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So serene an entry point into this volume, the title One Morning—. promises the lengthening of sunlight across the expanse of a modest domestic existence, incidents without excitement. The period that concludes the title secures comfy closure, indicating that the daily episodes transpiring within the space of the dash between One Morning and the period will be dutifully documented along with the housework. Were it not for my acquaintance with Rebecca Wolff’s previous collections (Manderley, 2001; Figment, 2004; and The King, 2009), I would be quick to assume formally ordered, restrained and snug poems. But these poems bleed and scream and kick and cry, stripping down to skeletal scripts their anxious apprehensions about how to sustain concentration in the messy, sometimes menacing episodes of everyday life.
From the beginning poet and reader are already far along. “Traveller, Your journey has been long//and sectional,” the first poem, “Arcadia (et in…est)” informs, and soon it is clear that we are far from Arcadia either in terms of perspective or locale. The use of the term “sectional” conjures duration, geometry, and serves as an operator’s manual for grasping the volume’s structure, in sections with discrete thematic arrangements that also cohere as a whole.
Wolff’s roving itinerary, her questing identity, are initially involved with general observations, a kind of John Berger-like attentiveness to looking at and gauging her surroundings in all their minutiae and magnitudes. Whether she is reading the titles of books “360 degrees/around my head” in “Retreat from Likeness” or relaying the menace of an early visitant’s approach for whom “one must look to the/left” in “One morning—” (no period, unlike in the title), she is crosshatching the intention to record with a desire to know the significance of what is being recorded. Her survey details the art of the eye especially as it responds to works of art or art criticism. It also strives to situate the poet spatially and spiritually wherever she finds herself.
“Ekphrastic” obsessively and ecstatically distills her attachment to attention:
I want to
look at that and see. I’m going to see
what I look. What I look at, when I look, vessel,
I stood to see. I went to stand to look
This repetition expresses relentless fixation but also reveals the poet’s gradual process of acknowledging how the subjective gaze becomes clouded in the force field of social convention and consumption. The transparent eyeball is not transparent at all, subject to forces not easily seen or read: “In front of us now a spectacle… How can I buy//a piece of it?” (“Stockholder”). Soon, as the volume progresses, what becomes clear is that personal mediation cannot ever possibly find fulfillment without the warp of outside interference. In outlining this frustration, Wolff also revels in revealing her conscientiousness of this reality. Representation might always be compromised by the contamination of commercializing and conventionalizing influences, but understanding this fact is one small yet significant means of resisting it.
Section two enacts a sociology of the personal, patrolling the coordinates of the looker and object, studying how sight is sometimes invested with voyeuristic antipathy or exposes materialistic tendencies that render subjects confused and collage-like, hybrid and haphazard, sensuous and spurious, as in “the raucous/fake penis/a real man/the affirmative.” All the while, the poet can announce, “I’ve decided to//reject consumer culture!” and then advert “The surge of power I only (feel)/when someone’s buying/it.” That ‘feel’ in parentheses is affect insulated and benumbed, and for Wolff authentic feeling is a vulnerable, exalted power needed to keep balance in an off-putting world.
As later poems will highlight, Wolff does not have an ironic attitude towards feeling in poetry, nor does she harbor any distrust of the lyric. In fact, whatever her experimental riffs and disjunctive compositions, she appears to be a disappointed romantic and, moreover, an avid reader of the British Romantics, alluding to them frequently. Hers is a world desiring transfiguration, the renewal of harmonic convergence of self and outside-self. In this, she is a romantic revolutionary, an exemplary detour from the dichotomous categorization of poets as being either experimental or lyrical. Yes, Wolff’s work affirms, you can have it both ways and in fact be both.
Section Three features no less than a ballad. A ballad! “The Curious Life and Mysterious Death of Peter J. Perry” is a dense, meandering family history packaged as homage and epitaph. In the final part Wolff attends to her vocational duty as chronicler and commemorator:
Who will remember Peter J. Perry
his nonrepresentative life, his pointless, ineluctable, singular death?
There is no reason that he must be remembered.
Everyone deserves to be remembered?
For the extraordinary things he did.
For his ashes.
Memory: A memoir. A memorial. In memoriam. For the ages. His ashes
disseminated. It is
my love that draws him out. It is my love
you must contend with.
Because the entire section is devoted to this single, moving poem, one might assume that, arriving approximately half way through the volume, it represents a new prevailing form for One Morning—. However, Wolff is not a poet of constancy. The migration of moods, the swerve of tenor, and the zigzagging between scenes of intimacy and isolation continue in antic abandon. The sensual and the material collide, carnality contends with abstraction, and the poems persist in locating and dislocating, conjuring and disappearing persons, places, and desires.
Desire is inconsolable and unremitting, especially in the later sections. A particularly devastating line occurs in “Homeowner”: “I am that widow//of my love’s wife.” Wolff often performs a kind of Hardy-esque summoning of some previous lover or lovers without specific detail or context worked into a bracing sequence of pathos. As “What Happened” recounts: “But oh I should not have invited him to haunt me./But oh I invited him to haunt me.” Elsewhere in this hauntology is reference to “clinamen” and “phantom limb,” and where ghosts and desires fuse they create artful, sometimes enigmatic patterns suggestive of loss.
One Morning—. explores feminine and poetic desire—feminine poetic desire—with a mission to illustrate various experiences and uphold multiple commitments, not just the subject of loss. A manifesto of sorts lurks in “And when I say poem,” in which possession—of body, poem, and poet—is foregrounded and made fundamental “at last”:
and the commitment of the poet
to engage, subvert, refract, or remand
is safe in my vagina at last where it belongs.