To Combine the Personal and the Critical: A Review of Nemerov’s Door by Robert Wrigley

This collection of a dozen essays recording the author’s thoughts on poets, their poems, the mechanics and sensibilities behind them, is nothing less than a love letter to poetry itself. It’s his zeal, his vehement promotion of the art that strikes you, as he writes of anything from the dearth of black voices in a contemporary anthology, to searching for arrowheads, and spending time with the ghost of Sylvia Plath. It’s a teacher’s determination to enlighten, and a poet’s desire to share.

Robert Wrigley, emeritus professor of poetry at the university of Idaho, and a seven-time Pushcart Prize winning poet, believes that nothing in daily life requires you to write poetry, but that “something in your life ... goes unlived” if you don’t. And what poet worthy of the name would disagree; could not, after witnessing a leaf falling through an eternity, say, or what Wrigley describes as “the stroking hand of God” over a field of swaying grass, resist the urge, the obligation almost, to write about it? To construct a form of words, a pattern of detail and allusion to convey the feeling such revelations present. Writing with an informal elegance, he tells us of the poets he has admired – Nemerov, Plath, Dickey and others – and is eager (and not afraid) to break down examples of their work; to point out metrical subtleties, rhythms and inflections which carry us through the piece, as well as talking knowledgeably about the poets’ personalities and their particular insights and preoccupations.

There’s a good deal of autobiographical detail in each of these essays, which adds considerable interest and valuable context to his reflections and ideas. The title essay, for example, tells of a spur-of-the-moment decision, taken after visiting a book store with his father, to pay a call on the noted poet Howard Nemerov at nearby Washington University. He is embarrassed by his father’s presence, and the meeting is quite peremptory – Nemerov signing a book of his poems Wrigley has bought with money for his twenty-eighth birthday – and it’s a bit of a non-event; but there follows a detailed deliberation on mortality, identity and worth, illustrated by Nemerov’s poem “The View from an Attic Window”. He goes on to contrast Nemerov’s background – wealthy/Harvard – with that of his father who came from an impoverished family, had only a basic education, and who had witnessed hardship and casual cruelties; whose obsession with cars and aeroplanes is a world away from his own poetic ideals and ambitions. He develops Parkinson’s disease in his eighties, and his memory is erratic at best, but he still recalls the day his son, by now himself the author of ten published books, met the famous poet. Wrigley has a photograph of his dad, taken a few months prior to his death, which shows him reading his latest collection of poetry with a look of concentration, but also of uncertainty: it’s a touching image of a father’s confused, but deeply felt pride in his son’s achievements. This is a thoughtful and sympathetic essay about limited time and how each of us utilizes those precious hours, and proves, to quote from Nemerov’s poem, that life can be both “hopeless and beautiful”.      

Other essays combine the personal and the critical in a similar fashion: “Under My Skin” begins with an appreciation of Frank Sinatra, “a resilient and powerful dreamer” whom he idolized as a young man, and who played his voice “the way a great tenor player played the sax”. The piece then develops into a consideration of the loss of innocence; involving political rows with his father, the Vietnam war, the death of an adored uncle which led him to question the existence of God, and Sinatra’s later behaviour which was to blunt Wrigley’s earlier devotion. It’s an intriguing piece which covers a lot of ground in an informative and thoroughly engaging manner. “Who Listens But Does Not Speak” deals with the sonnet; and referencing Robert Browning and Edwin Arlington Robinson, suggests that whilst as readers we can become involved with the drama within, we can nevertheless walk away from the ethical and moral conflicts put before us; but if it’s a good poem, we won’t, or can’t forget. And a curious essay, “On The Street Where You Live”, poses unresolved questions about infatuation versus love, and whether song lyrics can be poetry. Again, it’s written in such a way as to prod and cajole you into thinking differently; into going that little bit further.

A particular joy to me is a prose poem celebrating Idaho’s Salmon river (“the soul of the State”) as it flows through more than four hundred miles of mountains and forests. We learn of encounters with rattlesnakes and spiders; of hunting and fishing and camping out; of its “painfully beautiful scenery” and of salmon returning to spawn, with the rather wonderful thought that they might “sense the very pebbles (they) were born of.” He tells of swimming in it and rafting on it; noting its rhythms, the “sweet lull of its music”; and of spending “long, lovely minutes awake and dreaming inside its melody; inside the reach of its spell”. It is colourful, various and tender, and pretty much validates Eliot’s description of a river as “a strong, brown God”.       

Professor Wrigley writes with an easy authority about those who have shaped both his personal outlook and his poetic development. He learns from James Dickey about a willingness to break through boundaries, and to be brave enough to confront uncomfortable truths, giving as an example the acclaimed laureate’s “The Firebombing”, which concerns a pilot dropping napalm on Japanese civilians in WW2. The airman feels no guilt: he can’t; he has to achieve total detachment to be able to carry out his task. The critics at the time were outraged; but read with care, with intelligence, it is patently a forceful argument against war itself. Perhaps being prepared to reach beyond the orthodoxies of the day is more important now than it has ever been. And Sylvia Plath inspires commitment. This most angry and despairing of women comes to his aid when he is away from his family, feeling lonely and depressed. Listening to a cassette recording of her reading “Poppies in October” quite cheers him, if that’s the word, feeling it to be a gift that she of all people could have written such a deeply touching, dreadfully beautiful poem in her fragile, in fact disintegrating state of mind. Others inform him of the nuts and bolts of his craft, and how to use his ears; how to appreciate what Frost defines as “the sound of sense”. Importantly, he has both the wisdom and humility to take it all on board.

The author signs off with the long (over 360 lines) poem “Arrowhead”. Addressed to his children, it is about his home state of Idaho: a state he refers to variously as “an embarrassment and a joy”, a place that most American’s can’t find on a map and, rather unkindly perhaps, “a tumour fed by methamphetamine, beer, and the Church of Latter Day Saints.” It depicts, amongst a crowd of images and observations, the spectacular scenery, the varied climate, the cedar trees “older than Chaucer”; but doesn’t shy away from the troubling contradictions: the corrosive politics on both sides, religious bigotry, the neo-Nazis believing Hawaii to be a nation in Africa; conceding that there are things that cannot be explained, and which are vastly superior to those that can. It is a remarkable piece of work, and a fitting end to such a wide-ranging and illuminating collection. For any lover of the art and craft of poetry, Robert Wrigley’s book is a valuable guide, an informed companion and a well of inspiration.

Robert Dunsdon lives near Oxford, in the UK. His poetry and reviews have been widely published in literary magazines and anthologies both in the UK and America. He is poetry editor with Between These Shores Books.