2013, American Fear, Bloodaxe Books, Fish Dreams, Lives of the Animals, Moon in a Mason Jar, Moonlight: Chickens on the Road, poem, poems, Poetry, review, robert wrigley, The Church of Omnivorous Light, The Model, The Sound Barrier, verse
The Church of Omnivorous Light, Robert Wrigley’s first UK publication, spans a lifetime’s writing and nine collections. At times, I was reminded of the unnerving majesty of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The film opens with a lyrical aerial shot of Montana’s St Mary Lake, which dissolves into a ribbon of road, winding through the dense evergreen forests of the Rockies. With the sound down, the scene’s idyllic but, when accompanied by its sinister, electronic variation on the Dies Irae from Berlioz’s Requiem, the forest mutates into something dark and forbidding. The Torrence family car looks frail and pathetic as darkness presses against it from every direction.
Wrigley’s selection opens with Moonlight: Chickens on the Road, taken from Moon in a Mason Jar (1986). As the car crashes, the speaker says ‘And I listened. All through the slash / and clatter, the rake of steel, shatter of glass, / I listened, and what came / was a blizzard moan in the wind, a wail / of wreckage, severed hoses and lives, / a storm of loose feathers.’ The poem opens with the violence of a conjunction severed from its mooring, a violence we feel before it’s shown to us in the word ‘slash’. The repetition of ‘listened’ creates suspense, and we wonder how violent, how terrible the sounds were. Surprizingly, Wrigley gives us ‘a blizzard moan in the wind’. The comparatively tame snows of England’s green and pleasant land, where snow descends like eiderdown in the silence, hardly helps us to tune into Wrigley’s wavelength. The OED records that blizzard is a reasonably new onomatopoeia, and its primary meaning is ‘sharp blow, or knock.’ So, Wrigley offers us silent, overwhelming violence and sudden pain. If the automobile is the all-American symbol of individual power and freedom, then Wrigley questions it and presents us with unsavoury collateral damage: ‘the smears and small hunks / of chicken and straw.’ However, we are also presented with nature’s irrepressible powers of recovery and, following the accident which kills the speaker’s family, he ‘walked on, no longer crying, / and soon the amiable and distracted chattering came / again, a sound like chuckling.’
In a postlapsarian world, there can be nothing innocent about the quest for speed, or power. In The Sound Barrier, Wrigley’s speaker reflects that ‘We were in our beds or daydreaming / out a window in school, / or we were simply running, the fleet / childish joy of motion through a still, dusty field. / It was silence that shattered.’ ‘Simply’ and ‘joy’ capture that childish innocence, but the stanza’s final line suggests that perhaps it’s the silence itself that performs the shattering: we think of air as a weightless nothing but, if you move an object through it fast enough, you’ll compress it, creating a sonic boom. Viewed like this, the air we breathe has been perverted, turned into a force powerful enough to break windows, as the cold war weaponization of aircraft evolved. ‘In 1961 I was dreaming baseball / when the bomb of air blew up. The bed / lurched, I raised my head to hear the windows / clattering in their frames, and my mother’s trinkets ringing. / And when I settled back into sleep, the room fell away. / There was a rush of dreams like stars, / the rustle of bedclothes trailing off.’
In 2003’s Lives of the Animals, Wrigley turns the tables on our anthropocentrism. In the brilliant The Church of Omnivorous Light, we encounter a congregation of magpies: ‘And you’d love their fundamental squawking, / little Penetacostal magpies, diminutive raven priests. You’d walk into their circle / like a drag queen into a Texas truckstop – / silence first, then the caterwauls, the righteous gacks.’ With a memorably comic simile, power is presented as an issue of numbers and the right clothes. Indeed, the simile reminds us that gender, and our roles at work are an affected costume drama in spurious cloths, whereas the ‘raven priests’ were born to fulfil their roles – a true vocation. From start to finish, the poem is infused with ecclesiastical language, presenting the natural world as a mystery locked even to those versed in reading its runes. In Fish Dreams, ‘She thinks the caught trout’s eye must see / a monstrous face, for after all / its slick belly boils in her acid hand.’ Invariably, poems featuring fish cause the ‘malevolent aged grin’ of Ted Hughes’ Pike to surface in my mind. However, Wrigley initially casts us as the acid secreting monsters of nightmare, but this is too easy. The first stanza ends with the pensive ‘But I am not so sure,’ and the break gives us pause for thought. ‘Could you, so landed, understand / the majesty of God might live / among ten thousand types of fire?’ the speaker asks. And so Wrigley sees the possibility of spirituality in all things, even in us. It’s just a matter of perspective.
In 2013’s New Poems, While You Were Out of Town sees Wrigley handling issues of absence, desire and mortality with poise and understatement. The poem’s relaxed, anecdotal style and kitchen sink setting invites comparison with Billy Collins at his best. It begins In Medias Res, which points to a significance far beyond the domestic: ‘I left the man with the steam cleaner all alone / in the house and watched from my shack / as he poured bucket by bucket the gray / brackish water that had rinsed our comings / and goings from the carpet.’ The poem’s first sentence spans five lines, accounting for most of the first stanza, which creates a feeling of restlessness, unease and hurried work. Our lives amount to little more than filth to be scrubbed from the floor, and the woman’s trip out of town feels like a rehearsal for that final absence. In the third stanza, we read: ‘And I would have noticed, had it been on the floor, / your black lacy bra, hanging by a strap / from a dresser handle, but I’m sorry, there it was, / after he left, still hanging, though I noticed it hung this time / by the left shoulder instead of the right, // as though it had fallen as he cleaned the alley / next to your side of the bed, that trouble spot / where the dog sleeps. Yes, that’s it, I’m sure, / it had fallen, and he, in one professional motion, / had put it back.’ The bra, a totem of femininity, fragility and intimacy, is violated as the house is opened for the cleaning process. Its straps modulate into shoulders as it becomes a symbol of absence in the most intimate space in the relationship, the bedroom, where individual square feet of carpet are known by sight. So sacred is this space that the speaker’s words are compelled to affirm that the bra’ was swiftly replaced, even as the sentence’s construction doubts this.
Much is made of the Great American Novel, but this selection of Wrigley’s poetry holds its own with the best of these. Wrigley tells a great story, and the selection is populated by the children, parents, rattlesnake toting faith healers, army veterans and lovers of the American West. The sublimity of the landscape, and our uneasy relationship with it, has been of interest to Wrigley since the beginning, predating any ‘eco’ label now applied to him. The poems’ political, moral and social indignation is felt throughout, and nowhere more strongly than in 2010’s American Fear, where ‘a man was not allowed to board a flight at JFK / because his T-shirt, in Arabic and English, read / ‘We will not be silent.’ Wrigley was discharged from the US military in 1971 as a conscientious objector, and this remains his difficult, essential vocation as a poet.