Despite David Wagoner’s accomplishments and honors, and despite the fact that his poems appear regularly in mass-circulation magazines such as The New Yorker and The Atlantic, as well as the literary quarterlies, he is generally regarded as one of the most underappreciated of American poets. His works, with the exception of “Staying Alive,” had not been included in major poetry anthologies until the early twenty-first century, when his poems began appearing in collections such as The Best American Poetry (2003, 2004, 2005, 2006). There are several possible explanations for this. First, he lives in Seattle and has chosen as his primary subject matter the land and people of the Pacific Northwest—thus giving rise to the dismissive “regional” label. It is also possible that some of his own best qualities may work against him. His subject matter is anything but trendy; the reader searches his poems in vain for the issues of the day. The only explicit social comment one is likely to find is contained in a half dozen or so poems addressing the Weyerhaeuser Company, a logging firm, and its practice of clear-cutting three-mile swaths of virgin forest.
Perhaps the major problem, as X. J. Kennedy suggests, is Wagoner’s very “readability.” Much of his poetry seems, at least on first encounter, curiously unpoetic, even prosy. His unpretentious language and casual, conversational tone frequently combine with his sense of humor to create a deceptively simple surface for his complex and serious ideas. This simplicity does make the work accessible; on the other hand, it may actually encourage the casual or first-time reader to dismiss Wagoner’s work as lightweight.
Even in his most alienated and melancholy early poems, Wagoner’s wit continually asserts itself. He is fond of puns, palindromes, and other forms of wordplay, and makes frequent use of colloquialisms, folk sayings, clichés, non sequiturs, and other lunacies of ordinary speech, often twisting words or phrases in such a way that they take on startling new meanings. Still, it is not as a semantic magician that Wagoner should be remembered; there are not a great many “quotable” lines—in the sense of the exquisite image of dazzling insight to be isolated for admiration out of context—in his work. Wagoner is at least as much philosopher as poet, and his poems, effective as they are when looked at individually, together take on cumulative power and meaning. Outwardly dissimilar poems are often interrelated below the surface to a marked degree. The result is a coherent, explicitly delineated philosophy, a “way” of life based on acceptance, self-reliance, and a profound reverence for the natural world.
Those who insist on calling Wagoner a regional or nature poet are certainly correct, to a point. From his earliest collection on, his work has amply indicated a sensitivity to the landscape around him. Later poems, in particular, have been praised for their descriptive qualities. The same can be said of many writers, but the use to which Wagoner has put his rain forests, mountains, rivers, and coastlines is uniquely his own. His wilderness, with its unsentimental, uncompromising beauty, serves on one level as a conventional metaphor: the landscape, physical and spiritual, through which one travels on one’s life journey. Rather than seeing rocks, trees, and animals, however, as separate entities to be reacted to—climbed over, caught and eaten, run from—Wagoner views the natural world as the medium through which humans can best learn to know themselves. Put another way, if one can accept one’s place as a part of the ongoing natural processes of life, death, decay, and rebirth, one begins to “see things whole.” It is this sense of wholeness, this appreciation for the interrelatedness of all the “organic and inorganic companions on earth” to which Wagoner invites his reader, as if to a feast.
The way to this ideal state involves an apparent paradox: To find oneself, one must first lose oneself, shedding the subject/object, mind/body, spirit/intellect dualities typical of “rational” Western thought. In “Staying Alive,” a traveler lost in the woods is faced not only with problems of physical survival but also with “the problem of recognition,” by anyone or anything external that might be looking for him, as well as recognition of his own true nature. Unable to make contact with others, the traveler is advised that “You should have a mirror/ With a tiny hole in the back . . .” that will reflect the sun and flash messages, that will reflect one’s familiar physical image and that, because of the aperture, will also allow one to see through one’s physical self to the wholeness of the surrounding natural world.
It is clear that, in Wagoner’s view, modern industrial society has created too many wastelands and polluted waterways, and more than enough fragmented citizens such as “The Man from the Top of the Mind,” with “the light bulb screwed into his head,/ The vacuum tube of his sex, the electric eye.” This gleaming creature of pure intellect can “Bump through our mazes like a genius rat” but is incapable of any human emotion except destructive rage. On every level, it would appear, one has become estranged—from oneself, from others and from one’s environment.
In place of this fragmentation and alienation, Wagoner offers synthesis: the ability to see and experience things whole. In a remarkable series of poems, he not only extends the offer but also provides an explicit, step-by-step guide—a Scouts’ handbook or survival manual for the reader to follow.
Although these handbook poems span several volumes (from Staying Alive through In Broken Country), they are best read as a single group. All are similar in language and tone; all address an unnamed “you,” offering advice for coping with problems that might arise on a wilderness trip. Should one find oneself lost, one need only remember that “Staying alive . . . is a matter of calming down.” Further poems instruct one on what to do when “Breaking Camp,” or “Meeting a Bear” (“try your meekest behavior,/ . . . eyes downcast”), even after “Being Shot” (“if you haven’t fallen involuntarily, you may/ Volunteer now . . .”). In each case, “you,” the reader, are put in touch—in most cases both literally and figuratively—with something that has previously seemed foreign or outside the realm of ordinary human experience. In other words, lack of sensitivity to natural processes results in estrangement and isolation. By becoming more receptive, and perhaps less “top of the mind” rational, one allows for the possibility of “rescue” in the form of new understanding.
Frequently, since they typically involve a stripping away of the ego, these new insights prove to be humbling. Traveling “From Here to There,” one can see the destination easily, while the distance deceives and one is confused by mirages: “Water put out like fire, . . . flying islands,/ The unbalancing act of mountains upside down.” The problem of recognition resurfaces; nothing is what it seems. There is nothing to do but keep slogging: “One Damn Thing After Another,” until finally, having “shrugged off most illusions” you “find yourself” in a place “where nothing is the matter/ . . . asking one more lesson.” Still harder to accept are the lessons that teach acquiescence in mortality; lessons that teach that even a violent death is as much a part of the life process as birth. In “Being Shot,” one finds oneself helpless on the forest floor, “study[ing]/ At first hand . . . the symptoms of shock.” With Wagoner’s open and accepting life view, death is as natural and therefore as necessary as birth, and “To burrow deep, for a deep winter,” as “Staying Alive” advises, will result, come spring, in a renewal of some kind, if only because—should one not survive—one’s decaying body will provide nutrients with which to feed other forms of life.
A series of poems in the final section of In Broken Country provide a guide to survival in the desert rather than the forest. Similar in tone and intent to the earlier handbook poems, these divert from “The Right Direction” past “The Point of No Return,” where “. . . from here on/ It will take more courage to turn than to keep going.” The process is what matters.
The “you” in these poems is never identified. There is a strong sense that the reader is being addressed directly, as if he or she has enrolled in an Outward Bound course and is receiving a curious mix of practical and cryptic last-minute advice before setting out on a solo adventure. There is also a sense of the poet talking to himself, working his own way both from the industrialized northern Indiana of his youth to the rain forests of Washington, and, in a parallel journey, from a sense of alienation to one of harmony.
Dry Sun, Dry Wind
In Dry Sun, Dry Wind, Wagoner’s first collection, his affinity with nature is already apparent, but no real contact seems possible. The poet remains isolated, seeing about him images of destruction (“sun carries death to leaves”), decay, and uncertainty (“last year’s gully is this year’s hill”). Time flies; memory is unable to delay it. The natural environment, blighted though it is, is “Too much to breathe, think, see” (“Warning”). In the early poems, the relationship between humans and nature—or humans and anything or anyone else—was generally one of conflict, an ongoing struggle for control resulting in disillusionment: a war, rather than a reconciliation, of opposites. “Progress” was often best achieved through violence to the land, and the stillness that in later works will open the way to enlightenment has precisely the opposite effect in early poems such as “Lull.” Recognition, and, by extension, synthesis, are possible only when “the wind hums or wheels,” creating movement, a kind of artificial life.
It is perhaps significant that none of the poems from this first volume has been included in any subsequent collection. The suggestion is that Wagoner quickly moved beyond these early efforts, struggling with his own problem of recognition as he searched for a true voice of his own. The major themes are there, often apparent only in their negative aspects, as, for example, the fragmentation and conflict that will yield in later poems to synthesis. In addition, there is at least one poem that deserves reading on its own merit.
“Sam the Aerialist” is “sick of walking.” He wants to fly. Like the poet, like the trickster of Native American myth, like dreamers everywhere, he hungers for the impossible and yearns to exceed his natural bounds. In this, Sam is like most of the human race. His crime is not so much his desire to fly as it is his attitude, which is aggressive, self-serving, exploitative: Sam has a “lust for air” that is anything but properly reverent. The birds, therefore, instead of sharing their secrets with him, “have kept/ Far from his mind.” “Birds are evil,” Sam concludes,
they flyAgainst the wind. How many have I pulledApart . . .To learn the secret?
Sam learns by destroying. He lacks the empathy that could move him toward true understanding, and he remains isolated, cut off from his own nature as well as that around him.
Although he is never again referred to by name, there is a sense in which Sam the Aerialist’s presence is felt throughout Wagoner’s later poetry. He represents a kind of high-technology Everyman; his failings are the failings of society at large. He makes a...
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