Book Review: The Geese at the Gates by Drucilla Wall

Drucilla Wall, The Geese at the Gates
Salmon Poetry, December, 2011
ISBN 978-1-907056-59-8

Reviewed by Barrett Warner

The search for truth and beauty is a panic for dreamers. Try heading north from native Creek country, turn left at Philadelphia. Keep more or less straight to Wyoming, then dog-leg back to Nebraska. Pick up the big river and let it run you south to St. Louis. Avoid the floating McDonald’s.

Drucilla Wall’s journey likewise takes a very promising turn on the trussed banks of the muddy river’s western shore. Her debut collection, The Geese at the Gates, is a book of great arrival and strong presence. Big forces have put a vast geography into Wall’s middle, but irony has quieted this terrain. The Beats’ hurry for constant motion and their ecstatic, restless subtexts are generously absent from this book. Even the geese in her title poem do not migrate: “The fat geese should be slicing/ the heavy clouds, heading south./ In the last heat of these afternoons/ I should hear them exclaiming/ on their way. But the geese remain/ all winter. Having forgotten themselves/ and changed their story.”

When Wall writes about a car, it’s almost always parked: “we can see our cars wiggle their/ steely asses under the laurel oaks./ All that shiny potential.” In a poem about her son Matthew, he is running, but his eyes are closed. He’s asleep: “You’re safe,/ safe in your bed./ It’s only a dream, a dream./ Sinking back, you answer,/ blinking, disappointed,/ Only a dream?”

Wall stands well apart from the usual crowd of word slingers. Poets today seem obsessed with wanting a poem to have something happen, but dramatic tension doesn’t require cause and effect, action and reaction. Wall’s poetry liberates us from that facile snare. Her poems don’t require verbs to manifest meaning. Occasionally a speaker will roll over or recline. Sometimes there is a memory of an action from twenty years before. Wall nicely doesn’t need to establish motivation to justify action which doesn’t occur. The result is that her poetry—her essence—isn’t cluttered by personality and the tricks of story-telling. There isn’t any Vaudeville in her meter. While there’s movement, it’s usually just the narrator’s eye, panning about, or else making a feast of unexpected associations. Her title poem “moves” from parked geese to parked cars, a shopping mall, Egyptian cotton made in China and washed in Mississippi waters, all the way to the memory foam of God’s bosom where we wonder “how to rid ourselves/ of these fat, honking angels here among us.” We’ve navigated the globe without leaving the windows, looking down on geese which don’t fly, perhaps like us, fat, honking poets whom we are, needing and dreading a higher purpose.

Wall’s traditions spring from older grounds in Ireland where Irish poetry from Yeats to Muldoon hasn’t stopped being Irish no matter with what the rest of the world is pathetically busy. To that island’s fetish for boundary and place, Wall adds a mystical, feathery, almost Japanese way of observing. She wants us to know Jack Gilbert’s waterfall without hearing the sound of its water, wanting us only to hear its beautiful silence as it rages.

Wall’s “Disappearance Song” takes place on St. Patrick’s Day. The first stanza is the rapture of an awakened spring. It’s second stanza is a classic haiku, scanning five-seven-five, so that two distinct traditions, the Romantic Era’s nature praise poem, and the haiku—an imagistic surrender—are wed: “Now behind it all/ the silence of honeybees,/ the absence of wings.” When we remember that St. Patrick chased the snakes of Ireland and sent them all to England, we can look at this poem as an elegy for the environment we’re losing, and perhaps disappearing ourselves along the way.

Wall releases information very slowly, unlacing her brief narratives with agonizing—for us—deep-breathed modulations. Most writers have shown us their tits by page three. Eighty delightful pages of Wall and I’m still anticipating, absolutely aquiver on my chopper. Oh for a glimpse. It almost happens in “Deer Woman at Fifty”

One misty night on the road
to Wentzville, a doe cut across
the headlights and vanished
kicking gravel chips
from the edge of the woods,
her provoking rump
giving the last flash.

What begins like fable…’twas a dark and stormy night…immediately gets specific, so that the abstract qualities of the poem are not lost in abstract language. Her specific, rational observations enhance the unknown. “On the road to Wentzville” immediately engages our right brain hemisphere. It makes us think of maps, signs, trailheads. The fact that Wentzville is a town named for the past tense of a being verb, literally, “wents ville” also intrigues. The images of the doe “kicking gravel chips” steers us to Wall’s belief that movement is only one half the thing in motion. The other half of movement is the way such motion affects the larger world.

By contrast, Wall also celebrates some movement which has no impact. “Invisibility Lesson #1” teaches us “the way Indians walk in the woods” and concludes: “You’ll know when you get it right/ by the deer ignoring you,/ and the arrowhead hunters,/ with their shovels and sieves,/ shouting your obituary/ right across your path.”

Wall probably does not write poems in the nude, but she does seem to take off her watch before composing. There is hardly a clock face to be had. Not only is her poetry nearly devoid of temporal markers, but in several poems she conveys several centuries in one stanza so that images mixed in time–“colonial” and “highway”–are almost matter of fact. In another, “Hannibal, Missouri” characters go in and out of the 1840s. Tom Sawyer jogs past the diner and “Becky Thatcher strolls down Main Street/ with a smile and a pistol in her hand,” while the “kids out/ by the Dairy Queen prefer their cherry vodka.” Wall’s poem, “Regarding Last Chances,” about relationship miscues, ends on a hopeful note: “I have one page left/ in my appointment book,/ where another man’s name/ is penciled in.”

Where time is so indefinite, space means everything. This is Wall at her strongest, giving us just enough light to adjust our irises and just enough detail to rightly furnish each stanza. “Under the lights,/ the elongated hurt,/ stubborn clay,/ turns within the force/ that is your will,/ beyond any choosing,/ to each smallest/ rounding of the elbow,/ slightest declination/ of the fingers,/ builds gesture to gesture,/ circling more and greater/ space into fire.”

Wall’s mastery is that in spite of her dialed-down revelatory pace she writes very personal poems. Her intimacies are thrilling. There’s the evocative sexual imagery in “Blue Marker Landscape” in which the speaker is doodling a Kansas farm scene on her lover’s back, when—because it’s Kansas—the winds pick up and a tornado whirls their embrace. In “Snake Shadows” Wall writes: “my arms coiling your chest,/ my hands diamond heads,/ my tongue water over rock,/ your sounds the prayers of stones.”

Any one of Wall’s gorgeous blossoms could stop a train, but one of my favorites was “For Matthew at Twenty-five.” Although one never stops being a parent, the poetry about being a parent seems to come to a crashing halt after our children start driving cars. For Wall, nurturing means everything and it will go on forever. Archetypes aside, she’s plain good at it, whether scrubbing a sick cat or comforting a restive child or a worried husband.

Do you remember collecting
the bright leaves of autumn,
how we ruined the iron,
pressing them in waxed paper,

and taped them to the windows
to glow like stained glass,
now that another holds your hand
and takes you walking in the woods?

The nicest part of walking the woods with Wall is that she doesn’t stop to sniff every butterfly, just the ones which matter. The unfenced world there, its trees and denizens, is meant to be lived and experienced first, then dreamed and remembered, and only after the longest and most pleasant of whiles, to write a timeless poem about.

Filed under: Barrett Warner, Book Review, Poetics, Prose