Laura Budofsky Wisniewski’s Sanctuary, Vermont is an imagined town whose residents speak to us in haunting bits of memory and observation and yearning drawn out of uncertain spaces opened up where the “fault lines” (a recurrent image) of history and society and the self pull apart, spaces where, as one poem puts it, we see ourselves as we truly are, a “frail and faltering flock / cast out into this wilderness of rocks and wind.” These are persona poems, but more deeply, they’re acts of spiritual improvisation, the various speakers Wisniewski draws reaching towards what is often figured as light—tongues of light, glimmers and glances of light, tacked, like the body of a lover swimming at midnight, “tremulous . . . to the blackness underneath.” Her charged voices haunt us the way Ruthie’s does in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, pushing off against “a current that never ceased to pull,” her voice “sway[ing] continuously, like a thing in water, [in] a slow dance, a sad and heady dance.” One thinks as well of the voices of Frost’s women in “Home Burial” or “A Servant to Servants” or “The Witch of Coos”—in the very act of speaking (“tonight I don’t care enough to lie”) slipping into an openness where it all comes undone and casting around there for the ear of a witness.
The book is broken into two sections, “Then” and “Now,” suggesting that the lyric’s underwater dance, momentarily resting on and then pushing off against the dark currents of loneliness and fear and loss, is both a solitary and shared act, the “ghosts and ashes” of the past “rising up” everywhere around us as we speak. In the “Then” section, a close look at history tears open the fault lines that New England’s quiet hills and stoic had tempt us to overlook. Voices rise toward song out of a year without summer (1816), or a Black woman’s weighing of uncertain marriage prospects (1888), or a Jewish peddler’s murder (1893). The KKK pushes through, a shattered veteran returns from the Great War, the Abenaki People are forcibly sterilized, a local nurse returns haunted by a vision of “bodies stacked like cord wood” at Dachau. In each poem, as the wife of a Vietnam vet puts it about her husband, we sense how “In the caves and tunnels of [the] body / the past vibrates on the membranes of the present.” The poems teach us to quiet ourselves and hear these voices, still rising and lamenting and wrestling with those forces that would reduce the vulnerable to nothing. The poems not only tear open history’s fault lines, they draw us toward a new kind of knowing there, coming to life where what we thought we knew comes undone. A repeated image for this, introduced in the “Then” section and extensively developed in the “Now” poems, is the Tears & Fears Café, still standing and, as in this welcome to the returning Great War veteran of 1919, still opening its doors to the empty and fearful, transforming what would have otherwise been left unsaid into texture and taste and song.
They bring you quiet, dark plums.
They bring you sweet, cool cream.
They know why you’ve come.
They know what you’ve seen.
They can read it on your wrists.
They’ll take you like this,
The Café is where the voiceless are brought to life. It’s where the work of this book gets done.
We can imagine, then, the voices of the “Now” section that follows as overheard at the Tears & Fears Café, whether the literal one which now in the time of COVID offers curbside pick-up, bringing all of us back to “Ramona’s voice / putting the whole town / in its place, and the way our hard days turned to din then song” or “Andre’s Grief Soup, / its lemon a narrow stairway / to a tiny upstairs window” or “Max’s One-sided Noodles,” swimming “in a sea of saffron like the past / swims in tenuous laughter, / how they dyed / the town’s tongues yellow,” or the metaphoric one in which our hard days and one-sided struggles against fortune and powers which hold all the cards are taken up, one night only, by the “Small Still Voice Quintet” and transformed into something “wild and winged, / . . . all bone / . . . / and home / [lifted up] on the second sweetest note / . . . ever / blown.” It’s to Wisniewski’s great credit that while the voices we hear are recognizably different and distinct, they clearly rise up from within a single temperament whose ordinary has been “breached” and who finds herself called to make a home within the twin insinuations of death and “the first pale ray / [of light] breaking through. “Through me many long dumb voices,” writes Whitman, his voice a steadying “then” behind Wisniewski’s “now.” Her figures wrestle with spirits luring them “down dead caverns,” immigration agents that treat them like “animal[s] to be tethered,” desire rising like a “hunger moon,” dreams that shatter and release and call them out into the dark and silence, each figure, like a woman coming to grips with her husband’s casual racism, “spun up inside myself / like feathers in a dryer, / then floated down, / but not into the same old / what-do-I-know shoes,” testifying to and driven into song by a single brute fact we find almost unbearable outside of the sanctuary of art, that this is a place:
Where they kill almost everyone eventually.
In such a place there is always
the sorting of people into different queues.
Yet in this same place
clear mountain streams run
over flat black stones with thin white lines. (“What Ramona Knows”)
Near the end of the book, an extraordinary poem entitled “The Difference Between a Year and a Lifetime,” playing off of the year or years many of us have just spent in isolation and, perhaps, some unspoken fracturing of the ordinary the author had just passed through, clearly spells out the difficult turn back to the world this book has committed itself to. Think of that tiny upstairs window that Andre’s Grief Soup calls us to:
For a year you can exalt in a feather,
for a year you can forget what hit you,
forget the blade that cut through
the turpentine of mango.
. . .
For a year you can be lonely
as pajamas in the daytime, lonely
as the doorknob, lonely
as the light shaft
on a polished wooden floor.
You can do it for a year.
A year is just a door
you are slowly walking through,
but a lifetime is this window,
This is the window Wisniewski takes us to, where, in quiet acts of undoing, improvisation and testimony, the persona poem is reimagined as a lifetime’s voicing of the blank spaces we each inhabit, the charged sanctuary of the everyday unfolding itself there as “the clink of the town’s / spoons . . . / in the unsure air.”
Thomas Gardner is Alumni Distinguished Professor of English at Virginia Tech. He is the author of nine books, most recently Lyric Theology: Art and the Doctrine of Creation and two collections of lyric essays published by Tupelo Press: Poverty Creek Journal and Sundays.