by Britton Gildersleeve
State poet laureates can be a . . . mixed bag. Some are excellent. More are adequate. A few are downright awful. I’ve sat on committees to choose state poet laureates—and met many, as well; there’s a huge arc from ghastly to great. In other words: the title alone isn’t that impressive.
But every so often it’s richly deserved, as it is in Wyatt Townley’s case. Townley, Poet Laureate Emerita for the state of Kansas, has a new book—Rewriting the Body—that should be required reading for lovers of poetry, and especially for writers interested in craft. It’s relatively easy to find engaging topics in poetry, but to construct a book of poems crafted so that they interest (fascinate!) another, critical poet? To link poems through leitmotifs—smallness, darkness, closets, rings of boys and men, what matter is—to place poems so that they converse across the bifold pages of a book (“Morning Coffee” & “Night Wine,” for instance)? And to do this with the lightest of hands, almost a feather-whisper touch? This is far beyond the abilities of most poets, laureates or not.
Here there be villanelles and concrete poems, where form is shaped by content (“The Back of Beyond” and “Song of Myself”), as well as brilliant command of poetic tools: anaphora, meter, rhythm, and slant/internal rhyme focusing the reader’s attention so very subtly. In poem after poem, Townley’s grasp of her craft frames with dark precision the content of her poems: the villanelle “The Closet” haunts with its refrain The shoes lead here—all shoes show up at night. That Townley pairs ruby slippers and red shoes in the poem—conflating the technicolor Oz with the horrific Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale—further illuminates the dark corners of poetic memoirs written “in a closet rendezvous.” While the title sequence—“Rewriting the Body”—stuns with its various stratagems, from the framing stage directions to the quietly brutal section titled “Sold As Is/Inspections Welcome”: . . . where one life ended / someone else’s began / your childhood yanked / from you beside the roses. . . . your small legs a wishbone. . . .
A current of violence runs through the collection like a discordant jazz riff, coloring even the recurring wedding dress motif: “Black Wedding Train” (a black wedding train / made of catshit weeds and mud / in its folds boys / circle a girl / facedown in the dandelions / the ants bear witness / to her fisted silence / and the zipper’s long scream); “Wedding Dresses,” where the dresses outlast us. / They whisper in their caskets/ in the corners of attics . . . ; the poignant promise of “Advice,” which confesses All I can say / is what the wedding gown / whispers to the lawn. Listen to the internal music of “dresses” and “whisper,” while “caskets” echoes so very softly “outlast us,” and leads inevitably to “attics.” Wow, right?
Relationships move beyond weddings, however, and Townley’s luminous “Thirty Years,” like Mona Van Duyn’s famous “Late Loving,” succinctly celebrates a long and happy relationship: whatever we were about / to say now rises / in our throats the same /words we know better / than our name / while hair went white / across a table we’re / still mid-prayer /mid-bite. As a poet once noted wryly, there are few good poems about successful relationships. Rewriting the Body challenges that aphorism with its gleam of polished words reflecting the patina of familiarity.
But Rewriting the Body is not a gilded pæan to love, nor even life. The finale—the book’s title sequence—marries the writer’s passion for poetry with her own aging mortality, as well as nightmare passages familiar to far too many of us. And yet . . . there is an exquisitely lyric loveliness to #12 in the sequence. It opens with a quotation that notes that only 4% matter is included in the universe’s mass, after which the poem explodes with a list of both what matter is—a juddering fridge . . . the pencil crossing / the page like a wave to shore /coming back for what /at its tip is /the sound of wind—and what the things are that matter: It’s whatever we touch / and later scatter / How can so little matter / matter so much.
What should matter to readers of Nimrod is that this is a book you’ll both learn from and marvel at. It’s a book that—like its wondrous final sequence—defies easy categorization. Craft to study? Absolutely. Content to amaze and awe? That too. And I’ve only touched on a handful of the work included. Suffice to say that it’s worth buying. And that you’ll return to it more than once.
Wyatt Townley’s work has been featured in both Ted Kooser’s American Life in Poetry column and Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac radio program. Her poetry collections include Perfectly Normal (1990), The Breathing Field: Meditations on Yoga (2002), and The Afterlives of Trees (2011).
Britton Gildersleeve’s creative nonfiction and poetry have appeared in Nimrod, Spoon River Poetry Review, This Land, and many other journals. She has published three chapbooks and was the director of the Oklahoma State University Writing Project for twelve years.
Rewriting the Body by Wyatt Townley. Austin, TX: Stephen F Austin UP, 2018.