David Wagoner is a major American poet: That recognition has been growing steadily among fellow poets and critics over the past three decades, during which Wagoner has published twelve volumes of poetry. First Light is the thirteenth and, to date, the finest in a most impressive series. Everywhere throughout this volume Wagoner demonstrates the sharpness of his eye and his mind and the depth and strength of his feeling for the terrors and beauties of the world. First Light is a very generous gathering of poems, not only in number (eighty-seven poems, with new pieces beginning on the same pages where the preceding ones end) but also in the range of poetic forms and strategies, tonalities, and topics purveyed by the poet.
The range, indeed, is extraordinary. Wagoner is a virtuoso. His subjects range from family history (“The Bad Uncle”) to national myth (“The Author of American Ornithology Sketches a Bird, Now Extinct”), from fairy tales in sardonic retellings (“Jack and the Beanstalk”) to almost archetypal encounters with wilderness terrain (“Backtracking”), from exacting observation of animals (“Loons Mating”), of people (“A Woman Standing in the Surf”), and of both (“To a Farmer Who Hung Five Hawks on His Barbed Wire”) to metaphysical conundrums in a lofty strain (“Walking into the Wind”). His forms are no less various: Though most of Wagoner’s poems do not rhyme, a few do, including a modified villanelle (“Canticle for Xmas Eve”), a poem that uses near-rhyme impressively (“Danse Macabre,” in which, for example, “elbow” rhymes with “meadow,” “hoarfrost” with “harvest,” and “borrowed” with “buried”), and a poem (“Stump Speech”) that builds incrementally like “The House That Jack Built” through a series of rhymed couplets:
And this is the stump I stand beside,Once tall, now short as the day it diedAnd gray as driftwood, its heartwood eatenBy years of weather, its xylem rottenAnd only able to hold the rainOne cold inch (roots withered and gone)In a shallow basin, a cracked urnWhose cambium and phloem now learnTo carry nothing down to the darkInside the broken shell of the barkBut a dream of a tree forever dead.And this is the speech that grew instead.
As for the prevalent unrhymed poems, they come in all shapes and sizes, long poems and short poems, long-lined and short-lined poems, poems that mix long and short lines, and poems in triplets, in quatrains, in five-line stanzas, and in long verse paragraphs.
Wagoner’s poetry is quintessentially in the American grain. In many of his earlier poems, his persona was a sort of Emersonian man in quest of a right relation to the natural order around him. These poems might be classed in the broad field of metaphysical poetry about nature and terrain that runs as a central line through the American tradition from William Cullen Bryant, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson through Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, Robinson Jeffers, Theodore Roethke, and A. R. Ammons. The opening stanza of “The Words,” the first poem in Wagoner’s 1966 collection Staying Alive, might be taken as a keynote of this aspect of his poetry:
Wind, bird, and tree,Water, grass, and light:In half of what I writeRoughly or smoothlyYear by impatient year,The same six words recur.
Wagoner’s poetry of nature, however, is almost always...
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