Dara Wier
Wave Books, $16 (cloth)
Like Gertrude Stein’s Stanzas in Meditation and John Berryman’s The Dream Songs, Dara Wier’s exquisitely rending You Good Thing belongs to the genre of lyric detection: “Sit back, clear your mind, we’ll investigate the terms of you”; “You leave tracks, you leave evidence”; “Collecting intelligence not as a spy might, more as a reluctant / Witness.” Like The Dream Songs, You Good Thing takes as its form—its skin, its philosophy, its safety and limit—the sonnet sequence. More specifically, Wier’s book inhabits (meditates on rather than explores) the terrifying conundrum of Berryman’s Dream Song 29:

But never did Henry, as he thought he did,
end anyone and hacks her body up
and hide the pieces, where they may be found.
He knows: he went over everyone, & nobody’s missing.
Often he reckons, in the dawn, them up.
Nobody is ever missing.  

It’s simplifying to say that someone in You Good Thing is missing, in part because “missing” is grammatically aberrant. When someone is losing at poker, one is in the process of loss, in the way the daughters of Danaus are in the process of losing water through their sieves. If a gerund, however, is meant to signify ongoing action, what in “missing” is ongoing? One continues to be irretrievable for someone else, sure, but for “missing” to work like “losing,” one would have to be in the gradient process of disappearing, of becoming irretrievable. Differently put, “missing” is unfair because unlike other gerunds, it designates a foregone, irreversible conclusion. If “missing” behaved like other gerunds, it would be possible to stop it: “your sudden availability strikes us / As an improvement in attitude and as an opportunity / We should not let slip through our fingers like some / Gelatinous substance we’re unable to identify.” 

As Emily Dickinson writes, ruin is formal (like a sonnet sequence), and slipping (right through our fingers) is “Crash’s law”:

Suddenly all of a sudden, yes, that was the story, a good one.
Uncompromising, formerly forcefully forbidden. A once-upon-a-time thing.
Was it something in the water, was it something we’d done?
Slumping and crumbling like dead bedsheets. Dream-ruffling things.

Was it something we’d done loosely translates the feeling beneath Berryman’s fantasmatic “hacks her body up”: surely there’s a reason for how things are, for what you and we have become. Surely we did something to deserve this, even as the “this” remains ambient, atmospheric; as though our fate were to weather a vagueness whose gentleness resists even the further clarity of a sonnet’s formalism. Wier’s You Good Thing, with the startling bravery of a vigil, conjures the paralyzing largo with which someone ends up being missed—it makes acutely sensible “missing’s” chronic, compulsively repeating (but non-inuring) gradualness.

Analogies are the heart of the matter, not merely ornamental, and the poems carry their beauty like a viaticum.

The someone who is missing in You Good Thing is the title’s “you,” who runs through these poems like an inexorable thread. “You leave trails to tantalize and / We suppose to keep us wanting to find you”; “You will be / Counted eternally missing eternally lost”; “By and by we’ll / Adjust to your absence”; “We are still where you left us.” Midway through Wier’s collection, a poem titled “The Terrible Poem” calls to mind Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “terrible sonnets,” the point of whose departure, some reckon, is the disappearance of a god. If there are echoes of Hopkins (“I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day”) throughout Wier’s poems (“I feel you / Fading and find you falling for that feeling”), absence doesn’t so much befall divinity but is instead experienced as divinity, a terrible apotheosis as of a Greek hero turning into the stars of his own constellation. “I don’t want you to fail to understand what it means to me when / To frighten me you stare as if staring were the start of stars.” Reductively, a sonnet (c.f. Petrarch, c.f. Shakespeare) turns a man into a god. Wier’s sonnets, ravishing and frightened, perform a reverse alchemy whose deflations of the genre (like Lear’s fool telling jokes on the heath) are a wintry mix of mordant and brilliant and adorable. I think, for instance, of her revision of “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”:

You are much like a rubber tombstone in a hailstorm, some-
What like, on a porcelain tabletop one long black hair, moving
Of its own accord, a little like jasmine tea spread over the galaxy
In a midnight’s drawing, pieces of you are not at all like a mountain
Of rice or sand in a ruined sandbox, your shadow disobeys the sun’s orders.

These are sonnets that bear witness to the apotheosis but will not contribute to it:

One day you’re pretending we fail to notice you,
Another in plain view you blaze at us daring,
Now you are nothing more than a moon-sheltering
Black cloud of falling birds we are gathering,
We hold these birds in our fretful keeping.

In the withdrawal of the “you,” we are left frightened and curatorial. Imagine Persephone in a field of Ashbery flowers, then imagine the grayly grieving landscape upon Persephone’s abduction; this is a version of the austerely buzzing, planetary hinterland in which these poems occur. It’s a world of science-fictional precariousness: “in the distance ivory glowed across the horizon / As if a supernatural light source were being tested”; “there’s steady / Breathing and sometimes a stream of steady wind’s unwavering velocity / Such as one might find in a wind tunnel testing something’s endurance.”

I hear You Good Thing somewhere in the register of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “one hidden stuff” or “you big galoot” or as Wier writes, “you big bully,” as in you big bull in the psychical china shop, do you even realize what you’re breaking. Like Emerson’s stuff, Wier’s you is loved if not entirely understandable; like Emersonian stuff, the grandeur—the good—of the thing may well exceed understanding, per se. In lieu of understanding, the book resorts to analogy as stopgap epistemology; this calculus of relation is the poetry’s principle form of countering the fugacity with which the you has retreated: “If you were not a socket wrench and I were a lug nut”; “As if you were a magnet and where you pass iron filings”; “As if / you were a few degrees of temperature and we were your / Faithful thermometers.” We learn a relation to you and not the other way around, and in light of the way these analogies are often the closest “we” come to certainty, the singularity of their relational flow suggests the great stakes of Wier’s repertoire of correspondences. They are the heart of the matter, not merely ornamental, and the poems carry their beauty like a viaticum: “In the distance are horses convening—as snow falls on them / Is as you fall on us and we stand here as though we were taking it.”  

Although the omission implied by Wier’s title doesn’t exactly call “you” into being, it participates in the loving reification that renders “you” nearly imaginable if not tenable. The omission is a flashlight on shadows, the hands of Thetis holding Achilles by the ankles above the Styx. I belabor the lexical plangency of these three words because they are a powerful spell, which prefigures the power of this ravishing sonnet sequence. The relation between this “you” (which acquires the specificity and psychical contours of a proper noun) and its “thing” engenders a mediating ethics: this is the good. This is to say that “good” not only modifies “thing” (i.e., goodness as intrinsic property) but is the way “you” becomes (or returns to being) a “thing.” The good, like the omission, makes “you” (and by extension, “thing”) possible, only to confer its good, after the fact, as though “you” and “thing” had been good all along. The ethics of the good, its generous, alchemical humility, is the good of Wier’s poetry. Alongside her other epithets—scintillating, hilarious, restless, impish—I’m adding Orphic. These are Orpheus poems. If one were to retell the Eurydice myth in light of Dickinson’s “Crumbling is not an instant’s Act,” You Good Thing might be the result. “For a good long time, I plan to love you . . . / You’re not going to turn around when you leave who is you.”

Photograph: flickr.com/weaselmcfee