Photograph: Jennifer Murawski
The gap between reality and the perception of it can be a vast space into which we project misery, hope, expectation, desire, and disappointment. It is equally the place where ideology wedges itself as a filter, and it has become increasingly—exponentially—mediated by the digital realm. Rebecca Wolff’s One Morning— unflinchingly examines this gap in poems that range across a variety of relationships, from the familial, to the erotic, to our entanglements with friends and strangers. Wolff’s poems recognize and chafe against the separate and overlapping sets of internalized, imposed, or accepted regulations that govern these relationships. The resulting struggle between constraint and transgression constitutes one of the book’s primary themes. Fantasies of freedom, on occasion somewhat desperate, are briefly formulated, although Wolff rarely indulges them.
The poems in One Morning— are full of ragged and sometimes sharp edges, both in form and content. These are not the abrupt disjunctions of the virtual world but something closer to a messiness of the heart and body. While not exactly a confessionalist, Wolff can be bold in her descriptions of love—and more painfully, the lack of love—or the way in which love is fought over, yet eventually fades away: “you won’t love me and I won’t / love you that mandate absconded which called us // up the hill.” The book depicts a social compact in danger of being broken, whether between—as here—an I and a you, or as the more general consequence of an economic system that puts everyone in competition for resources and attention. “A different mountain. // How can I buy // a piece of it” ends “Stockholder” after Wolff has descended the (sacred) hill that domestic bliss seemed to promise. The temptation at that point is to become more calculating, to see the world as not shared but a collection of scraps over which to battle.
One Morning— invokes something utterly unique and totally unremarkable: life itself.
Despite this focus on looking at personal and immediate worlds, One Morning— is not particularly imagistic. Rather, Wolff observes herself observing. Similarly, each of the book’s six sections takes a different angle on her fundamental concerns. For instance, the third section is a long poem describing the life and decade-long sordid death of an allegorical family figure named Peter J. Perry who staggers through and out of hearth, wealth, health, city, country—all of it summarized as:
Between the misery of the endand the glory of beginningall the glowing love made fleshtime collapsesdisgorging banalities.Certain are goldminescertain are minefields
In these lines, the ecstatic is collapsed into the mundane, while both are circumscribed by a fatalistic movement between reward and trepidation, especially within the family unit. In a prose poem entitled “The Ungovernable,” Wolff writes: “Objectively we could expect that our family members would go out of their way to behave toward us with extra care, concern, and with love.” Yet who is more “ungovernable”—the parent who withholds love or the child who in turn rebels?
This question of governability becomes a central issue relating to the individual, the family, and larger social formations. As the publisher of Fence Books (and founding editor of its accompanying literary journal), Wolff has championed audacious writing by poets such as Ariana Reines, Chelsey Minnis, and Joyelle McSweeney. One Morning— similarly grapples with the quality of permissiveness that features so strongly in their work. This freedom is contingent upon making “good choices,” as Wolff writes in “Fronting.” Still, choice can be complicated. Such awareness is linked to the experience of being a parent, which Wolff here continues to address in its complexities, although not as extensively as in her previous poetry collection, The King (2009), whose title, a nickname for her son, affectionately and desperately captures the challenges of new motherhood.
Instead these poems encompass parents and children, friends and lovers, community and solitude, politics and economics, while slicing quickly between them. In this sense, the title’s “one morning” references something utterly unique (a new day) and totally unremarkable—much like life itself. Maybe this is a form of wisdom, or maybe it is what it feels like when everything has the potential to be taken away: “I must draw with crude / strokes now—I am // alone—I have been / violated—(etc.).” The violence invoked here is unnamed, yet is all the more pervasive for that. In Wolff’s poems, this violence ranges from the economic to the interpersonal, because when even the view can be bought and sold, aesthetics becomes secondary (as in the poem “Poetics Department: A Mockery”).
After other forms of relationships have been moved through, generally section by section, One Morning— ends with a couple of poems about friends. Tending to current interactions between self and other, Wolff’s poems don’t have much time to obsess over the past, and there is an anti-institutional streak (regarding marriage, museums, etc.) running through the book, as “Visions of Never Being Heard from Again” alludes to with its patriarchal genealogies and mausoleums: “ancestral crypt your daddy built; a grassy hill; a patchwork quilt; / inadequately warming.” Rather her work seeks, though doesn’t quite propose, alternatives to what is mostly settled for, and she finds them in friends; in individual and shared hardship; and even in family, however fractured. As a writer, editor, and publisher Wolff has for almost two decades fought on behalf of the unexpected, and One Morning— is her best book of poetry yet. It speaks to both ghosts and a very real world.