David Wojahn has accomplished a great feat, something many other poets and writers have tried and failed to do. In LATE EMPIRE, he blends the personal and the political without being either obscure or strident. While this book tells of his parents and other, generally cruel, forces of history and of the unconscious, what it is about is tragedy. With heartwrenching clarity and perfect use of detail, Wojahn interweaves stories of the death of his father and of the high point (the beginning of the fall) of the American empire, of the pain of a narrator who sees but cannot intercede and of a crowd’s blind anger.
This is not a book of remedies but rather a book of grief and lost innocence. It has a visual element that is found on the cover and on inside pages. This image—the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, along with the dark, encircled world they are about to inhabit—is also described in a poem. The book begins the large task of gaining acceptance of all that has been lost to ignorance and cruelty. Beginning with the more comfortably distant France on the eve of revolution (another late empire), Wojahn shows with amazing literalness how two different worlds— nobles and peasants—were too far apart to meet without tragedy. Into this first poem, moreover, Wojahn blends a contemporary story of a violent separation in a punk rock club. These disparate images, including one of firebombed Dresden, flow together seamlessly—in a way that a description cannot give justice to—into one meditation on the circles of history.
From this beginning, Wojahn moves on to more painful recollections: his mother and father, for example. His portrait of his mother, especially, is a brave accomplishment. He invokes her in all her terror, and he does not flinch or hate. Like any good tragedy, this book raises and allows expression for emotions that might otherwise have remained unfelt and corrosive within. It is better to read it than not to read it. In a courageous act of healing, Wojahn, with great technical craft and careful detail, confronts many ghosts and brings the reader their news.