Great poets knew (and know) they only need one idea. They’re obsessed, and write on the same idea or theme (with minor keys, and secondary concerns) incessantly, including variations in assessment and tone. Wallace Stevens’ imagination over reality, Whitman’s big-gulp democratic effusions, Irving Layton’s castigation of man as coldblooded violent anti-messiah triggered by knowledge of his (and her) own insignificance, Ralph Gustafson’s secular psalms on grandeur through art history or sensuous epiphany, Philip Larkin’s brief light overwhelmed by mortality, poems from each have the unmistakable visionary imprimatur of their creator.
But that insistent and idiosyncratic, personal and depth-seeking (and sounding) concentration can also be found in overlooked or relatively unknown poets, as well, even though the force of the associations may be tamer or less convincing. Contemporary poets have had a memory obsession for quite a while. Don Coles is always concerned with the traffic between memory and the truth/semi-truth/untruths those memories engender. C.K. Williams, at his best, imagines past events as more troubling than they might initially have seemed, certainly a valuable corrective to “the good ole days”. And David O’Meara’s concerns with memory have more to do with how they act in the present, as emotional generator more than history.
Shoshanna Wingate’s first book of poetry, Radio Weather, (2014), explores memory as an unruly, organic, slow-pulse movement, more powerful than the lies we pluck to order meaning in pat abstractions. The best evidence for this is in her titular opener, which ruminates on the various meanings that past storms have for those who’ve experienced them, even though the initial spur (the radio call-in show) concerns future issues, which is a clever narrative manoeuvre in showing how past associations hard-pack into present conclusions which will be even more ineffective in years ahead. But Wingate complicates the process further: “Weather serves up/ memory better than any book.” Dramatic day-to-day events give exclamatory assurance for conclusions, yet Wingate immediately disagrees with that easy take based on personal chance encounters with nasty weather by an equally personal suggestion of what it means to be altered by slow accretion, by the spiritual transformation of reading, certainly a daring and unusual association: “Our stories, though,/tell us who we are.” This is the rare poem that earns its first-person plural claims.
I also like another “reading” association of a storm, in the same poem, which “felled trees older than most houses”. Brilliant! And “older” is the perfect word here.
Organic memory (or action) is not just meaningless flux, though. Wingate makes clear the slow progressions (or in this case, regressions) that occur, in her next poem, “The City Dwellers”, where the intermediary house owners are “our predecessors, the cousin spinsters/who left it wild. They kept a rotting shack//full of dead cats.” Nature, here, isn’t praised for its wild state, and there’s a neatly-fashioned similarity drawn between naive city dwellers who know nothing of gardening, and the equally-destructive country dwellers who let everything go to seed, out of neglect more than lack of skill. Two generations seem like a long enough time to correct past mistakes, but as the book’s opener makes clear, “Who likes to think about means and ends”?, especially when, in the case of “The City Dwellers”, the garden (metaphors are only overworked when they’re rendered poorly) was relatively Edenic.
Section Two begins with a delightful child’s pastoral (“Neighbours”) in crisp tetrameter, and the variations – the three-foot “and bolt around the back”; the first-stressed “No one knows people live down here” – break the rhythm with purpose. Once again, we see Wingate’s relationship with memory not as troubled discrimination of factual, even emotional, truth, but as continuation of character, of slow-moving time as fate. The narrator is confident in relating the action, yet the reader is left with more than a few questions. Where is the mother? Is she the neighbour? Is the neighbour a surrogate mother, the real mother missing (a divorce, real or emotional)? Who is the other of the poem, the “we” of the child’s address? Is it her sister, perhaps? Her neighbour’s daughter? The speaker’s imaginary friend? Perhaps most importantly, does it matter? Well, there are a few other clues that help stir the pot. About the wheat stalks: “We strip them, let the seeds rain down,/ then joust with drooping cattail reeds,/ and pop the heads for ammunition.” Precursors to war on the domestic front, which the missing or unclear relationships suggest? But the poem ends in gleeful reverie: we “fan ourselves with ferns like queens.” If the poem is a snapshot of the “nurture” side of the longstanding debate, it’s a gentle full-circle study (the neighbour or mother “laughs/ and scolds us, pulling silken threads/ of dandelions from our hair.”)
Section Three is a dramatic shift into the poem entitled “Letters from Vietnam” which, in the author’s note, is an “assemblage from letters sent to my father who ... worked as a conscientious objector counselor”. Interesting thoughts here which range from anger to fear to ambiguous resignation, but I’m not sure why they’re included in this otherwise carefully plotted book. Whether, or however much, they’re adapted, the lines are notable in the worst sense of found poetry. That is, the poetry of immediate witness of unfiltered, vivid, colloquial speech. But transcriptions, no mater how intense, honest, bravely vulnerable, can’t substitute for the crafted (and necessary) lies of poetry. “I enlisted about three months ago/ after having become frustrated/ with college. I couldn’t justify/ spending my father’s money/ any longer on the draft” begins the fourth of the eight letters, and the reader can fairly predict the further flat reportage which concludes (in this particular letter) with “I am only interested/ in getting out of the service/ in order to lead a more real/ and meaningful life”, as if Studs Terkel is at hand with a mic and tape recorder, the words on the page a faithful transcript. If there are any (or many) adaptations, it’s not clear the reasons for Wingate’s amendments, nor to what extent, or how, the changes occur.
The final section sees Wingate tackle the ambitious material of murder, disease, death, and the metaphysics of evil, and her reach exceeds her grasp. The last poem in the section (and book) rounds off the bleak subject matter with a run-of-the-mill snapshot of family love and committed protection – “I lift my shirt, eyes closed, and offer her/ my breast as she squirms into me” – but before that, we get “The Murderer”, an autobiographical meditation on a condemned man, a friend of her father’s. “Visits were denied after/ a prison riot and I didn’t see him/ again alive.” So Wingate’s (or the narrator’s, if you will) imagination must provide further speculation, as well as the filtered (from a lawyer) record of events leading to the unfortunate man’s execution. The poem fails both as an imaginative speculation, and as a close-up events-driven drama, since both are too far removed from their source. (For imagination, the reader gets the sentimental musings of “I wondered on his life./ I put him in a house with a little yard;/ a vegetable patch and wife, a cat, a simple job.” For reality, we get third-hand detail.) This is well enough if the speaker is coming at it from the perspective of the girl in “Neighbours”, but Wingate, it’s clear, is still wrestling with her memories, and with what they mean. The pathos, the grim diurnal events are projected, not realized. “The Poet’s Devil” attempts a cynical, tough girl voice – “You hear what I’m saying, don’t you./ Implication. Suggestion. Don’t be a dolt.” – but its effects are more nagging than fearful. Thankfully, “Living with the Dead” is a mountain that, by its immediate surroundings, towers over the rest of the section. I really like the tone of the poem – wise, both self-critical and self-forgiving, concerned. Echoing early poems in the volume, Wingate’s benedictory dead “rewrite history, always coming out good in the story.” Here, the unglamorous lines are strung with a various and resilient tug, at once nostalgic and abstract, deeply considered and inevitable, while implying, with a light though frightening touch, the hope we all have of being remembered, with fondness but also honestly. This is the future of “Better/ to live with books and music.”