Before Our Eyes: New and Selected Poems, 1975-2017.
by Eleanor Wilner
(Princeton University Press, 2019. Pp. xii + 232. $17.95 paper)
With thirty-three new poems, Eleanor Wilner’s seventh and most-recent treasury, Before Our Eyes: New and Selected Poems, 1975-2017, was published last year. It is indeed timely that Wilner received the Frost Medal for distinguished lifetime achievement in poetry the same year (2019). This adds to her prior honors: two Pushcart Prizes, the Juniper Prize, and fellowships with both the NEA and the MacArthur Foundation. Wilner’s dedication in Before Our Eyes gives the reader a glimpse into some of what one can expect: a plethora of lovely correspondences with other poets, at times several in one poem (section II “An Answering Music” includes many). The dedication reads, “To the continuing presence of Claudia Emerson (1957-2014), Michelle Boisseau (1955-2017), and Tony Hoagland (1953-2018).” In addition to conversations with other poets—ancient and modern—Wilner continues to weave her signature rich tapestry of mythic allusions, both classical and biblical, to contemplate where we have been and the path that lies ahead. Despite the often dark themes of man’s ongoing martial and ecological destruction, I have found the poems highly illuminative and strangely comforting during the COVID-19 pandemic and escalating racial unrest. In terms of Zeitgeist, the poems are hauntingly relevant.
Polarization in response to the nation-wide lockdown and peaceful demonstrations that either have been met with police brutality or hijacked by rioters makes poems like, “Don’t Look So Scared. You’re Alive!” particularly salient, as when the speaker implores: “Who sings to the dying [?]” Or when Death, personified in “Establishment,” takes up residence in the White House. Or this excerpt from “Found in the Free Library,” with its epigram from Edwin Rolfe, “Write as if you lived in an occupied country:”
And we were made afraid, and being afraid
we made him bigger than he was, a little man
and ignorant, wrapped like a vase of glass
in bubble wrap all his life, who never felt
a single lurch or bump, carried over
the rough surface of our lives like
the spoiled children of the sultans of old
in sedan chairs, on the backs of slaves,
the gold curtains on the chair
pulled shut against the dust and shit
of the road on which the people walked,
over whose heads he rode, no more aware
than a wave that rattled pebbles on a beach.
I can only wonder what gems will result from our current experience. It seems fitting and apparent, as evidenced by Wilner’s oeuvre, that out of crisis comes great art. Wilner comments on this phenomenon in Gathering the Winds (Johns Hopkins 1975): “[C]ollective vision always began with a communal crisis and an individual who, in essence, dreamed for the community.” In the transformative craft of the poet, even the worst things are rendered with poignant beauty and fraught with uncanny meaning. Like the cryptic words of an oracle, as in “Classical Proportions of the Heart,” when “fear twisted the oracle’s tongue.” There is both a particular timeliness and timelessness to Wilner’s work that continues to resonate with young and old alike.
Out of crisis comes great art is actually one of my mantras when I teach. My freshman in two sections of Great Books I finished the spring term with Dante’s Inferno. Of course Wilner’s Tourist in Hell (2010) comes to mind. Reading Inferno during the pandemic proved an interesting exercise punctuated by unanticipated parallels as we all experienced an exile from normal life. “Hellish” comes to mind viscerally as hundreds of thousands have already perished from the deadly virus that is yet among us and frustrations over racism have escalated.
It is unlikely that we would have the Commedia had Dante not been exiled from Florence. Not that he would have been any less of a poetic genius, but certainly we would know less of that genius and be all the poorer for it. Similarly, Shakespeare’s genius still would have been evident, but not on the same level had he not lived in a heavily censored police state where art had been made “tongue-tied by authority” (Sonnet 66). Write as if you lived in an occupied country . . . or in exile, in a police state, during a pandemic or riots.
We have already been witnessing many positive effects on art (if I may “silver lining” otherwise dire events). Collaborations among artists have been especially inspiring during this curious time in national and global history. The Big Read’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner project is one example that many are surprised to learn had been years in the making prior to its release during the pandemic. It, too, has proven to be weirdly applicable. Ultimately, as an expression of the human heart, art will always find a way. I am eager to see what Wilner’s verse will make of the current crises—what gold will she mine for us?
To explore more specifics from Before Our Eyes, I will address primarily selections among the new poems, of which the three sections have 12, 10, and 11 poems, respectively. The first section header is taken from Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “Fair is foul, and foul is fair.” (The other two are II “An Answering Music” and III “Lifelines”). The sentiment from Macbeth neatly captures the dual nature of verse I noted above as the transformative power of poetry to address this fair/foul paradox of which Wilner’s poems provide apt examples. Additionally, the preceding epigram from Theodore Roethke, which also feels searingly relevant now, reads, “In a dark time, the eye begins to see . . .” Roethke’s line and its poem further segue into Wilner’s lead poem, “When Vision Narrows to a Single Beam of Light.” This is our first poetic correspondence in the collection (not counting Shakespeare), but it sets the stage for all the rest with man’s relationship to nature and his neglected stewardship of it. Yet that is not all in this poem as we find allusions to both Blake’s bright-burning “Tyger, Tyger,” about which the speaker twice wonders, “What immortal hand or eye, / Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?” and Rilke’s caged big cat in “The Panther.” Indeed, Rilke also begins with vision, not the reader’s, but the panther’s, to bring us into his prison—the prison man has made for him:
His vision, from the constantly passing bars,
has grown so weary that it cannot hold
anything else. It seems to him there are
a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world. (trans. Stephen Mitchell)
As well, Wilner is a wonderful sculptor of poems and her shapes are reminiscent of George Herbert’s, which are often a student’s first introduction to the technique Herbert helped pioneer (“The Alter” and “Easter Wings” are among the most readily known “concrete” or “shaped” poems). Here, the “single beam of light” in Wilner’s title, conflates with the tiger and his stripes with the poem’s structure, which is delightfully performative of its meaning. So, too, with the tiger’s yawning jaws as the lines shorten and then lengthen to create the curve or hollow of the tiger’s mouth. The tiger waits for the “hair-thin laser line / of light” and “this one thin line of light” is that which ultimately brings readers—“us”—face to face with the tiger, and, introspectively, our own fearful selves.
For other signature techniques, Wilner’s open-form poems are always heavily enjambed: this first 36-line poem is one long sentence running to a second page. Therein, the reader will find an abundance of wonderful alliteration with consonance: “hidden . . . / huge head,” “sphinx . . . / [. . .] breeze . . . dense / . . . leaves . . . / . . . laser line / of light . . . / into the endless twilight.” There are internal rhymes—both the exact: “astir” and “purr,” “laws” and “claws,” and the near: “breeze . . . / . . . leaves,” “runs . . . tongue,” and “shed” and “breaches” with “hedge.” These techniques create the pacing and music that carry the reader along in a sort of associative, chaining effect right on to the end even as the entire collection has a particular cohesiveness, too. As an aside, while Wilner’s poems are often more expansive and longer than Kay Ryan’s, they nonetheless bring Ryan’s work to mind for me because of the many similar devices the two poets employ.
Further examples of Wilner’s poetic sculpting may be seen variously in the collection. In “Elegy in Glass and Stone,” in which “nothing can parse / the syntax of the soul,” Wilner concludes with a torch-like shape that speaks of Lady Liberty’s torch in a world where liberty has been all but extinguished. “Blue Reflection” is in the shape of the heron it explores, like wings. Sadly, however, the bird feeds on toxic fish polluted by humans. Perhaps we glimpse the bird prone on the shore—his death our own doing. “Turning” ends with a spinning top shape as the gods “spin the cosmos like a monstrous top” of creation, time, seasons ad infinitum. “What the Kite Sees” explores perspective with the first-person “I” in the voice of the kite itself. The lines ultimately taper to several of but a few words—the shortest being just one word, “paper,” as the kite lands and says, “the wind is / finished with me.” In the eponymous, “Before Our Eyes,” for which the title also serves as the first line of the poem, the speaker recounts fallenness. With a long catalogue of fallen things we witness, it escalates to fire and “bullets everywhere” about which the speaker says in a sort of meta-aside:
……………………Nowhere to hide, and even the longest line must reach
the limits of the page, and age takes its toll, and what was sure must fail, and fall.
The poem then slowly dips back in, “as when a ball of yarn is wound up,” line by line to finish on a single word: “out.” Ironically, while this seems final, it is yet part of an on-going process of “day / in, day / out.” In this way, the poem is a bit like a mirror poem, where the two halves reflect each other, but we can imagine them also repeating endlessly as in a hall of mirrors.
With this image of a reflection in mind, I would like to note the cover art by Naoya Hatakeyama, River Shadow #79, which comes from a collection of Hatakeyama’s photographs, River Series (2002). The image evokes the titular shaped poem, “Before Our Eyes”—yet another element consistent with the cohesion of this meticulously crafted collection. The ripples in the river might be understood as lines in the poem and we see the reflection rather than the objects being reflected; yet, like the mirror effect in “Before Our Eyes,” we can imagine those objects correspondingly through the interplay of light and shadow, color and texture in the photograph. (Perhaps a nod to Abrams’ mimetic theory as presented in The Mirror and the Lamp?) The foregoing highlights only some of Wilner’s sculptural verse.
I love the haunting “In Memoriam,” dedicated to Eleanor Ross Taylor. The epigram is an excerpt from Taylor’s, “To Future Eleanors,” a title that obviously speaks to Wilner, a “future Eleanor” herself, and a poem that also deals with poetic vision. The rest of the lines finish Taylor’s poem:
On pain of death, scratch pictures
in the dust
…………………as she did—
I fear my after-thirst.
Taylor’s poem pays tribute to her grandmother and her own need to do justice to her craft, work that is never quite finished. Wilner, in turn, pays tribute to Taylor—a former Eleanor—and her use of “athirst” echoes the unstated lines that the epigram nevertheless conjures where the poet (representing at once past, present, and future Eleanors):
………….by her task athirst scratched
the protean script
……figures a blur
obscured by the slightest breath
…………….……as if the obdurate stick
……to write required the dust
and dust to speak of itself the wind
The lines address a poet’s need to honor both her individual ability and her Sapphic tribe—whether a literal blood grandmother, or a figurative poetic one. All should inspire us.
Moreover, each poem in this collection, the new and the old, is like a precious puzzle box housing secrets, with intricate workings—as with Wilner’s use of the labyrinth (see “Voices from the Labyrinth” for more highly sculptural verse), where each allusion connects to some other poet, myth, or historical event. All are part of our collective past, our human experience, our joys and losses, the uncertain future. Wilner is the transcriber of whispers snatched from dreams, the Pythian on her storied tri-pod, the Ino-like weaver of a scarf of immortality that we need only tie about our waists to be magically transported to other worlds where anything is possible.
One of my favorite poems from Wilner’s older work in the collection, from Girl with Bees in Her Hair (2004), is the enchanting, “Be Careful what You Remember,” which puns on, “Be careful what you wish for.” The poem is a sort of ironic take on Ovid and reminds me of Jean-Léon Gérôme’s arresting Pygmalion and Galatea (1890), which depicts the moment when the statue comes to life and the marble transforms to living, human flesh. In Wilner’s poem, however, famous marble statues come to life, but they remain marble statues and their mission is not to cavort with humans but to gather and return to the earth, to fill the wound the miners created when they carved out the slabs from which the figures were sculpted. I cannot help but recall my eldest son, Gus, as a six-year-old when he told the people who had bought our house—the only one he really remembered in his young life—to be watchful of the walls. The new owners had painted over the four Curious George murals in the nursery Gus had shared with his two younger brothers. The new couple, getting on in years and with no need for a nursery, had very practically made the room their master bedroom since it was the largest of the home’s four second-floor rooms. With his child’s imagination fueling his wonder, Gus warned them that the characters just might come to life and free themselves from under the new paint. As they were life-size to him, I can only imagine the spectacular scene he had envisioned. Ah, to hope with the faith of a child!
“Be Careful what You Remember” summons just such hopeful metamorphosis: Wilner’s statues step down from their pedestals, break out of display cases, emerge from fountains to assemble in a pilgrimage home to Mother Earth. Among them, Michelangelo’s Pietà, “a hooded woman stumbling / under her son’s dead weight.” What a surprising description where Wilner subverts our expectation of what would otherwise be “her dead son’s weight,” which is perfect as he, too, is now a living statue, but still borne by his mother. As well, it is fitting that Justice has had “the blindfold / torn from her eyes.” The procession makes “the mountain whole again, [closes] the great rift” as the statues return to:
from which they were hewn—
the opened veins
in the heart of the mountain.
What a beautiful meditation on healing and unexpected agency. We see, too, the artistic process, but rendered through an inversion of our conditioned expectations, where the body from which the statues are born is made whole and “and young trees grow thick again on the slopes” (48). In an environmental sense, aspects of this poem are at one with Wilner’s other ecological verse. I leave the reader to explore further.
This challenging but rewarding collection demonstrates Wilner’s extraordinary talent and testifies to the fact that her vision may help us to understand what lies “before our eyes.” It would be an ideal volume for study in a seminar, whether undergrad or graduate, just as it would be equally at home on one’s nightstand—to be read and savored again and again.