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The Davids Inside David, by Sarah Wetzel
Terrapin Books, 2019. 116 pages.
Reviewed by Ralph Hamilton


Art breaks down the boundary between its object and life—

this is the mummified remains of a forest, my father told me,

holding a lump of coal, before throwing it onto the grill

—and every now and again,

feeds a small fire.

from “The Beauty of Cockroaches”

The Davids Inside David, Sarah Wetzel’s new book of poems, invites readers to explore fundamental questions about life and death, meaning, sin and faith, loss and love, friendship and family, the self, perceived boundaries between oneself and others, and art. It is a kind of pilgrimage in which the author continually probes the surface of memories, decisions, the contemporary world, artworks, and received wisdom, always digging deeper to reveal and to understand. Though the means are richly lyric, the ends are philosophical, by turns ontological, epistemological, aesthetic, and ethical.

As if describing a method for understanding painting or life, the poet’s “St. Thomas” begins:

You’ve got to reach your whole hand

into the body,

open the wound wide,

tear flesh,

if you want

to place even one finger

on the other side of the canvas

which is a door…

There are barriers to this excavation, however. One is the poet’s sense of reticence and privacy inculcated by the family and culture in which she was raised. “Daughter Like Father” recounts an image of her father standing alone on an ocean beach:

…The tiny figure

of my father stands in front of the vast Atlantic

for almost forty minutes. When he finally turns,

he stumbles in the sand, falling

to his knees. I watch

as he slowly picks himself up, knowing

we will never speak of it.

The poem reveals the depth of feeling hidden in silence, as well as the mystery of what can ever be known. Yet even with an adored father, Wetzel delves into tender childhood memories for their contradictions and complexities. “Even the Monsters Were Good” reveals one of the books most startling and poignant images:

My father read to me

from Vietnam

recording Dr. Seuss stories

on cassette tapes

before he’d plan the day’s

defoliation of forests

clothes burned from bodies

and their voices separated the dark

from the light

and I wasn’t afraid of the night.

In addition to her own reserve, Wetzel confronts her distraction and heedlessness. “I have got to start paying attention,” the chagrined poet declares in “The Missing Century” upon discovering that her neighbor was missing for several days before she noticed anything amiss.

Many of the poems are driven by a persistent existential dread. In “Next Summer, Barcelona,” for instance, the poet confesses:

I suppose, I’m terrified too, terrified

that I’m wasting my life and won’t finish

anything of consequence. That there’s no

Barcelona and that there might not even be

a kind ending.

Similarly, the propulsive “All of Us Running,” both reformulates and expands this fear:

he is running from emptiness

toward an even bigger emptiness

filled with our sound.

Wetzel is not looking for easy answers or comforting bromides, but rather for honest questions and challenging, often difficult, truths. In one of the books many ekphrastic poems, “Neither Coming nor Going,” written in response to John Singer Sargent’s enigmatic “Staircase in Capri,” the painting reveals its philosophic weight:

There is no beginning—only stairs

opening to the sapphire of a Capri sky, a tree’s

leaves twining above white on white walls.

We don’t see where it ends.

Another theme to which Wetzel returns is the distance, both real and imagined, between people, and even events and emotions. Her “Two Photographs of Winter” juxtaposes one serene domestic scene with another very different image: somewhere not that far / a man hands / his infant through a break / in a barbed wire fence. Likewise, she often confronts the false sense of the “other” that is used to exclude and demonize immigrants and different classes. In “The Marble Fawn and Other Anecdotes of Excess” the narrator concludes: Pipe us a song, Animal-Boy, if you can remember one; we’ve been pretending you’re not one of us, for centuries.

In poem after poem, Wetzel is reaching below the veneer, or through the boundary, in order to find something real, something true. “The Case for Resurrection” finds the poet in a catacomb piled with the bones of 4,000 unnamed Franciscan friars:

When no one was looking, I reached through

the protective wire mesh, ran fingers around a man’s

empty eye socket. My hand came back coated

with what might have been dust but surely

contained a trace of what he’d been, his pain

and penance as well as our common hunger.

The question of men is another theme to which the poet returns. Beneath their poise, strength and, yes, beauty, what other capacities linger or lurk within this gender? “Reservoir Dogs” considers’ Michelangelo’s sculpture of the shepherd boy:

He made the boy’s face somber, as if David mourns

the giant’s death, his left hand limply

still holding the slingshot. Looking up at him,

it’s almost possible to believe in grace.

Followed by a reaction to Volterra’s painting of the same subject, with its lurid Tarantino-like delight in violence, she continues:

Praise Michelangelo for not showing us

that boy, the one bent over his conquest

for a first kiss, tasting the flesh,

wanting more.

Indirectly, the poem is asking about the ways in which male desire and violence might be linked. Neither here nor elsewhere is the poet judging, but rather seeking insight, however uncomfortable. Likewise, in the poem from which the book takes its title, she recounts a conversation with a friend about the David:

After visiting the museum, my friend said, He’s both more

and less than what I thought.

We were speaking of men and not statues of men.

Small Davids exist inside Davids seventeen feet high.

Wetzel is no less gentle when cross-examining her own ambivalences, contradictions, vanities, and confusions, such as these lines from “Of Myself a Basilica”:

I refuse to regret my lies; they were done for love

of myself, which is, I suppose, a kind

of benediction.

Of course, the poet understands the social context in which women’s self-criticism, in particular, exists. “Woman as St. Bartholomew” scrutinizes dimensions of this phenomenon:

I didn’t yet know

a woman carries

her own knife, that while she’s trying

on shoes, reading a magazine,

brushing her hair, she’s practicing

how to cut

her own skin, that I’d only imagined

I’d be stronger.

This rich and rewarding collection concludes with “La Porta Sacra.” The redemption found here is not one of transformation. Rather, like many pilgrimages, it is a resonant and rambling journey from which readers return home enlarged by the mottled yet majestic lives they have beheld:

I am walking though

each of Rome’s four sacred doors opened

for sinners and every sinner better

than me. But I don’t want forgiveness.

I don’t even want to forget.

I see now—I want it all

to come rushing back.

 

Ralph Hamilton is editor of RHINO. With an MFA in Poetry from Bennington, his poems have appeared in Court Green, CutBank, Pirene’s Fountain, Blackbird, The Ilanot Review, and elsewhere. He judged Fifth WednesdayJournal’s (FWJ) poetry prize in Fall 2013, and served as FWJ’s guest poetry editor in 2014. He also co-edited the debut volume of Glass Lyre Press’s Aeolian Harp Anthology in 2016. His first book of poems, Teaching a Man to Unstick His Tail (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2015) was listed among the top 10 poetry books of 2015 by a committee of the American Library Association, and was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award. In 2015 Ralph was also nominated for Best New Poets and a Pushcart Prize. Ralph is currently working on his second book, Faster, Daddy!