The Earth Avails
by Mark Wunderlich
Graywolf Press, $15 (paper)
“Once I Walked Out,” the first poem in Mark Wunderlich’s The Earth Avails, is imbued with a prescient Whitmanesque intensity. Here’s how it begins:
Once I walked out and the worldrushed to my side. The willows bent
their pliable necks, tossed green hair hugely.
The hawk cried by the well.
The crows kept counting their kind.
Once I walked out and the sheep
bleated with sensitivity, touched
black muzzles to the grass. . . .
The gesture here is large—that “once” marks a day of reckoning when the poem attempts to give us nothing less than “the world.” On the move from the first beat, the speaker seems to be looking and listening without thinking—but merges with a landscape that is thinking, where crows count and sheep can vary their tone. If the poet can write about seeing a place like this (“green hair hugely”), and hearing a place like this (“the hawk cried by the well”), this heightened perception also discloses a world on the brink of not being the world. Marianne Boruch observed this tension when she wrote: “Poetry knows we are as close as a feather to disaster.”
Composed without sections (like his last collection, Voluntary Servitude), The Earth Avails has the fluidity of a memoir or a daybook, and continues in the same ecstatic parlance Wunderlich uses to begin it. The language can be mannered at times, but there are also sudden moments of disarray that come at you and register in the mind like an open coat in the wind I could imagine the poet wearing when he left the house at the beginning of “Once I Walked Out.” And it all reads—at least it did for me—like something left out in the rain and streaked by storm water, a book written with awe and dread around the wonder that we are still here on earth at all. This concern makes it sound contemporary, even though most of the book is drawn from another time altogether—farm life in early America—in narrative and lyric poems that are interspersed with prayers that also sound like they were written in that time period (“Prayer for a Journey by Sea,” “Prayer for Sunshine During a Time of Rain,” “Prayer in a Time of Drought,” “Prayer for the Fruits of The Field,” “Prayer During a Storm”).
That pastoral narrative is marked heavily by the unforgiving force of the natural world, and many of the prayers are pleas to that force simply to spare the world its threatening weather systems (“Spare the orchards from hail, the pines // from lightning, the village from the river’s brush / painting the cellars with mud. Spare us too // from a painful death, and keep us / from doing our worst”) and bring forth, instead, an opposite universe. This dual appeal becomes one of the narrative cores here—the idea that the earth avails, whether the orchards or the pines or the rivers have been spared or not; that every prayer sent up to heaven is more about asking God to act than merely accepting what God has already done and thanking him for it.
Animals are an essential part of the book’s trajectory, too, and they are often depicted on more than one imaginative plane. Many of the poems between the prayers are about animal rule: the sand shark, the swan, the cat, the horse (many, many horses) and the ram (“He stands stamping in the pasture, / angry that I’ve come, angry / that I didn’t come sooner with my pail / of grain. A topnotch of wool shields his eyes, / snagged with bits of hay, bunched with burrs”). Faith rules, too—not faith of the Christian variety exactly, but a kind of talking faith that records—like a journalist can—the history of suffering. Faith is recorded with skepticism, particularly when, in “Coyote, with Mange,” one has to grapple with how and why the animal world and the natural world converge in dis-ease (“Why have you pushed him from his world into mine, / stopped him there and turned his ear / toward my warning shout?”).
A body is always in some stage of failure or on its way to failure—be it the coyote’s with its mange or later, man himself. “Prayer in the Time of Sickness,” which opens “So far I have warded off the worst of things / that can happened to a brain and to a body,” is a clarion call to prayer. The world that the coyote gets pushed into is another universe altogether by the time Wunderlich’s book draws to its staggering conclusion in this final long poem where someone has fallen ill. The figure who began the book, leaving through the front door to enter a world never before seen or heard, seems to come to an end here:
You have left me here to wander, far from friends,
my family shuffling about their small farm
your absent gaze pressing them toward the grave
the night numbing me to the evident good
I might do or understand or receive.
There is a bruise on my brain that does not heal,
nor does it spread, walled in as it is by pills.
These first and last poems are so indelible that they bookend the pages between them as solidly as the beginning and end of somebody’s life. Taken as a whole, The Earth Avails reads as a remarkably cohesive narrative that can be taken as a kind of spiritual biography of a specific time on earth. Making becomes vital to the poems and their meanings, in other words. And the making involves the poet moving out of the way and surrendering to the subject matter, which makes the poem bigger. The “I” is consciousness, or perhaps greater good, more than it is autobiographical impulse. Wunderlich suggests over and over that his task was to write something bigger than the self:
I have loved my self and the world more than I have loved you,
with your unknowable face in the firmament,
and the world ripe with detail.
What is it you wish to teach me?
That self, is also, as it turns out, pretty queer:
You built me, bone by bone, counting
the hairs that would one day thatch my crown,
building cleverness in my hands, weakness in my knees,
a squint and a taste for cake. You showed me
the dip of a man’s clavicle, arrow of ankle and calf,
weaving in me a love of those bodies like my own. . . .
Wunderlich’s previous collections, The Anchorage and Voluntary Servitude, are both very much influenced by queer themes and ideas. Here he is, writing from New York, in 1992, at the beginning of The Anchorage:
On the runway at the Roxy, the drag queen
fans herself gently, but with purpose.
She is an Asian princess, an elaborate wig
jangling like bells on a Shinto temple,
shoulders broad as my father’s. . . .
And here, in the last poem of The Earth Avails:
Your name is nowhere to be found
in my future, treeless and tasting of salt.
Here I stand at the estuary
My horse cropping grass, no sounds of men
save the one next to me
as he pares dried mutton with a knife.
This speaker is now older, certainly, and the men from the first two books have in some ways become a man, a horse, and the pastoral world. That is figurative, of course, but it is literal, too. Wunderlich himself lives in a three-hundred-year-old farmhouse in the Hudson Valley he took years renovating, and the early idea for The Earth Avails came from the research he did on the people who lived in the house before he did, which then lead to different folk-religious sources for the prayers in the book.
While Wunderlich’s book is not just a book of common prayer or a book about early American religion, The Earth Avails is a book that holds at its center something moral and fixed while still trying to navigate a faith that almost causally resists a center. The poetic mode here recalls the way Christ in Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ resists the fact that living in a body spells disaster for the desire he cannot stop from haunting that body’s every living moment. The man who inhabits The Earth Avails is solid at times, ghostly at times, erotic at others. Of the earth and not of the earth. He is, like Kazantzakis’s Christ, someone whose faith in something supernatural rather than religiously almighty gives him the language to call it into a kind of poetry he has never written before. And, that, finally, is the abiding power of Wunderlich’s book—the fact that while it feels like something nobody but this poet could have written, there is still a kind of amazement along with the earth that avails, that a book about how and why it does got written, too.