Wilder by Claire Wahmanholm
Milkweed Editions, November 2018. 96 pages.
Reviewed by Luisa A. Igloria
PICTURES OF A DETONATED WORLD
The cover of Claire Wahmanholm’s Lindquist & Vennum Prize-winning book, Wilder features a greyscale photo of the moon taken by the NASA/Goddard/Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, set against a plain red background. The image appears again in parts, a sort of dark moon rising through the book: on page 3 and 33; and finally as a complete image distributed across the facing pages 52 and 53. They echo bone-starkness and gravity, as the poet carves in poem after poem pictures of a detonated world; and creatures, human and otherwise, who struggle to make sense of what it means to live in the aftermath of something unnamable:
After the explosion: the longest night.
. . .
Outside the dream, songbirds fall from the trees
and sing their way to ash.
Inside the dream, we look out the window
at the sun that is not really a sun, which brightens
and brightens until our eyes are melted glass.
What happened here, we don’t exactly know. But we find factories with “toothless windowsills” and “rooms of animal suits,” skies with no stars. Disembodied, Wahmanholm’s speaker reaches out to touch “tiny bright bees” but
my eyes which were
already honeyed shut
over two cells
of empty space.
I stood in the dark
and felt their bodies’
soft bullets on what
used to be my face.
In one of Wahmanholm’s ten erasure poems based on Carl Sagan’s Cosmos,
the world is very
distant . We
. . . know that our universe
Astrophysicist Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, published in 1980, went on to become the most popular “soft science” book ever published. Over five million copies have sold all over the world. I know or randomly see people (at the store, perhaps; or in airport check-in lines) who’ve put one or more lines from Cosmos on their bodies. One of my daughters, finishing up her first poetry manuscript and her last semester of MFA school, had “We are made of star stuff” tattooed on her left shoulder a while ago.
It was also Sagan who curated the first physical messages sent out into space— music, sounds, factoids (why no poetry?): a kind of time capsule with diagrams, line drawings and symbols, intended to explain human history to extraterrestrials. These were the gold-anodized Pioneer Plaques, rigged to the antenna supports of the 1972 Pioneer 10 and 1973 Pioneer 11 spacecraft; and the Voyager 1 Golden Record. President Jimmy Carter wrote a message to any extraterrestrials who might intercept these spacecraft: “This is a present from a small, distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours.”
Wahmanholm spoke of her relationship to the subjects of Wilder and to Sagan’s text in a November 2018 Frontier interview:
“You can tell how a society/culture/civilization/world is doing based on how well its children are doing—in a grim way, they’re the canaries in the coal mine, the bellwethers. They’re physical representations of the future, of the things that should (ideally) outlast us. But what if they don’t? That is, how much damage do we have to do to ourselves before we not only destroy the present but also the future?
If Sagan has given us something lovely, this (the resulting erasure) is what we’ve done with it…
[But] …though I would characterize myself as feeling pretty despairing about things overall, I must still harbor a subconscious hope that we can recover from this—that a warning could be useful. That is to say, the poems are saying something I don’t think I really believe, but I must. And maybe that’s poetry’s role, at least for me. What is revealed is something far more hopeful than I feel I can own. And that’s sort of incredible.”
Reading the poems, I wanted the spare and beautiful language to keep harrowing me with its sorrow for that blasted world in which we “vanished in a flood, //…stumbled from the spring,// …hid inside a haunted wood/ to save [our]selves from drowning.” Like Lindquist & Vennum judge Rick Barot, I did not want to stop, I did not want this elegy of a book to end. This is also perhaps how and where Wilder rehumanizes the kind of hope represented by a work like Cosmos, making it more real again such that both the science and the humanism behind our aspirations can be reeled back a bit from that edge in the outer galaxy to which they’ve been sent, along with those time capsules containing summaries of the “best of” human history:
We were out of songs to hum. Our throats were boxes
of soot. In our orchards, no more insect thrum,
no swallow quiver.
How did we dare have children we couldn’t save?
If we closed our eyes, the falling apples
sounded like heavy rain.
Luisa A. Igloria is the winner of the 2015 Resurgence Prize (UK), the world's first major award for ecopoetry, selected by former UK poet laureate Sir Andrew Motion, Alice Oswald, and Jo Shapcott. Natasha Trethewey selected her manuscript What is Left of Wings, I Ask, as the recipient of the 2018 Center for the Book Arts Letterpress Poetry Prize. She is the author of the full length works The Buddha Wonders if She is Having a Mid-Life Crisis (Phoenicia Publishing, Montreal, 2018), Ode to the Heart Smaller than a Pencil Eraser (selected by Mark Doty for the 2014 May Swenson Prize, Utah State University Press), Night Willow (Phoenicia Publishing, Montreal, 2014), The Saints of Streets (University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, 2013), Juan Luna’s Revolver (2009 Ernest Sandeen Prize, University of Notre Dame Press), and nine other books. She teaches on the faculty of the MFA Creative Writing Program at Old Dominion University, which she directed from 2009-2015. www.luisaigloria.com