American poetry is an amorphous entity, ever-shifting, uncontainably vast. Frankly, as in any era, in any place, there is good poetry, and there is bad. I will not run the risk of berating contemporary writers whose popularity (I feel) derives from almost anything besides talent, much less giftedness, whose work seems, if not befuddling, incoherent, or just poorly written, then damningly clever, calculatedly edgy, or simply condescending, perpetuating the notion that poetry is a wholly Delphic enterprise, a series of codes meant for a very select few to decipher. The landscape of poetry needs diversity, of course, it needs its different textures, but currently (and this is admittedly attributable to my own biases; we all have them) there is a lot of poetry that seems written to confuse. Fortunately, there are just as many poets whose work restores, whose writing is lucid, accessible, and, simply put, beautiful. Robert Wrigley is one of these poets.
With eight previous collections of poems, most recently Beautiful Country and Earthly Meditations: New and Selected Poems, Wrigley has firmly established himself as a major American poet, a writer keen to the Earth’s rhythms and how human pulses correspond—sometimes harmoniously, sometimes not—with these rhythms. Wrigley is not an overtly ecological or nature poet, for these terms are reductive and dismissive for one of such skill and thematic diversity. Indeed, Anatomy of Melancholy proves Wrigley’s most diverse effort thus far, a book almost disorienting in its variation—there are poems, for example, about repairing a tree, the ghost of Philip Larkin at a carhop, Anna Karenina, boots, King Kong, and more. However, non-human nature has almost always served as the imagistic and metaphorical heart from which Wrigley’s work springs, and Anatomy of Melancholy remains consistent in the use of these motifs, a poetry made powerful for doing so, promising nurturance of both intellect and heart, and, of course, in the end, revealing much about the most complicated of organic life—the human being.
Anatomy of Melancholy is an apt title, Wrigley’s exploration of the “blue” side of our personalities and an elegiac celebration of the myriad melancholic aspects of life, but his poetry never acquiesces to the lachrymose or lugubrious. Indeed, much of the work is quite humorous For instance, “For I Will Consider My Cat Lenore” is a loving and wry tribute to Wrigley’s pet, a poem dappled with syntax and diction derived from Christopher Smart’s “For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffry” (from his “Jubilate Agno”); like Smart’s deeply comical and spiritual piece, Wrigley’s consideration of his cat is rhetorically delightful and imaginative, fittingly catlike. Usually, though, Wrigley’s poems vacillate between plainspoken observations and highly lyrical, sonically charged narratives. In the book’s first poem, “Triage,” a plangent and ecological narrative on mortality, Wrigley’s dynamic language rushes down the page like a creek after rain:
Scarred by a long-gone buck’s rubbing,
shoved westward by his develveting grind,
the aspen has always leaned, and I had thought
many times I should stake it up, straighten it out,
but I never did. Then last week’s several heavy
feet of snow became rain, and under that weight is split
at the buck’s scar and bent to the ground,
and I was bereft. But in my regret I hauled
through the snow a hundred feet of ropes,
a come-along, a pair of steel pintle hooks. . .
Wrigley’s conflations of wilderness and the human self reveal genuine empathy for the interiorities of the world outside his way of knowing, evidenced by inquiries in the evocative “Bovinity”:
. . . Perhaps the cowbird is no bird
at all, but the dream, and the dream is flying.
And what of me then? Even in its sleep
it may be aware of the presence of the maker
of fences, bringer of the gun, conjurer
of the high-backed truck and the hunchbacked
butcher, builder of the gut pile the ravens
and magpies will celebrate. . .
“Friendly Fire” reveals a speaker entrenched in familial memory, a long narrative about tensions with the narrator’s father, and how two songs recall those tensions and lead, eventually, to bittersweet reconciliation, even as “scar tissue isn’t visible on the psyche’s skin.”
Wrigley’s poems can sometimes hiss and crackle with a nearly Saxon hardness, as in the first stanza of “Now Here”:
The current turns a shoaly lace of pebbles
in the shallows. They rattle tick and tack
and ring; they sing hosanna to the afterlife of sand.
Sun off a smolt in the kingfisher’s beak
is a jewel its wings can live by. Its eye’s black
and wary before it’s gone. Runoff rubble
holds a ribcage against a rock.
Such poems recall Roethke, Richard Hugo, Hopkins, and Dylan Thomas, powerfully lyrical and rich.
Conversely, poems such as “Careers,” equally as powerful, depend less on onomatopoeia and musicality and more on a tonally reserved storytelling, less on the natural world and more on human memory and behavior. These poems are no less resonant. Indeed, “Careers” positioned at the heart of the book, is such a special piece that I will not quote it here in fear that its loveliness will be partially lost to those first encountering it.
Anatomy of Melancholy is a book best read a little at a time, for the poems are almost kaleidoscopic in array and tenor, and the words are best savored in increments, even as the book boasts a most beautiful symmetrical arc (as the last poem, “To Autumn,” solidifies). Yet Wrigley’s poetry plays so actively in the mind that interstitial silence between all this music will not subdue the overall effect and might help amplify it. There’s much to love here, and the book’s leverage, its many themes and approaches, as well as its wide-ranging rhetorical textures, welcomes contemplation and multiple readings. “Stop and Listen,” which appears later in the book, delights in this very idea. Set in second person, the narrator recognizes how “sometimes the woods at night are so still / the sound of your own breath / abashes you, to say nothing / of the racket as you walk.” The poem is the story of epiphanic recognition; it is the narrative of attentiveness that leads to yearning for vision and the vision itself, a revelation that paradoxically unifies and separates. In order to be part of the “world’s greater silence,” to travel with the earth and to listen to it requires acknowledgment that one possesses everything and is distinct from all possessions. One is part of the human world, and yet the human world—to the contemplative, the silent listeners—always seems slightly alien, a case of jamais vu in which the familiar both isolates and “illumines.” The result of such knowing is perhaps one of our most beautiful sadnesses, a plangent gift, and Wrigley’s The Anatomy of Melancholy helps us come closer to understanding how such sadness can endow us with rarest joy.