David Wojahn Essay - Critical Essays


David Wojahn’s poetry weaves personal biography with events that extend to the outside world. Consequently, his poetry is not a self-contained body of work that seeks its own reference; rather, each poem finds itself within cultural patterns that confront the speaker. Often, these poems speak of loss and longing. What comfort the poet receives comes from processing his feelings through writing. Several poems illustrate the healing that comes from the artist’s search for meaning and closure. His poems question the ultimate meaning of life in light of human tragedies and of war, madness, and death. His struggle to understand the inevitable outcome and ultimately to make peace with himself empowers these poems.


Glassworks features poems about real people—the poet’s friends and family—embedded in a gentle narrative line that does not overwhelm the poem; rather, its flow allows each character to come forth, very human, very alive. “Satin Doll” uses a reference to big band music to explore the world of an aunt whose marriage failed. Looking at her sepia photo taken six years before he was born, the poet recalls the events of her life, which seemed to extinguish her passion. He compares her to a drowned woman, her eyes staring back at the crowd. The poet imagines his aunt growing stronger and taking control, a very tender moment. Such moments strengthen Wojahn’s poetry, rendered without irony or apology.

The poet uses the stuff of his life as source material. “Starlings” is a lovely, sad poem about a woman who stays awake worrying about the safe return of her husband, who may be drunk, and her son, who stays awake worrying about her. The form of the poem imitates the movement of the starlings—“Outside, they’re waking too”—whose noise keeps his mother awake. The son says:

I want to bethe book she reads, before the noise begins to deafen us, before she wakes and never sleeps again.

Wojahn crafts this final stanza, weaving the poignancy of the situation with the presence of these birds without naïve sentimentality.

“Dark-House Spearing” illustrates the difficulties a father and son experience in relating to each other, finally working out safe ways of communicating. However, the father wants company, not words, because of the death of his brother, who fell into an alcoholic coma ten years earlier. The poet/son tries to re-create memories for them, memories that could potentially heal the rift between them. However, after he tells his father the created version, his father says that the details are wrong. Because the father cannot remember the last words he said to his brother, he begins to distrust words altogether.

In the “Third Language,” the poet’s grandfather appears as a ghostly presence who fled Germany to escape the kaiser’s army. This poem considers the effect that different language systems have on the emotional ties that speakers maintain. His German-speaking grandfather lands in Boston, where he believes that his knowledge of Morse code will be useful. However, Morse code has been made obsolete by the invention of radio, and the fact that he speaks only German makes him an object of suspicion in the eyes of his neighbors.

Other poems illustrate the fragility of life and the permanence of art. “Glassworks at Saratoga” describes the death of James White. Beginning with the bizarre death of a millionaire who cut his throat when shaving aboard a train that lurched at the wrong moment, the poem takes a chilling turn at a glassworks, where the poet purchased White’s book. Finding a glass fragment that reminds him of when he deliberately slashed his wrist after a woman left him, the poet recognizes himself as someone who knows loss—whether that loss is permanent (death) or holds the possibility of recovery (the end of a significant relationship)—then affirms his own desire to live. These lines are poetry from the inside.

The pain of loss is central to the next two poems. “Lot’s Wife” gives voice to the woman who was turned into a pillar of salt because she looked back at the destruction of Sodom, a biblical rendering of the mythical Orpheus-Eurydice story. The poet allows the wife to discuss her relationship with Lot, who would have saved her. Wondering whom Lot has become, she realizes that she has lost her very self to a husband who can see only what he believes that God has saved. Consequently, both lose. The husband loses his wife; the wife ultimately loses her selfhood.

Likewise, “Steam” examines the nature of loss, but without the protective cover of myth. The poet addresses his lover, expounding on the tension between what he needs from her and what she can give. Dark poignancy of deep pain evolves in these lines, as the reader becomes an intruder listening to the private conversation of two people who have lost the ability to talk to each other. The speaker seeks mutual healing through a renewal of trust but feels helpless when in her sleep she cries out the name of someone else, someone who has hurt her.

The way the poet handles very painful occurrences, whether his or someone else’s experiences, brings the reader into that world. These poems do not vampirize pain; instead, they are the poet’s attempts to make whatever sense is possible of such experiences.

Mystery Train

A thirty-five-section sequence exploring rock and roll highlights, Mystery Train presents a cross-cultural experience of contemporary popular music. Wojahn relates the musicians to poetry and to news events, enhancing situations creatively while maintaining an emotional accuracy.

In Jim Elledge’s Sweet Nothings: An Anthology of Rock and Roll in American Poetry (1994), Wojahn describes his attraction to this material, noting his avid listening and collecting. Most of the poems in this section are sonnets, whose form the poet has artistically explored. One such poem is “W. C. W. Watching Presley’s Second Appearance on the ’Ed Sullivan Show’: Mercy Hospital, Newark, 1956.” While the line breaks and stanzaic pattern are similar to a William Carlos Williams poem, the poem is a sonnet, using couplets:

The tube, like the sonnet, is a fascist form.I read they refused to show this kid’s...

(The entire section is 2751 words.)