Rival Gardens: New and Selected Poems

Connie Wanek
University of Nebraska Press ($19.95)

by Edward A. Dougherty

Rival Gardens is the second in University of Nebraska Press’s Ted Kooser Contemporary Poetry series. In his introduction, the former Poet Laureate observes that Wanek’s poems “offer an indelible language to use while admiring our world.” This succinctly captures three hallmarks of Wanek’s work: deft use of language that sometimes feels inevitable, an attitude of admiration and wonder, and a generous inclusive embrace that breaks down the artificial borders between self and other, domestic and social, and natural and human. It’s all one world.

Rival Gardens includes hearty selections from Wanek’s three previous collections as well as an ample gathering of new work. Many “best of” collections highlight a writer’s variety; this one shows just how fine her work has been from the outset. Wanek’s imagery is consistently outstanding; it does the heavy lifting in her art. It accomplishes what Jane Kenyon once advised when she wrote that poets “need to find, among the many things of this world, a way to body forth our feeling.” Consider Wanek’s comparison that opens “Summer Night”:

The street lamp looks down;
it has dropped something
and spends the whole night
searching around its feet.

Not only is the personification descriptive of the lamp’s shape, but suggests how it (and by extension, the summer night) has an Edward Hopper sadness to it. Another example of Wanek’s deft imagery reflects a very different tone but uses the same method: “Blue Flags” describes a mountain setting where she saw the flowers, then states: “This iris is the wild blue / I’ve been lost in all my life.” Clearly, this is not about color, but rather a person’s life-search, her longing, and the not-finding. The single word “lost” suggests conflicting experiences. And that is the expansive gift of well-wrought images: they say so much that can’t be said.

The title Rival Gardens, Wanek says in an interview, comes from her own long-standing practice of gardening, but also from close proximity to the nation’s oldest community garden, where she can observe other gardeners. All this evokes the myth of Eden, but as with her earlier work, Wanek gives the Bible a wry turn. What starts in domesticity ends in philosophy, and what starts in humdrum routines ends in humor. In “Mrs. God,” she says, “Someone had to do the dirty work” like “keeping the darkness out of the light.” Wanek characterizes God as “Mr. Big Ideas” whose charm comes, in part, from his “frank amazement at consequences.” At the poem’s end, God creates free will in such an off-hand way that it’s funny, but Wanek’s last line is a zinger: “‘Let’s give them / free will and see what happens,’ / he said, ever the optimist.”

This poem, in its four quatrains, demonstrates many of the qualities that make Wanek’s poems so rewarding. From her first selection to these new poems, her language is tight with spare, essential word choice and phrasing. In “Duluth, Minnesota,” she describes a moose wandering the downtown as “a big male who left / his antlers somewhere in the woods. / He keeps checking his empty holster . . . ” These three lines evoke feeling for the lost animal, but also ideas about America’s gun culture, ideas which rather than being developed in the poem occur in the reader instead. They occur as suggestions, in part because of Wanek’s gentle humor, which is often accompanied by commentary, as in “Lipstick.” A woman is doing her morning makeup routine, then she “tested a convictionless smile / as the lipstick retracted / like a red eel.” The tone acknowledges how we all know that facing ourselves in the mirror is only occasionally a meeting between friends. Wanek’s ironies are never the sly judgment of bystanders; there’s often some element of complicity.

This inclusive quality makes the themes of Rival Gardens deeply humane. A number of elegies thread through the book, marking personal loss as one theme, but there is a fierce weft of other difficulties tugging it tight as well. This is most clearly demonstrated in poems like “Polygamy” where the opening couplet is stated in her off-hand manner, which is both disarming and stinging: “Some men don’t hate marriage, / or slavery for that matter.” The last line explores the irony more firmly: “Nor can they ever own enough land.” To body forth these ideas, the middle stanzas establish a disturbing metaphor:

When I was girl back on the farm
I surprised a wild tomcat in the hayloft.
He was eating a kitten,

its eyes still shut tight
like apple buds. The shutter clicked
as he looked at me, his expression fixed.

The visual detail of “apple buds” suits the descriptive image, but the lightness and brevity of those blossoms embody darker emotions after the line stating the tomcat’s action. Then the photographic dynamic between the child observing and the tomcat not only suspends the moment, as a snapshot does, but it reinforces the cat’s agency—in a sense it is the cat who presses the shutter button, not the girl. These images inform the ideas of the first stanza in rich and complex ways, all with emotional power and moral implications. From this, Wanek observes that “I still think he knew what he was doing, / though not why, / which makes him almost human, // or makes us almost feline.” She neatly blurs the borders, first between species, and then by suggestion between those with power and those without, between hunters and hunted. After describing that she could hear other kittens in the hayloft, she wonders, “How many did he take,” implying that this violation is a process, not an event. Revulsion at the individual ugliness converts into outrage at the deliberateness, the intimation that it could be just the beginning. If this event is prelude, the threat is enlarged. The final line extends the speaker’s consideration as she wonders, “how can I punish him?” The poem embodies a human need for justice but does so by suggesting how vengeance, a natural inclination, reverses the power dynamic: the victimized who take revenge can become victimizers when they desire to see others suffer. Wanek manages to evoke this whole story, suggest all these ideas, and arouse powerful emotions, but her spare language and tone make it seem like she’s barely broken a sweat.

It takes remarkable restraint to refine language so it is this transparent. But it is just this kind of transparency that Stanley Kunitz said he seeks in poetry: “I want to write poems that are natural, luminous, deep, spare. I dream of an art so transparent that you can look through and see the world.” Connie Wanek is achieving just such a luminous vision.

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