PoetryWeekend

Poem as Prayer: Mark Wunderlich’s “The Earth Avails”

by Brian Blanchfield on July 20, 2014

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Much of Mark Wunderlich’s decidedly sincere and dexterous new book The Earth Avails derives, as well as extrapolates from a little leather volume of common prayers, a treasury of highly particular, utilitarian 19th-century Protestant folk devotionals. Not only has he carefully reconstituted these idiosyncratic beseechments and their pious worldview, he has exceeded them in a number of ways.

So when, near the middle of his book, the midpoint line of a nine-couplet poem, “Raccoon in a Trap,” breaks at “I believe,” it is significant that the pause is fraught, deliberative. The two words starting a fresh sentence there introduce the crux and balance of the poem, which to that point has shown us the speaker carrying a raccoon in a cage away from the farm. The animal “points a flinty nose, moist and smart // to read his future on the air.” The speaker thereafter reports, driving toward conclusion, “In the orchard, morning clouds // disperse…before I put the muzzle of the gun through the wires / and fill his warm head with lead.” What is it, then, at the poem’s fulcrum, the speaker believes?

                                              …I believe
this is the thief who stole the nest of chicks,

tore the vent from a hen and ate her
in the company of her peers—a husbandman’s

springtime menace, the glowing eyes
in the night.

There are many times in the book that an alert sensitivity to the natural world—its adversarial inhabitants, its minute seasonal changes—marries a tempered and unsentimental farmlife practicality marked by everyday violence: including, here, an outcome that might require believe to stand in for reason a while longer. “The kidskin of his clever paws” does not keep “a husbandman” from ending the life of the menace.

And “a husbandman,” as appositive stand-in or categorical type, temporarily “othering” the first-person speaker even as it includes him, does not keep this reader from watching for the lover of men—and the power dynamics of a sex life with men—that suffuse Wunderlich’s other two celebrated books, The Anchorage and Voluntary Servitude. He and they are present here, quietly—not timidly and not covered over but, rather, incidental to the concerns of the poems. This husbandman, with room in bed for his husband, claims his place here in the rugged rural Christian lexicon and orthodoxy of this book—by a kind of subtle sorcery that distinguishes the particular reparative genius of this poetic project. It’s something I’d like to trace.

Wunderlich, Mark (Nicholas Kahn) JACKET

Portrait of Mark Wunderlich (courtesy Graywolf Press)

Nearly half of the poems in The Earth Avails are those developed from prayers, styled as prayers still, including the two that surround “Raccoon in a Trap”—“Prayer for the Fruits of the Field” and “Prayer During a Storm.” They offer sacrifice, they attest to privations, and request reprieve or special consideration at trying times. The prayers were written originally in German and most were published in St. Louis in 1876 in a pocket-sized edition, Der Kleine Gebets-Schatz, which Wunderlich tells us in his endnote he discovered in his family’s home in Wisconsin, “moved by the tone of the prayers, and surprised by their specificity.” We can infer from the note that his “fashioning them into poems” involved not just artful translation but also modification to Wunderlich’s present-day life (in rural upstate New York), modification that is all the more curious for being seamless even where the present circumstances impress with their specificity. “A Husband’s Prayer” begins customarily, addressing a You heralded by one of several epithets belonging with variable likelihood to a 19th Century sensibility (here “author of all wonders” and elsewhere “Tenderhearted,” “Unreadable One,” or “the strongest,” but also “our Maddening Abstraction,” or “my privilege and my proof”). The surprise of specificity is here, as the poem opens: “You, author of all wonders, / shown to us by your many prophets // and instruments—our own shoemaker’s daughter, / illiterate and bent, who proclaims from her special chair // in the meetinghouse, who reminds us to be humble, / and not aspire above our station, // to find beauty in utility, and to beware idolatry— / you who chose to provide me with a spouse…” Once this poem gradually individuates an I from a congregational We, the speaker confesses challenges to his marital intimacy and his fidelity to his spouse, a timeless theme that twists its way into modernity in the method representative of this book: via the native imagery of the land known best to a husbandman who works it. Metaphor after arable metaphor.

From the coolest and boggiest portion
of my heart, my worries multiply as spores

canker the apple leaf. My mate,
though weak, is there to help me

set aside my burdens, if only I could
describe them into the space between our pillows

at night. When thistles spring up in the field
or our marriage, when the noxious vine

twines onto the maple, let us pull it up
by its roots. When I gaze upon the gothic script

tattooed on the young gardener’s brown stomach,
strain to read it as it folds, remind me

my own name is written in the mind of another
however faint.

Wunderlich’s previous work (especially the sexual domination poems of Voluntary Servitude) does not prepare a reader for poetry as restrained as this passage, poetry disinclined to flare or gnash or declare, even at this moment of explicit desire. We hardly know what century he is in until we oversee what’s sexy to him (even the Gothic block lettering in the young man’s tattoo is in a way subsumed in the Gothic font in which Der Kleine Gebets-Schatz was likely printed). Humility cannot and should not rule every kind of poem; but here the tightly managed lines are well suited to the expressive limitations of this hard, sensible supplicant sure foremost of his mortal fallibility. Mercifully, this is not a poem one is likely to hear Garrison Keillor read on the radio, but there are whole passages in the book one might mistake for the terse and plainspoken work of someone like Donald Hall or—more stoic and sharp-eyed—Ellen Bryant Voigt. That’s not the right context though. So, what is?

Of course it is not wrong to join this book in a conversation of the consciously late-pastoral poems of Carl Phillips or D. A. Powell (or now also Adam Fitzgerald or Nate Klug), who have worn identities as “representative shepherds,” to borrow Paul Alpers’s term for such countryside personae since Theocritus’ and Virgil’s amative homosocial layabouts sang to one another; but in truth the pervading stationary solitude and/or lack of irony situate The Earth Avails apart from those and other queer reclamations. Maurice Manning’s extraordinary Bucolics comes to mind, then; but Wunderlich’s book, so close and attentive to the land itself, is more georgic than eclogue, of greater utility, to repeat a word clearly important to this book. It is also not as plaintive, not as interested in staging conflict between doubt and faith, as Manning, or for that matter Louise Glück in The Wild Iris, which does share Wunderlich’s winter-to-harvest almanac comprehensiveness. The prayers and “heaven letters” (another adapted form here) are not plainly pretexts in the same way her matins and vespers are. In the end, though his tone is not as strident and his manner not as free, I think The Earth Avails has more in common with Lee Ann Brown’s repurposing of Appalachian ballads and southern Presbyterian hymns of the last fifteen years—in which she addresses civil rights retrogressions endemic to the region where those forms are rooted. Inhabiting a form that is part of his family’s history but that could not have anticipated him and might not have accommodated him, Wunderlich like Brown fits himself into the suit, adjusts to its limitations and its capacity, and grows comfortable enough to walk his own stride in it. It might be performance but it’s not drag.

How many other men, in previous centuries or this one, dead or living still, straight or gay, are imaginable offering a prayer of gratitude on their birthdays, as was apparently the Swiss-German Lutheran tradition continued and updated in “Prayer for a Birthday”? An unremarkable day—(“my mother and father call me and sing / sweet and tuneless, their voices worn down by your turning wheel”)—is remarked in a poem thankful for the birthmark particularity of a life now in its middle years, and the effect is tender, childish in the way Christianity often elicits rhetorically. It is the speaker’s self-assessment that is adult.

You built me, bone by bone, counting
the hairs that would one day thatch my crown

building cleverness in my hands, weakness in my knees,
a squint and a taste for cake. You showed me

the dip of a man’s clavicle, arrow of ankle and calf,
weaving in me a love of those bodies like my own,

yet not mine. When you turned to your next task
a shadow crossed the room stirred from the muddy banks

rimed with ice. In the spot where my skull was soft
it set down its stylus and inked a bruise—

a scrap used to blot a leaking pen.

To appreciate the achievement here, it is worth imagining how else this project may have proceeded. With the same source text material, other poets might have chosen different treatments—phonetic translation, cut-up or erasure, or mash-up with other texts—to mine its latent content or to measure its effects against, for instance, the state of spiritual life or small farm viability 140 years later. We are given little indication of the author’s methodology in the backmatter of this book. But the necessary balance-work is as evident as the artistry: to preserve the integrity of the mystified petitions so grounded in knowledge of the land, and to write in (and validate) a contemporary life that barely amplifies their original scope. To the question of what Wunderlich believes in these prayer-poems: he seems to share their devotion to the earth that provides, the earth that avails despite hardship. Perhaps, in a certain light, it is the terrain that shares the lives that occupy it, the bachelor husbands or families generations apart and the creatures—a charging ram who barely notices when struck with a broken rail and now “regards me/ with golden ovine eyes” or the horses “mouths bent to grass, growing / the soft bones of fetal calves / on alfalfa”—creatures it requires more than a mortal man to cultivate. What are you going to do with the sprung potency of a tom (“Cat Lying in the Grass”), but be blessed by his roving example, as fragile and sovereign as anyone on the farm?

We shared territory in a state of truce—
       three pastures, two yards
              barn, shed and stable, the sheep pens,
                     outer edges of the sty, marsh
                            and forest and house
                                   in which he’d sleep away
                                          the powdery daylight.

Once, he split the nose
       of a curious woman
              who foolishly turned
                     to see what wildness tore
                            at the back of her chair.
                                   He was impossible to punish.

 Mark Wunderlich’s The Earth Avails: Poems (2014) was published by Graywolf Press.

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