into lyric narrative forms. What remains exhilarating for me with Wronsky’s work is the witnessing of her mind at play with the world of things, past and present, around her; the deft movements between fierce interior terrains of intellect and wild imagination; the distillations elicited from contemplating body, nature, the human and the celestial; and the rich lyric that emerges—varied, concise, and authentically contradictory. Drink deeply from this deliciously sophisticated poetics, and feel the doors of your imagination and wisdom flung wide:
And then I felt another plummeting. It had something to do
with beauty; something to do with the dogged willfulness of
specificity and its opposite, all the alienated noncommittal
wavering of the sea. The beautiful sea. What could be more
Michelle Bitting is the author of five poetry collections, Good Friday Kiss, winner of the inaugural De Novo First Book Award; Notes to the Beloved, which won the Sacramento Poetry Center Book Award; The Couple Who Fell to Earth; Broken Kingdom, winner of the 2018 Catamaran Poetry Prize; and Nightmares & Miracles (Two Sylvias Press, forthcoming, 2022), winner of the Wilder Prize. Bitting is a lecturer in poetry and creative writing at Loyola Marymount University and in film studies at University of Arizona Global.