The Ends of Things and What We Are

Whale Fall
By David Baker
(New York: W.W. Norton, 96 pp., $26.95)

The True Account of Myself as a Bird
By Robert Wrigley
(New York: Penguin Books, 87 pp., $18.00)

Many years ago, a famous poetry teacher of mine whose name I will keep in my pocket remarked on the tendency of poets to validate their poems and books with epigraphs.  He called the move “the sky hook,” referencing the great Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s signature shot from inside the paint on a basketball court. The sky hook is an iconic shot, but my former teacher’s appreciation did not extend to the practice on the page, which he thought was more of a reach, a way of bestowing credence upon one’s work that the poems ought to accomplish on their own. Then again, maybe it was a lesson he wanted his young student to learn so that the green work before him might become more self-reliant over time. It doesn’t matter. My own belated view acknowledges the cautionary wisdom of that good teacher, but I tend to find importance in epigraphs, especially when they come at the threshold page of a book of poems. Like words above the lintel of the home you are about to enter, they intend to say something defining about the inhabitants, and something presumably about how they view their world, or some ideal about the world in general. They are, or should be, significant in the fullest sense—lenses more than mottos that offer a tutelary glimpse of what one will encounter inside.

The epigraphs on the opening pages of David Baker’s Whale Fall and Robert Wrigley’s The True Account of Myself as a Bird entail substantial work in just this regard. “Look at how I am attached to the ends of things,” the epigraph Baker chose for his latest book of poems, is a line from W.S. Merwin’s poem “My Brothers the Silent,” published in The Lice.  It resonates with Merwin’s witness to our violation of the planet and the extinction of fellow species, and intends to frame Baker’s own poems in relief of Merwin’s ethical and literary example. Wrigley’s adoption of Prospero’s words from W.H. Auden’s “The Sea and the Mirror,” his magisterial riff on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” does equally vital and illuminating work: “All we are not stares back at what we are.”  While Baker’s epigraph underscores our inevitable attachment, our connection to all that is both existentially and, more importantly, teleologically, Wrigley’s appeal highlights the inevitable gap of difference, the bridging of which can happen only when the unique integrity of the other becomes visible in the moment of being before, well, anything—a whale, a bird, another person, the world—in the vulnerability of full recognition. There is something in Wrigley’s epigraph taken from Auden that feels keenly tuned to Emanuele Levinas’s ethical regard for the face to face-to-face encounter; likewise, Baker’s appeal to Merwin implies the subtending connection that bridges an at once genuine yet only apparent difference. In any case, both books of poems, not surprisingly, wrestle richly and variously with the implications of their epigraphs, each in their own idiom, and each with an attentiveness tuned as much to our own moment as to the aesthetic imprints of their exemplars.

I.

“The Telling,” the first poem in Baker’s Whale Fall, establishes much of the book’s tonal affiliation with the mythic, now through the poet’s recounting of glacial passage:

Down from such heights and up from depths beyond
measure the old ice                     slowly now quicker
that the stones can hold           it knows its path like
the one note of a                          bird flown beyond us…

In medias res, Baker places the reader in a position of witness to the primordial action of the planet’s old ice. What startles marvelously here is the simile in which the ice’s knowledge of its path is likened to birdsong.  “Swift” was the title of Baker’s recent new and selected poems, and it is with extraordinary swiftness and precision that “The Telling” moves so vibrantly through and across is visible medial caesura until the end when time itself, or human time, appears to stop. The poem is a conjuring, one that at once harkens back to our ice age elders and races beyond nay human presence entirely. This first poem anticipates the other columnar lyrics that Baker situates interstitially between the book’s five sections, and it’s cooler, mythologizing tone likewise anticipates a poem like “Storm Psalm” that syncopates contemporary speech with the kind of phraseology one finds in the King James bible.

Above all, “The Telling” foregrounds this poet’s fascination with time, or more specifically the book’s obsession with the deep time of the planet as well as the deep time, metaphorically speaking now, of the person. The poem “Gravel,” by way of example, transports speaker and reader back in time on the poet’s journey to the house of his youth: “Back the house. Back the years. Back with him now with me / over broken floorboards.” The poem’s skillful sleight of hand is to carry the reader almost invisibly across a threshold between present and past, as if the two were in fact coterminous. “Middle Devonian,” in turn, evokes the poet’s encounter with a friend complaining about the impossibility of eradicating the bamboo that has established itself on his land through run-off waste water from a new development. Here, the vastness of planetary time beyond the human is foregrounded in the men’s exchange, “the brachiopods, the trilobites,” that modulates (as rambling conversations will) to western wild fires. The effect in essence, as the poem’s title suggests, is to expand rather than collapse the very idea of a time frame. “Think of that. One minute // and it’s four hundred million years,” so the poem ends.  A similar juxtaposition of time-frames exhibits itself in “Mullein,” where the poet recollects an evening where he, his father and his father’s friends encountered a fish called “a fingersnapper,” observed belatedly by the poet to be “a late Jurassic remnant.”  Whether emphatically or in passing, the poet’s interposition of time-frames enlarges the imaginative space in poem after poem.

Baker’s Whale Fall is indeed mindful of the human place cast against the backdrop of the relatively newly dubbed “Anthropocene,” and certain poems like “Nineteen Spikes” and “Thirty-Six Silos” draw particular attention respectively to the Covid pandemic and the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation. Both poems combine an immediate connection to place, the American Midwest, with the conscious dislocation brought on by existential threat. What strikes the reader in both poems is the range of diction and phrasing—in short, tonalities—that Baker weaves through each, an effect that characterizes the entire collection. Tone is among many things a measure of a poem’s emotional distance, of how emotionally close the poet is to what is being written about. In “Nineteen Spikes,” for example, a storm the poet says “raked out world with terrible teeth.” The poem’s phrasing is mythic, figurative.  In the line that follows, however, the storm dissolves “like a calcium spike.” In the span of a half line, the tone has altered from the mythic and figurative to the scientific. Such pin-point shifts in diction and phrasing happen frequently in the poems of Whale Fall. Baker’s incorporation of technical language and information also frequently and suddenly alters the tonal temperature of a poem. In “The Loneliness of Animals,” the poet’s confessed inability to know what it feels like to be a snapping turtle dragging “oneself so / slowly `like a zombie’ down a cracked / hard, rock-cut creekbed    in Illinois” modulates to a reflection on DNA testing that incorporates the language of genetic categorization, Machrochelys temminickii, as well as the origin of the biological name  through the human scientist who categorized the creature: “of the genus Chelydra    a la Coeraad Jacob // Temminick.” The entire poem unfolds as a mediation on the successively pervasive mediating frames that define and construct the human encounter with nature, as those we ourselves we not a part of nature, even unto a citation of Wikepedia: and they do not make particularly good pets. The poem “Echolocation” enjoins Facetime and Skype, even to the point where he must confess that “we are thin wires.” Conversely, in “Four Poses” the poet’s meditation moves him from a local name, Gongalo, to the taxonomic name, A. monilicornis, to the recognition that “when you look up finally from these stillnesses / you are the heron once again.”

Enumeration likewise functions as a trope that shapes the book as a whole, like the columnar lyrics that function as italicized membranes between each of the books five sections. The titles of some poems function iteratively in this regard: “Nineteen Sparks,” “Nine Wild Turkeys in a Field,” “A Portrait of My Father in Seven Maps,” “One September,” “Six Hours,” “Four Poses,” “Thirty-Six Silos.”  It is as if Baker wanted to subvert the human proclivity to number the world from the species’ capacity to abstract itself from its creaturely circumscription within nature. The goal, it would seem, would be to waken the human to its inevitable creatureliness, and thereby shake the attentive mind to whatever presence might be present beyond the confines either of our categorical perceptions or even disbelief. One poem where the abstracting mind is used to frame a deeply personal immediacy is “A Portrait of My Father in Seven Maps” where Baker uses cartography as a metaphor and structural means to track, paradoxically, deeper into his relationship with his dead father. Map may not be territory, as the anthropologist of religion Jonathan Z. Smith once claimed memorably, but in the case of this poem map offers an emotional topography of considerable delicacy and charge.

The central work of Whale Fall is the eponymous poem that gives the collection its title. In “Whale Fall,” all of Baker’s formal, phrasal, and intellectual play are on display. The poem begins by tracking the descent of a gray whale through the first of three stages toward the bottommost ocean depths to its death. Baker’s diction and tonal faculties in the first movement incline decidedly to the factual, the scientific—Eschrichtius / robustus, gray / of the sole living genus, of baleen….” The poet’s tone modulates over the course of this initial descent to a language that is metaphorical, figural:

              through
              the cool layers, the sifted light

of sea-wind—
warmed currents, loosed galaxy
              of whirling flecks, slow-
              motion, in a haze…

Baker’s quatrains in this opening section expressively modulate both the factual and the figurative, such that description quietly edges into revelation. “Whale Fall” is a very substantial poem, and after this first move the poet interlaces textual threads from news reports, Wikipedia, personal history, the nuclear intimidations and threats of the early sixties, his own experience of viral illness, a hummingbird (could there be a greater contrast in size?), even an equation for tracking the formation of marine aggregates (James Merrill made a similarly clever move with an equation in his poem “Syrinx”). As such, the reader comes to realize that while the dying whale comprises the apparent “subject matter” of the poem, it is simultaneously an extended conceit for the broader context of planetary extinctions, including our own.

Whales have been the planetary poster creature for our self-inflicted environmental catastrophe for some time now, both popularly—think of July Collins’ rendition of “Farewell to Tarwathe,” or “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home”—and in poetry (space prevents this reviewer from referencing the fictional representations, Melville’s being the most obvious). Stanley Kunitz’s “The Wellfleet Whale” is principal among whale poems, and the human infliction of harm on the species, our fellow mammals who refused the evolutionary “leap” to land. That poem is rightly understood, in its reliance on mythologizing language in particular, something of a belated ode. In “Whale Fall,’ Baker explodes the ode, as it were, turning what would be an ode’s potentially constitutive elements, and its typically elevated tone, inside out, such that through its numbered and unnumbered sections, through its theme- and-variation of textual fragments, its apparently dissociative moments, it requires readers to make their own passage into and out of the poem’s disruptive but nonetheless highly orchestrated bricolage. As an “exploded ode,” “Whale Fall” takes the architectural tack of Paris’s Pompidou Center, where component parts normally hidden within the construction of a building are made to create the foremost structural aspect of the façade. The overall composition of this central poem, in fact, exemplifies the tonal and formal range within Baker’s entire collection, as well as its shape and arc, and its ethic: to be as vitally concerned about the smallest things, say a cottonwood seed moved by the wind from the book’s final brief lyric, as one is the largest—

when have you felt so                moved as they are moved

and to whom to what                  as the waters rise—

II.

In many of the poems of Whale Fall, the syntactical orchestration of poems sentence to sentence accumulates in fragments, phrasal halts, as though the poet were feeling along the edges of memory, perception, or the mind’s own efforts to make sense of things. As such, even at the syntactical level the collection is highly self-reflexive. The poems of Robert Wrigley’s The True Account of Myself as a Bird move through themselves and down the page with greater self-evident fluidity, greater syntactical, formal and narrative fluency. This is not a criticism of either poet’s work; the viscosity of many of the poems of Whale Fall is obviously a matter of aesthetic and expressive choice—the poet wants the reader to experience a certain measure of imaginative friction. The effect established from Wrigley’s contrarily greater reliance on conversational fluency is to make the poems of The True Account of Myself as a Bird more consistently, and tonally, companionable:

This bird, whatever bird it is,
sings on melodious and monotonous

and never tells a truth or a lie, not one.
At its end, just when it began,

the night bird’s song is something else,
no more true or false than wind or bells.

And if you were the bird, your poem
would be the song and where it comes from,

yourself and a tree
in the night, and the night would be

a dark page the ink
that is your poem sinks in

and disappears, almost like the sky
out of which the bird sings. That’s why.

“What the Night Bird Sings,” the opening poem of Wrigley’s collection, says everything about this poet’s aesthetic. Birds in poems suggest a ponderous sort of precedent, but Wrigley diffuses any potential belated Romantic drag with the off-hand phrase “whatever bird it is” in the poem’s first line. That marvelous syntactical sleight likewise trips into fluency the poem’s mostly off-rhymed couplets, which one hardly notices at first given the poet’s masterful orchestration of sentence and syntax relative to line. Look and listen a little closer, and one finds quite arguably that the poem can be read as a closet sonnet, its seven couplets ending on a final hard rhyme, with a wryly nuanced volta in the poems seventh line—two lines early—with of the poem’s second sentence and the sudden introduction of the second person.  Wrigley’s deployment of the second person here is reflexive—the speaker is talking amiably and engagingly to himself and to the reader simultaneously.  The formalism in evidence here strikes one as hardly and “ism” at all, nothing ostensibly ideological here, but is simply one of the keenest attributes of the poem’s unimposing though nonetheless supple and vital ways with language.

Wrigley chose well to make “Why the Night Bird Sings” his opening poem, for it can and should be read as an ars poetica and a harbinger of what is to follow. It’s allusiveness to Keats’s nightingale (not to mention any latter-day fire-fangled feathers dangling down from that sky) does not obtrude, but it does convey a quietly powerful sense of this poet’s abiding conversation with tradition even in our belated, even benighted, historical moment. That conversation extends directly to the reader through the introduction of the second person. The poet has unassumingly established the poem as an imaginative medium in which the poet, the natural world, and the reader can co-exist in a negatively capable stay against confusion, if only for the brief span of the poetic encounter.

One feels the same, easefully formal urgency and unselfconscious confidence at work throughout the collection. “Cowran” alludes skillfully to Roberts Burns, and indeed all of Wrigley’s allusions have the benefit of enlarging the tonal amplitudes of his poems. Deftly rhymed quatrains and sonnets figure prominently, as do rhymed couplets, though the formalism of each is wonderfully understated. “Boy I Knew” improvises a belated Anglo-Saxon line. “Hummingbird on the Wire” is a kind of villanelle, thought here is also plenty of finely turned free verse. Wrigley’s tones range from the comic to the elegiac, his diction can span “shitload” to “Brobdinganian” in the same poem (“Old Pan”), and his occasional incorporation of unfamiliar words and technical diction feels unobtrusive. In short, the poems aim for and achieve a kind of understated polish, whether they are compelling readers to encounter quiet beauties or to confront hard realities. Here, by way of example, is the first stanza of “Moss Loves Bone to Death”:

But the mice who live in the gray whale’s skull
Must adore it plush and shingling, the purchase
Their tiny feet are afforded, the carpeted blowhole
Skylight, and the gap where the eye was,
Draped against the wind, the primary entryway.

The artistry of these five off-rhymed lines feels offhand, but there is nothing offhand about it. It has the same easeful formalism of “What the Night Bird Sings,” though it pushes ever further the poet’s resources for imaginative empathy. The choice of the verb ‘adore’ is particularly striking, both for the hominess of the whale skull—almost comically—and for its insinuation of something sacred that is taken up, not surprisingly, in this sonnet’s final sestet: “Call it first mercy, the many minds of moss, bone delivering unto dreams of moss its green….” As in Baker’s Whale Fall, Wrigley’s sudden shift in diction and phrasing reconfigures a poem’s tonal qualities, and amplifies its emotional, imaginative, and intellectual register. By poem’s end, we are invited to think of dozens of carcasses, “full skull production,” “as though a whale ghost had imagined them there, / little whale thoughts, also dead, in waterless air.”

Wrigley’s handling of the subject matter of gray whales is obviously very different from Baker’s, and it suggests that a poet’s sensibility has less to do with subject matter and more to do how a poet alchemizes subject matter formally, imaginatively, and structurally. Both of these poets vitally juxtapose the human and natural worlds, and engage urgently with our frightening and fractious historical moment, yet they do so as it were through somewhat alternate chemical or alchemical processes. The poem “Prey” brings Wrigley’s abidingly respectful and affectionate concerns nature and its creatures together with his wryly engineered skepticism in view of contemporary politics. Wrigley’s poem juxtaposes Trump’s lying attorney general Robert Mueller with “an enormously pregnant whitetail doe” in order to expose, with cutting irony and humor, the threat to both the environment and the citizenry through predation, now of the most cynical and dangerous political variety. “She is a prey animal,” the poet declares, and as are we in the present circumstances the poet implies, “but she has never been lied to.” In “Be Glad,” a poem that recollects a day when the poet in the midst of nature—bumblebees, hummingbirds, a swallowtail butterfly—was playing Beatle tunes of his guitar, the reader encounters a second ars poetica in which another now affectionate juxtaposition of humanity and nature inferences comically Orphic undertones. “Horse Heaven” is another evocation of humanity and creatures in near Edenic equilibrium, as is “Hummingbird on the Wire,” as is “I Want to Praise Her Parts” where the poet declares he want to praise a cricket’s “ovipositor,” or in “Narrating Night to the New Puppy Gladys” and “Visitant.” In each of these poems, and many others in Wrigley’s newest collection, the poet enacts the kind of respectful and loving openness and conservatorship toward fellow creatures, irrespective of evolutionary difference or distance, that puts the lie to any ethos that ends in attitudes and policies of ecological domination. One suspects this is because as overtly literary as he is in his sensibility Wrigley also must be counted as a poet of wilderness. When he does evoke “the immensity of Costco” in a poem like “What It Means,” it is because he intends, again, to expose the likes of such twenty-first century American social and economic orcas of commercialism as nothing other than counterfeit sublimes.  Costco’s “nonexistent doors” can lure birds so that they never again emerge to “the actual nonexistent sky,” though, still, Wrigley’s poem ends with the tininess of a flicked mayfly juxtaposed with what it will itself become: “the ever-developing dust of earth, among stars that are hardly there at all”—hardly there, of course, only because we have obscured the sky to the point of nonexistence. Still, what this poet invokes nonetheless, in counterweight to all of our counterfeit immensities, is a true sublime both planetary and cosmic.

And inside. In “How Enormous,” a spider bite awakens in the speaker a feeling that “the world felt tilt,” until something rises up in him that “was immense, heedless, everywhere, no awareness whatsoever of me.” That elusive but always present “something,” at once external to us in the sheer multiplicity of creation, and beyond it, and internal to us opening up with the infinite well underpinning each singular being, moves with “the vastnesses” as with the bison in another of Wrigley’s poems, and in “the consciousness of everything” from the poem of that title in which the sublime, always imbued among and through the vastness, seems to find brief habitation when the poet considers “the happiness of an empty hand / from which the horse has taken a carrot, / or the house that sits on once-empty land / and the land that now loves to bear it.” The issue at stake, the poem implies, is an ethics of right relation and habitation rather exploitation and domination.  Perhaps the somewhat different tonalities of Baker’s poems in Whale Fall and Wrigley’s in The True Account of Myself as a Bird, as I suggest above, stem from differing sensibilities, the one postlapsarian the other prelapsarian. Contrary to the implications the apparent dichotomy, the two are not mutually exclusive—in fact, quite the opposite. In Whale Fall, Baker is a poet of the fallen self in a human world fallen away personally, environmentally and historically from its own inevitable relation to the rest of nature; in The True Account of Myself as a Bird, Wrigley is a poet of the ideal restoration of that original relationship. Gregory of Nyssa, the great fourth century theologian and mystic, might call the latter an apocatatasis, though perhaps only as the promise of a still more universal healing. There are no explicit theological or mystical inferences in Wrigley’s book, but there is at least one shamanistic one in “To the Man,” from whence the collection gets its title.  The poem begins with an understated allusion to Yeats’s golden bird of “Sailing to Byzantium,” and evolves to a moment of visionary double-vision where the poet says:

it seemed I was singing to myself

inside, that I was watching myself
singing, and that I was hearing
myself singing to the man I was,

as though I was the bird and not the man
I would be when I woke and forgot,
as I always do, which I did.

The poet’s singular double-vision, his dream vision, in this poem (again an ars poetica), performs and exposes the necessary conundrum of consciousness itself, how it is neither univocal nor equivocal, but irreducibly relational, analogical. This is no less true of artistic endeavor—poetry. The poet’s dream is not only the dream of being the songbird, but of being the man the songbird dreams it might be, and both in view of a consciousness inconceivable except in dreams and visions and states when the sublime does not threaten, but rather lifts one to a nameless singing. Importantly, Wrigley positions his visionary bird, contra Yeats’s avian emblem, far from any drowsy emperors, distanced from what is past or passing or to come, but on the rib of a dead deer in view of everything that must end.

*

There is a similar moment of self-transcendence in Robert Wrigley’s sonnet sequence, “The Flower of All Water” in The True Account of Myself as a Bird where the speaker, again self-othered by the second person pronoun, learns “the moment wax / turns to wane” and he sees “the flower of all water / and the water of every flesh.”  It is a moment of unitary seeing in the midst of worldly diversity, the moment of analogical vision that in turn is extended to the reader.  “Every map believes it is a metaphor,” the poet declares, and that belief is what enables poem, as well as map, to venture its imaginative territory. The same is true of David Baker’s Whale Fall, though in his elegy for his father the poet reflects “What Ptolemy called chorography was simply a survey. It was not the world.” Once again, the mutually needful contraries, prelapsarian and postlapsarian, embody the vitality of a truth. The poet must believe that metaphor of the poem ideally conducts a moment, a space of intersession, where what we are comes to rest in the ends of things, where the ends of things rest in the fullness of what we are. Without the real presence of such intersession, there is no poem and there is no world.

Daniel Tobin

Daniel Tobin

Daniel Tobin is the author of nine books of poems, most recently From Nothing, winner of the Julia Ward Howe Award, The Stone in the Air, his suite of versions from the German of Paul Celan, and Blood Labors.He is author of the critical studies Awake in America, Passage to the Center: Imagination and the Sacred in the Poetry of Seamus Heaney, and On Serious Earth. Tobin is also editor of The Book of Irish American Poetry from the Eighteenth Century to the Present, Light in Hand: Selected Early Poems of Lola Ridge, Poet’s Work, Poet’s Play: Essays on the Practice and the Arts (with Pimone Triplett) and To the Many: Collected Early Poems of Lola Ridge. His poetry has won the "The Discovery/The Nation Award," The Robert Penn Warren Award, the Robert Frost Fellowship, the Katherine Bakeless Nason Prize, the Massachusetts Book Award in Poetry, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, among other honors.
Daniel Tobin

Latest posts by Daniel Tobin (see all)

Author: Daniel Tobin

Daniel Tobin is the author of nine books of poems, most recently From Nothing, winner of the Julia Ward Howe Award, The Stone in the Air, his suite of versions from the German of Paul Celan, and Blood Labors. He is author of the critical studies Awake in America, Passage to the Center: Imagination and the Sacred in the Poetry of Seamus Heaney, and On Serious Earth. Tobin is also editor of The Book of Irish American Poetry from the Eighteenth Century to the Present, Light in Hand: Selected Early Poems of Lola Ridge, Poet’s Work, Poet’s Play: Essays on the Practice and the Arts (with Pimone Triplett) and To the Many: Collected Early Poems of Lola Ridge. His poetry has won the "The Discovery/The Nation Award," The Robert Penn Warren Award, the Robert Frost Fellowship, the Katherine Bakeless Nason Prize, the Massachusetts Book Award in Poetry, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, among other honors.