What of all the worlds we never know and never get to see? Some poets helpfully capture worlds in their books, worlds packed with energy, visions, thoughts, and feelings about particular places and people. Two poets that we might never think of sharing anything in common, actually have in common an uncommonly vivid, alert, and original perspective on the two very different worlds they inhabit. These two well-educated poets, Julia Vinograd (Berkeley and Iowa) and John Whitworth (Edinburgh and Oxford), are both beloved, celebrated poets with awards and accolades. Yet I’m sure Vinograd and Whitworth have never heard of each other. So this review is the meeting of two worlds.
In Lovely Day for a Wedding, Whitworth has his knickers in a wicked twist, raving on with great wit and gusto about this character and that character, here with an ekphrastic touch:
Such pretty people too, though that one
There’s pissed off, and there, the fat one
Bending the sofa, he’s just pissed.
You play the anthropologist,
Crinkle the eyes a bit and dust
Boy-girl, girl-boy with random lust.
Such arrogance of bum and belly!
These fauns and nymphs by Botticelli,
Their long, indifferent bodies seem
As mother-naked as a dream.
(The Chimes at Midnight)
Whitworth’s effortless meter and chiming rhyme are a delight throughout the book, making an amusement of the twists and turns of some unknown anguish. However, one doesn’t arrive at rhymes that sound so effortless without some extreme mental strain. Once achieved, though, rhyme has supernatural powers, helping us see and cope with the truth. It’s true! Free verse is a natural movement of the mind. “But art, naturally, cannot afford to limit itself to movements that are natural. For it may be under strain that a truth will be found to reveal itself, brought to light’s intensity from the hiding places of its power.” (a quote from the great champion of rhyme, Sir Christopher Ricks, in his book, Dylan’s Visions of Sin)
Whitworth’s second book, Poor Butterflies, was chosen by Philip Larkin as one of his “Books of the Year” (1982): “a worthy addition to the meanwhile-back-to-real-life school of poetry.” Interesting, because at least in Lovely Day, Whitworth’s world is heavily populated by students and teachers. In the comedic “Pastorals at Earls Court,” we find, however, a sample of Whitworth’s “real-life” perspective on poetry readings, awards, poets, and the literary world in general:
Publishing poetry’s like masturbation.
It doesn’t do you any good, but you can’t stop.
While Whitworth doesn’t shy away from coarse and brutal realities, there is also a tempering tenderness and sweetness. In one of two sonnets of childhood, “That One’s Me,” Whitworth’s parenthetical aside is a kindly pat on the arm:
The nights are drawing in, says Grandmama
(And so they are for her, and so they are).
And again, in a second childhood sonnet, “Tell It Softly,” a petulant child-voice nevertheless expresses a compassionate truth:
It isn’t magic and it isn’t fair.
Nor for the old chap eaten by the bear.
Formalists will have fun picking out the many forms Whitworth has mastered (except perhaps the villanelle), while those who prefer free verse should not feel at all chained down, the poems are so wild and natural. The book’s final poem, “Careless Love,” is a long tour de force that reveals the source of anguish. First, a quick tour of the chaps on campus, the future bride’s groom-pool:
Life is more than men of course,
But the chaps are out in force:
Cal the clever, Finn the funny,
Marcus with his pots of money,
Serge le sportif, spare and tanned,
Cyril, singer in the band,
Mick, the marxist commissar,
Jamil on his Yamaha,
Pip the pansy, Paul the pompous,
Burt, the Byron of the campus.
One special suitor eventually emerges, only to be lusted after by another man:
I loved you with a love quite out of common,
Silent, enduring, passing the love of women.
And so on through love, wedding, and marriage, until one day, adultery erupts:
This is the real problem, more knotty.
Does he push the adulterer’s pleasant face out through
The back of his suntanned neck? This is the man who
Is, after all, his best friend. It’d be a pity
Not to play squash on a Saturday morning
The wedding day was not so lovely after all, though, painfully, she is “lovelier than ever.” One finds consolation in rhyme. Whitworth is a master chimer. His rhymes are clever without being light, true without being simple, and delightfully informed by the range of his reading and his Oxford education.
Julia Vinograd is a Berkeley street poet; Panic is her 55th book. These two facts require some thought: What is a street poet? Who has written 55 books of poems? Vinograd has had a unique and remarkable writing life. She sells her books on the streets, and when she isn’t selling her books, she writes poems about street people and places. Vinograd’s books illuminate this tight-knit creative ecology. She tells us, in these two sections from “Writing a Poem,” that her world, far from being limited, is cosmic, painful, demanding, exotic, and rich:
Snakes sing in twisted old trees.
I lean on a cane to keep speeding stars
from crashing into my head.
I skin my knees on the moon.
Other people’s blood quacks for my attention
like ducks for breadcrumbs.
I remember digging a hole to China in my back yard,
the smell of moist earth and snails.
I’m still digging down to the paper,
In contrast to the passionate, urgent searching of the above last two lines, Vinograd concludes the following carefully observed ekphrastic poem by subtly excoriating God for spacing out over a rose, oblivious to the Holocaust:
For the Holocaust Paintings of Samuel Bak
The color of memory, the color of time.
A refugee ship sails out between cracks of sun-baked clay.
The sea is made of bricks.
Bearded wanderers bent over,
carrying the Tree of Life like a suitcase
kicking stones to make a path beneath their feet.
A young boy with a cap
peering thru the holes in history
sees equally armies and a toad croaking marvelously.
Both birds and angels wear raw wooden roughly hinged wings;
the sky tears to let them thru, the sky tears anyway.
Wings of splintered boards from the town dump,
the town burned behind them.
Eyes get in your smoke.
What a rose must look like to God
when He wasn’t looking at anything else
and He should’ve been.
In a poem about the Holocaust, Vinograd’s world of Berkeley street people is echoed in the “Bearded wanderers bent over,” refugees, armies, burned towns, and even homeless birds and angels, with their makeshift wings, doing the best they can, while the sky tears to make room for them, the sky already torn, and “Everything burned” like a perverse biblical sacrifice.
As she has many times before, Vinograd draws portraits of soldiers. In these lines from “Soldiers,” she brilliantly reverses her frequent use of personification, so that the soldiers become the war itself:
We were no longer human but fireworks;
using our names for fuel our skins exploded
in bursts of brightness above the jungle
while everyone burned, screamed and ran.
We were a gut roar of triumph
sinking a bloody knife into morning.
For a moment we were bigger than tomorrow.
Then we woke up in hospitals,
and knew we had failed.
Vinograd’s deep-rooted compassion for life makes her portrayals of suffering, death, and destruction overwhelmingly poignant. Each powerful line is another indictment of the insanity perpetrated in the world. Some of Vinograd’s most beautiful poems personify Jerusalem. In “Jerusalem’s Night,” the woman, Jerusalem, with the cosmos in her hair, wants to be a wild horse—not a place, not a person, not blessed, not adored, not holy—simply free:
Jerusalem went into night
to hide from the stars in her hair.
“Oh, let me be a wild horse
never lassoed by blessings,
never ridden by love, let everything holy
be only holes in the ground
for my young hoofs to leap over…”
For Whitworth and Vinograd, in their similar and different worlds, I offer the last lines of Auden’s “Canzone”:
Or else we make a scarecrow of the day,
Loose ends and jumble of our common world,
And stuff and nonsense of our own free will;
Or else our changing flesh may never know
There must be sorrow if there can be love.
Mary Meriam’s poems are published in Literary Imagination, The New York Times, American Life in Poetry, Mezzo Cammin, and The Spectator. Her chapbook, The Countess of Flatbroke (afterword by Lillian Faderman), was published by Modern Metrics/Exot Books. She is the editor of Lavender Review and a forthcoming sonnet anthology for Exot Books, Filled With Breath.