The King, Rebecca Wolff, W. W. Norton & Company
For the past two hundred years young poets have greeted each moribund fin de siècle with a burst of energy in the new century. At the end of the 1790s those upstart collaborators, Wordsworth and Coleridge, pledged to deal with “the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation” – as opposed to the poetic [unreal!] diction of their predecessors. Likewise, by the early twentieth century Pound declared his intention to eschew prolixity and “use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation”; he offered “In a Station of the Metro” as his two-line textbook, while Eliot flew in the face of genteel Victorian “parlor poetry” with one shocking simile, “Like a patient etherised upon a table.”
The first decade of our new millennium is about to come to a close. Why should we think poems will continue to be written as they have been since, say, Adrienne Rich – as if poets were bakers using the very same cookie cutters? One doesn’t have to pore over Harold Bloom’s “The Anxiety of Influence” to realize how essential it is to go beyond reverence of one’s elders toward one’s own identity. Inasmuch as young Poet X may be enthralled by Louise Glück or Charles Simic, by Poet X’s thirtieth year (s)he must be forging a name that is more than a forgettable X (from a generation known by this letter) in the smithy of her or his soul.
Let me, as President Nixon used to say, make one thing perfectly clear. Rebecca Wolff’s plainspoken new poetry collection is as brilliant and original as any book I’ve read by a poet in her generation. Speaking of Gen Xers, I think of Wolff’s contemporaries in Marvin and Dumanis’s recent anthology with its judiciously rebellious title, “Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century.” Some noteworthy contributors to “Dangers” include Joshua Beckman, Erica Bernheim and Brenda Shaughnessy – a motley crew dedicated to the proposition that all poets and poems are not created equal. It has been noted elsewhere that in this anthology the “collage poem,” pasted together as a latter-day “heap of broken images,” wins out over the epiphanic narrative. Still, there are exceptions; for example, collage poems don’t abound in the oeuvre of Terrance Hayes or, for that matter, Wolff. As far as I can tell, by now in her third book Wolff has amply developed her gift – to quote Pinsky’s phrase – “for gorgeous poetic gab.”
In “The King” when she describes her son Asher’s birth, she glances back at Plath and Olds but never long enough to be Plathean or Oldsesque. The only writers Wolff names or alludes to directly are Alice and Henry James, Yeats and, yes, dear old Wordsworth – though she wryly admits, in an iambic pentameter line, that she “never knew that poem [‘The Daffodils’] until now.” In fact, Wolff seems to be as comfortable referring to Elvis “the King” Presley as she is to leprosy-ridden Gehazi and “the receding backside of Yahweh.” She doesn’t swallow the pablum that “God is good” – or mention “Allahu Akbar” at all – but she cites Mahalia Jackson, thereby suggesting these poems are spirituals wailing the gospel – according to a “straphanger.” Although she says almost nothing about the Big Apple – “no one ever / believes I am from New York City” – street-smart and skittish as an alley cat, Wolff modulates her meowing metaphors to blend with the feral screech of New York subway trains.
On the other hand, she tells us her mother is from Tennessee. Must it therefore be true that Wolff understands Graceland as well as being in a state of Grace, a hypothetical Volunteer State she’d prefer to volunteer for but finds herself enlisted in a far more graceless reality? It’s as if she placed a jar in Tennessee, and in that jar she stored cookies, mother’s milk and other down-home goodies. No matter that her poems are sometimes difficult to cozy up to, written in her chiseled shorthand: her book is a coherent if unconventional, critical paean to motherhood. “The King” has a narrative arc starting with a Lamaze class and ending with Asher years later grown into a toddler asleep not far from his newborn kid sister, whom Wolff fully introduces ex machina in the last two lines of her book (though she foreshadows the sister in an earlier poem).
In case I appear to be describing “The King” as Wolff’s version of Dr. Spock’s “Baby and Child Care,” let me dispel this silly notion. Poem after poem here, to alter Hugh Seidman’s book title, stands up and sings. Take the beginning of the monorhyme 16-liner, “Third Poem of the Day: Insanity”:
I’m pregnant, you see
and it takes a lot out of me
and puts a lot in – three
has some ecclesiastical trinity
to it, and I provide, for free,
the third. Don’t you think that it be-
trays an underlying vulnerability?
This would be Tin Pan Alley doggerel were it not for its theological swagger, along with its hint that the speaker is crazed with prenatal anxiety. Actually, this loony tune concludes with a line that could come straight out of Donne, Herbert – or Anne Bradstreet. Like so much in “The King,” “Insanity” scintillates with religiosity.
Or, if you’re accustomed to thinking that the New Formalism went out with the 1990s, here’s Wolff’s offbeat take on traditional forms in the final 20 lines of her 44-line “Breeder Sonnet”:
wake up wake up wake up
he said and slapped me
I deserved it/I was sleeping
in this defensive posture
Are you meant to be born
Were you meant?
It’s as though existential questions about Asher, along with the speaker’s gaggle of quandaries about being a breeder, were resolved by unalterable law, the rhyme scheme of the Shakespearean sonnet. Just as in “King Lear” the Fool’s lunatic mummery comforts mad Lear on the heath, so too Wolff and her fetal son may outlast the pains of pregnancy thanks to a template, the wordless rhyming cries of a heart gone bonkers.
No one has written about pregnancy as disturbingly – but never whiningly – as Wolff. Allow me to interrupt this essay to mention an unfortunate intramural coincidence. A writer from Los Angeles, whose given name is Rebecca and whose surname is Woolf – as in “Virginia Woolf”; note the different spellings – wrote a memoir about childbirth titled “Rockabye: From Wild to Child.” I bring this up to emphasize the huge distinction between Woolf and Wolff. I’m going to quote two passages and ask you to decide who’s who. Incidentally, I’ve arranged the West Coast Woolf’s prose into lines of poetry:
I am on drugs
on an airplane
and there are some other things wrong with me
I have control over them
How’s the soup today?
I. Am. Pregnant.
I am going to have a baby.
There is something alive
in my body,
and one day it will have a name.
How is that possible?
Did you pass the quiz? It was a piece of cake, right? The first seven lines are by our prize-winning New York State Writer’s Institute Fellow, the author of the book under review here. Her trope or factual statement about drugs, her mentioning “things wrong with me,” defy “Ladies’ Home Journal” stereotypes about pregnancy, whereas the second sequence of eight lines belabors the obvious. Rather than rag on “Rockabye,” which has sold well since it came out in 2008, I’d like to dwell on the virtues of the first snippet: its off-kilter omission of punctuation, except in the seventh line; its wordplay with a kind of Hopkinsesque enjambment and alteration of meaning between lines two and three; its use of parallel, rhyming adverbs in lines three and five – and don’t forget the rhyming “me” in line four; its subtly ironic tone in line six, followed by an out-of-left-field rhetorical question in line seven – which is not the end of the poem but a segue line to a scene in “the poor park,” where druggies sip soup from Styrofoam cups and the pregnant speaker walks “the junkie’s walk (tilted).”
Nobody, least of all the Los Angeleno Woolf – whose baby’s name is not Asher but Archer! – has written postpartum poems as grueling as her namesake mom from the trenches of the Empire State. Wolff’s poem in ten parts, “The Letdown,” begins with an epigraph: “A tree whose hungry mouth is prest / Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast.” These notorious lines from Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees” begin sappily (!), but Kilmer’s momentary stay against chaos precedes Wolff’s “disappointment,” “emergency,” “‘death / instinct,’” “crazy dream,” and so forth. Having to wean Asher from breast milk leads Wolff to pose contradictions:
it’s like I lost the baby
it’s not like I lost the baby
at the beginning I wished
sometimes I’d lost the baby
How can any man comprehend such bereavement? As one of the book’s longest poems, more clearly a collage than most other pieces, in places “The Letdown” comes close to showcasing Wolff’s gothic proclivities, evident since her debut book, “Manderley.“ But “The Letdown”’s lurid meanderings, like the Hudson River near Wolff’s home in Athens, New York, circle around a woman whose feelings have been concussed. Come to think of it, Wolff uses various forms of the word “feelings” at least 15 times during the course of “The King.” If “thinking is dry, and frivolous,” she longs to be alone “at last with [her] feelings” – recalling Keats’s magnificent exclamation, “O for a life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts!”
I’m happy to add that, while it’s no barrel of laughs, this book offers up quite a few dollops of humor. One poem’s title, “Raised by Wolves,” puns on the plural of Asher’s surname; he uses his mother’s maiden name. The title also of course refers to the legend of Romulus and Remus’s upbringing. Finally, it depicts the Rebecca Wolff/Ira Sher residence in Athens – not Rome – NY as a house on a cul-de-sac between two graveyards. No wonder the speaker freaks out at the slightest disturbance, sitting as is her wont nel mezzo del cammin. Sure, she drags her son “screaming down the road,” but edgy vaudeville high jinks, even screwball comedy almost prevail here.
Half-a-dozen other short amusing poems give the lie to the notion that psychopharmacology makes for a stale, humorless life. Towards the end of “The King” one of my favorite mini–laff riots involves wonderfully cumbersome jargon, the sort I associate with August Kleinzhaler, when Wolff describes her children – by now (surprise!) she has two – who sweeten her life and
dismantle anxiety apparatus
positive resource installation
Am I the only one who finds this satire on psychobabble devastating? Zoloft be damned: Wolff can be funny as a shrink on acid. (She can also turn tenderly nostalgic about old boyfriends or what she liked about childhood: “Tartare, salted on the butcher’s white waxed paper; avocado / eaten from its shell; statues one can never learn too well” – note the stately embedded heroic couplet, half-hidden by the line break and the semicolon.)
For me one last amiable aspect of “The King” involves the final line of “A Page from Cathy’s Book.” Wolff addresses her close friend and Fence Books author Cathy Wagner (alas, omitted by, though honorably mentioned in, Marvin and Dumanis’s anthology): “I don’t care if you think I’m crazy // I am crazy // but our sons will be brothers.”
The image of Wolff’s and Wagner’s young sons Asher and Ambrose romping together like brothers in Athens, NY or Oxford, OH makes me smile.
James Reiss, Emeritus Professor of English and Founding Editor of Miami University Press, taught at Miami University in Oxford, OH for 42 years.