Outside of reading (or rereading) Oliver Twist, we don’t typically receive or intend the word “artful” positively. However, Stefanie Wortman’s poems are artful in several positive, not to mention enthralling, ways. First, they are full of art (music, dance, big screen and small screen, painting, sculpture) and the ways—public and private, intentional and inadvertent—in which people receive it. Second, they don’t shy away from being art: their construction conspicuously recreating what art and art-making does for the maker as well as for the reader.
Poetry, like opera (my other artful love), frequently reminds us of its construction, of its staging. This characteristic, to me, makes its successes that much more gripping. So much of the poetry I adore never lets me forget that it is poetry, even as I am losing myself within it. In Wortman’s poems—in her wistful, charming sentences—I see “where the surgeon’s cut meets the wooden crutch” and hear the “manufactured organ / of rhythm” that characterizes the work of many of my favorite contemporary writers. Marie Ponsot, Gjertrud Schnackenberg, and Rachel Wetzsteon immediately come to mind—but also, maybe less obviously, Susan Stewart, Susan Wheeler, and Maurice Manning. In the work of these poets, the formal and colloquial do an artful dance, one in which it is never completely clear (or especially important) which leads. Again, their poems remind us that they are poems—the lines sound like lines, the stanzas look like stanzas—and in doing so, they impart a sense of dynamism and play among their graver elements.
Wortman shares this capacity, this willingness to let poems strut their stuff; she never obstructs or muffles her poems’ “poemness.” She writes in ways that showcase the genre’s potential to engross (and thereby uplift) as it considers and kvetches, commiserates and consoles.
Nine windows, arched and Romanesque,
muster along one wall. They recall
a lover who built canvases in antique shapes,
arranged like altar pieces. These he covered
with a muddle of flesh colors, marked with his
apostle’s name. His Magnificat became
the dream of a little kicker who swelled
my stomach at night and seemed to enlarge
the morning, as clear as the cold unstained
glass of the reading room windows. The catalog
I flip through has been in someone’s studio.
A carmine thumbprint in the margin
has not escaped the librarian, who noted
the damage last June among the dates due.
Some works in this book I’ve seen in life:
ploughed rows ridged with snow, paint matted
with straw or hair. The imagined ascension
over wood-grained stairs or through an opening
in the line of winter trees. Between the library’s
marble-papered columns stand faux-bois
metal shelves, empty and filmed with dust.
Overhead the scrollwork moldings, rosettes
sculpted in plaster, alternate with aerated
acoustic tiles, humming grids of fluorescent light.
Meaning installer of shades,
he who lets us play day
for night in the houses where
we are so unhappy. Contrary
to first appearance, this title
block-lettered on the van
stopped in traffic carries
no allusion to heedless power,
internecine battle, neither Lear
nor Gloucester who hails him:
The King is coming. The gentle-
man still sees. Before I got my eye
put out, writes Dickinson, pitying
the poor animals who look
and think it a pleasure. Then sight
is cheapest to those who never
see, or see with trouble? A patch
forces the lazy eye awake
while its legitimate brother
gives up and goes dark. In sunken
rooms, on scratchy rugs, maybe
we’ve never known happiness.
The servants are forced to watch
as their master digs his fingers
into the old man’s sockets.
The least obedient among them
goes to fetch some flax
and whites of eggs to apply
to his bleeding face, finding
balm stronger, more coagulant,
than the noble son-in-law’s
milky gentleness. A territory
cracked into jagged halves,
land that was so unhappy,
where we burned the faces
of men out of all the tapestries.
You’re in the Picture
The characters are outside in the courtyard
where they perform enjoyment for the sun,
appearing as lively as people should—
but the people are inside, just eating,
sleeping, or taking showers. They display
murky reasoning, serve unclear purposes.
My old roommate is a person, but married
to a character. They have a child who might,
for all I know, be either. He likes trucks
and trains, watches his father drive, wonders
what it means to control this mover that acts
both like and unlike an animal. A memoirist
I met calls himself a character, both a necessity
and a danger in his line of work. He should know
that characters have bigger stories, but people
have more of them. For whom am I a character
and for whom am I real? As I ask these questions,
there you are, making a very small story
at the window, where you look out to see a pickup
clip a dog’s leg and the dog vanish between houses.
On an Artificial Heart
Will we come to an end
of iambs, a time to celebrate
the inhuman spirit? Glory be
for polyurethane and alloyed
metal. Glory for this opus
of engineering that spins
instead of pumping blood.
It substitutes for sinus rhythm
a steady whir of circulation.
Doctors point to their test case:
a lively velvet-brown calf.
Attach it to the monitors
and it will register dead.
Yet it sports and nuzzles,
so maybe we can dispense
with certain clichés—no
more missing or skipping
a beat. The poem already
runs on a manufactured organ
of rhythm, as it consecrates
what we think we are:
resistless pulse confronting
the stillness of space, triumph
against hard odds, et cetera.
The mechanical heart is buried
in the chest like a woman
is buried whose lover has left
and made the world hateful.
It knows no more than she does
what goes on outside the ribs.
Seeing him, smart
in his suit tailored to where the surgeon’s
cut meets the wooden
crutch, you wouldn’t
imagine Clayton Bates crying backstage
at the Moulin Rouge
over the moves
that hurt so much, like the signature Jet Plane.
His gymnastic hops
on peg leg across
the Ed Sullivan stage do resemble flight
compared with this
dragging his wheelchair with the heel
of one shoe. Maybe
once the man would
have worn a coat of bruises, red-brown
and brown-purple shot
with gold, and cranked
the hurdy-gurdy, the cylinder’s surging drone
marking him to his place
in the taxonomy of beggars—
not the lowest station, affording a modest
collar and small dog.
But he has no strings,
no steps, only the fighter pilots and spies
in his madcap rant.