This review appears in the Spring 2014 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.
A Vertical Mile by Richard Wakefield
(San Jose, CA: Able Muse Press, 2012)
Richard Wakefield is a poet whose subjects are both the common experiences of humankind throughout the ages and also special concerns that have emerged in modernity. Wakefield grew up in rural Washington State and has lived and taught college English there all his life. His knowledge of the history, geology, geography, seasons, weather, and flora and fauna of his native state is extensive.
Writing in metrical verse that almost always rhymes (there is little blank verse), and especially favoring the interlocking abab rhyming pattern, Wakefield meditates on themes that themselves quite often interlock or exist in dramatic tension. In form and style, the poems, which are usually brief narratives, may be described as simple in the best sense of that word: lucid, direct, memorably phrased, and filled with wisdom. Wakefield is a master of end rhyme, enjambment, and the laying out of sentences over the rhyme scheme. His titles are carefully chosen and his literary allusions deftly appropriate and neatly woven into the argument of the verse. The poems move through themselves with an ease and grace that undoubtedly come from great labor in composition and revision.
A number of the poems address philosophical or theological issues. The tension between faith and doubt is strikingly presented in the sonnet “Even the Disciples.” There, the poet finds solace in pondering how in spite of having witnessed such miracles of Christ as his reviving a dead child and walking on the water and after having been present at a profound epiphany—the Transfiguration—the disciples still remained capable of doubt: “There’s comfort, then, for us who are unsure, / if those who climbed Mt. Hermon’s slopes and saw / the Lord transfigured in a light as pure / as God’s own vision, stumbling back in awe, / were still unsure, for all that they had seen, / just what this ‘rising from the dead’ might mean.”
Another fine poem by a poet walking the razor’s edge of doubt and faith is “Signs and Wonders,” quoted here in full:
That shooting star last night
inscribed its sudden arc,
an autograph of light,
and left a darker dark.
Men used to think such things
were signs of dawning ages,
perhaps the death of kings,
interpreted by sages.
But now we know it’s grit
ignited by descent,
no message borne in it,
no purpose, nothing meant.
And yet we long to think
that moment’s random fire
significant, to link
our lives with something higher.
This yearning to believe in “something higher”—a transcendent yet also immanent Creator God (the Logos) who has filled the cosmos with beauty and symbolic significance, what C. S. Lewis, thinking of the medieval picture of the Ptolemaic cosmos, called “the discarded image”—is opposed by an honest and honorable skepticism. This dramatic balance makes Wakefield’s theological speculations a kind of dialogue or debate within himself, sometimes transposed, in the language of Christian theology, to things of the natural world.
Complementing these poems on philosophical and theological matters are poems on mutability and death the human experience of which is all but inseparable from religious belief. In “Like Gods in the Machine,” cattle are drawn by the motor of a truck filled with bales of hay to feed them: “We were to them like gods come to dispense / communion, the hay a host that we bestowed.” In time, of course, the godlike men will come again: “They couldn’t know how much [we were] like gods, to give / the stuff of life, but takers of life as well. / Surveying our supplicants we could foretell / the ones to be sacrificed, the ones to live.”
Quite often Wakefield makes good use of his detailed knowledge of Washington State for descriptive and symbolic purposes. “Successive Yellows” describes the opening, each in due season, of a number of yellow flowers: first daffodils, then the tansy, Saint John’s wort, goldenrod, monkey flowers, bird’s-foot. And though in autumn the leaves in the trees are of many hues, any one of them can be held up against the sun so that we might see the common color of death: “the last of summer’s color, thin and frail, / . . . the remnant yellow, now grown pale.”
Perhaps the best poem on death is, appropriately, the last poem in the book: “Terminus.” There, a salmon makes its way up a mountain stream to spawn and die. In the poem’s closing lines, the salmon’s death is linked to the human observers: “The gill slits stir up rapid clouds of silt, / then slow, then stop. The silver fades to gray / and disappears beneath a pall of milt. / The mountain sun has been so hot today // that even now, with twilight coming on, / the spray the salmon casts against its death / to give the stones a moment’s gloss is gone / —all in one unhurried human breath.” The shortening of the final line from ten to nine syllables to imitate the shortening breath of human beings who “gasp in mountain air” is nicely done.
Another of Wakefield’s important concerns is the limit of communication between human beings and creatures or even among the creatures themselves. In “Midnight Colloquy,” the poet hears a single hound dog baying, then other dogs joining in. In the final lines, deftly echoing Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Arnold, and Frost, the poet wonders whether colloquy of any kind has, in the end, an ultimate significance: “And what’s this sound and fury signify? / I listen hard to these confused alarms, / the curs’ expostulation and reply, / a night’s prolonged and pointless dialogue. / I wonder if there’s nothing to express, / and if somehow this sleepless, mindless dog / is pointing to that greater pointlessness.”
Some communication is, however, possible at times, as in “Something Scrawled across a Field” where, while the poet is reading his fate in the words of headstones in a graveyard, a “domestic dog” chases a coyote from a farmer’s yard. But the dog will not follow the coyote back into the wild from which dogs came. Rather, the dog reads a message the coyote left in the language of his tracks: “. . . the dog stood gazing on / the message that the coyote scrawled / across the field, growing dim / in morning sun, but something he / could read in words as clear to him / as what was on the stones to me.” The use here of the tetrameter line, often employed in writing epitaphs, is most appropriate.
The border between the natural and human worlds is not only a matter of communication but of different kinds of ordering. “Invasive Weeds” is about the tansy ragwort that can overtake hay and grass in fields and cause cattle to become ill or perish. A boy hired to pull up these weeds learns a hard lesson about life: “. . . He ponders how no borders keep / the tansy out, no pasture can be fenced / so well that something toxic can’t creep through: / amid the green a yellow cast appears. / And what is true of weeds he’ll find is true / in other fields he works in later years.”
Wakefield is particularly moved by scenes in which the woods have taken back a house or town. In “This House, These Grounds,” the observant poet finds everywhere signs of abandonment: “. . . the inside walls still bearing squares / of whiter white where photographs were tacked,” a water pump “arthritic with rust,” an orchard whose fruits are “blown / into ungainly tangles with every gust,” and “. . . in the shed a tractor, stripped, its frame / the bruised red of wounds that never healed[.]” And, though silent, these images tell their tale: “If parting words were spoken, none remain; / a backward glance and then a shrug instead. / And yet an hour’s looking makes it plain / that nothing ever really goes unsaid.”
In “Things That Cannot Be Kept,” the poet thinks of bulldozers that are making a trail into a highway beside the woods. He knows that such doubters as he are seen as “merely obstructions in a world / that lives for fast arrivals, and damn the journey.” He thinks of a deer that may be frozen in the headlights of the traffic, then hit and killed. May it die, he pleads, the more dignified death of being shot by hunters: “Let it be gone before what we must accept. / The winding trail today becomes a road. / Some things cannot be stopped or even slowed. / Today we learn that some things can’t be kept.”
Other poems in A Vertical Mile are about human relationships—sometimes humorously presented. In “Old Words, New Context,” the poet posits adulterous lovers who might lie in the afterglow of passion in a city hotel room when an earthquake strikes, threatening to bring down their building and expose their affair: “Each will pray, ‘God, don’t let me die here / to be found naked in the rubble with her, with him!’ / They won’t die, exactly, but think of all they’ve said: / ‘This is bigger than both of us,’ and ‘It / just happened,’ and ‘My heart overruled my head,’/ and ‘Against such force, what could I do but submit?’ / Strange, how the world sometimes creates a new / context where suddenly all our lies come true.”
A number of Wakefield’s poems address problems of the modern world, modern technology, and the great underlying theme of the complexity of experience with its opposites, balances, encirclings, intertwinings, bafflements, and sudden changes. In “The Human Race,” appropriately written in tetrameter triplets that create a sense of speed and relentless repetition of activity, Wakefield captures the spirit of the age: “Along the brightly lighted hall / the timid workers scurry all / the way all day to duty’s call / that puts its prod to everyone, / so back and forth the workers run / on errands that are never done[.]” Such workers forget Christ’s teaching about the lilies of the field as “flowered fields are gone / to build more office buildings on / to house our morbid marathon.” And yet their crazy haste will only bring the workers to their inevitable end in a graveyard: “Our race’s pace accelerates, / But dead ahead, mapped by the fates, / another flowered field awaits.”
Yet not even graveyards have escaped the effects of modernity. In the poem “In a Multidenominational Cemetery,” the poet walks among older graves with their “upright stone” looking for kin, but then he gazes over the newer sections. There, the gravestones are all flat so that the plots can more easily be mown over by mowing machines, a process that saves time and also the money needed to pay a caretaker to clip around standing stones. About these newer graves Wakefield concludes, “No upward aspiration there, / or none expressed in stone, at least, / as if the new-deceased have ceased / to hope they’re going anywhere / but here.” Cemetery workers now “. . . care for graveyards, not for graves” while prayers etched on the flat stones “. . . whisper to me on my walks, / but this place proves that money talks / so loudly even stones can hear.”
Two poems on farming and one on walking up a mountain also deal with life’s complexities. In “Fall of Forty-one,” World War II has caused a dramatic rise in wheat prices that has led to an unusually high profit for a farm family. Debts are paid, a truck bought, and an indoor toilet installed in place of an outhouse hard to get to in winter. The farmer’s wife is somewhat troubled by their profiting from war, but they have suffered deprivation in the past and can do nothing for the soldiers doomed to die: “And thus they brought their privy safe inside, / and if it seemed like profit out of war, / the benefit could hardly be denied / compared to hardships they had borne before.”
In “Bumper Crop,” the situation is reversed, and a large wheat crop drives down prices, causing farmers to suffer from their very success. A similar strange opposition is in the title poem where someone is addressed who climbs high enough on a mountain that he comes to a place where spring flowers still bloom, even though they have died in the summer world below. This upward journey—with springtime blackflies feeding on him—makes the climber aware of another season and what that season means in his inevitable “ascent to fall” (“A Vertical Mile”).
A single poem does not always lie at the heart of a book of verse, but if one does so here it would almost certainly be “Transfiguration.” This poem tells the story of a daughter’s memory of a painting her father made for their church’s vestibule. The scene is Christ praying in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before his crucifixion: “Blue veins embossed the savior’s folded hands, / so real they seemed to pulse, though in a while / that blood would spill upon the arid sands / Of Golgotha,” and there Christ’s brow that “priests decreed / be pierced by cruel thorns, so smooth and white, / immaculate but human, soon to bleed / for others’ sins, seemed bathed in holy light.”
But the daughter knows what the parishioners will probably never know. She remembers her father looking at himself in a mirror so that he might use his own face as a model for that of Jesus, especially his “. . . look of resignation and despair / he’d given to the Lord.” The poem closes by bringing together the human and divine not only in Christ’s own Incarnation but in the union of Christ with all human beings, particularly, here, the artist: “. . . It was for her to know / that in his image he created Him. / And yet to her the painting was no less / a miracle, and maybe more. She saw / in it how we are blessed by what we bless / and made a part of what we hold in awe.” This special power of art to awaken us to wonder and the holy through the artist’s loving self-sacrifice to and total identification with his subject—both acts coming from the discipline and sometimes even the agony of the creative process—is the “transfiguration” of the title. Such a poem surely reflects the way that Richard Wakefield has transfigured his thoughts, feelings, and experiences, including a yearning for “something higher,” into an impressive new collection of formal verse. ♦
David Middleton is poetry editor of Modern Age.