What Books Press
Reviewer: Cindy Hochman
What did you think it would be this life all dining on violets and
—“Selectively, using your fingernails”
The good news is that although Gail Wronsky’s Imperfect Pastorals is heavily steeped in the major works of Roman poet Virgil, you need not be a Virgil scholar to fully appreciate its formidable beauty. In fact, the only prerequisite for absorbing these luminous and illuminating lines is to be human, for the nucleus of these poems is rooted in our inherent inheritance: the fundamental foundation of our essential existence. (You may now be asking yourself so, what is the bad news? The bad news is that, in the end, maybe we’re trapped innately, gnat-like, in the middle of great vacant signs. Translation: when all is said and done, no one gets out of here alive.)
How much more difficult for poor humans caught between
the names of things and the iridescences of perceptions—
one minute walking alone and in love on a mountain path,
the next waking up on a clinic’s cot face to face with
different pastures—out of this moment something suddenly
expressing itself in a poem, and out of that moment another
(“Drawn by a Team of Three-Legged Fish-Tailed Horses”)
While the book as a whole is free-standing and self-contained, it is useful to have a basic knowledge of the panoply of themes presented in Virgil’s Eclogues (an epic poem) and the Georgics (lines from which the bulk of Wronsky’s descriptively highfalutin yet modern-sounding titles are extracted). The “different pastures” referenced in the poem above portends an agricultural landscape (trees and bees) that forms the heart of the Georgics, along with a more cosmically abstract but no less salient (and perhaps nihilistic) illustration of the catch-22 manifest in our fleshly presence on earth. Although animal husbandry and shepherds tending their flock seem tame enough, Virgil’s pastoral depiction of rural life is hardly serene, with mankind pitted against an oft-violent natural world, and the erotic hedonism of Eclogues giving way to revolution.
Make no bones about it, Imperfect Pastorals is about death, or more accurately, what we do in the white spaces on our sober march to its inevitability. By inserting the word “imperfect” next to “pastoral” in the title, the poet seems to be telegraphing a keen recognition that despite well-intentioned aspiration toward high-mindedness, the human condition, like Virgil’s countryside setting, may not be all that idyllic. But while we probably aren’t the guiders of our own destinies, Gail Wronsky is in full control of her awesome (meant in the biblical/spiritual sense, of course) poetry, and although old Virgil lays the groundwork for these poems, there is an Ashbery-esque aspect to their profuse assertions and winding paths.
World or thought—which of the two thinks the other?
we’re thinking again! Thinking we can sustain the
whole planet with our moods. When only you can.
(“The Light and Shade Upon the Globe”)
And: from “When It’s Bone-Hard Under a North Wind,” “Must I give up fathoming / the depths of life?”
It is clear that the poet believes that cogitation is necessary, exhilarating, and quite possibly the root of all misery. Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am,” and while Wronsky’s credo is not quite “life sucks and then you die,” it’s pretty darn close. Still, there is a veneration of cerebral movement that informs these poems, evidenced by allusion to various philosophies that are sometimes at odds with each other. These poems lie somewhere between fatalism (the view that nothing we do can shape our futures) and stoicism (forbearance and resignation in the face of this), along with a hearty nod to pantheism, with God at least the overseer of creativity and imagination (in the poem “And the Owl on the Rooftop Watching The Sun Go Down,” “night is the ink-play of God the / literati artist”). Wronsky’s poems demand effusive but elusive audience participation, posing concrete questions for which there are no concrete answers. There is an embrace of all manner of knowledge and reasoning (“Don’t you love other people’s / shimmering / bits of thought—”), but the reader can easily glean the palpable sense of frustration of a seeker who, in true solipsistic fashion, is limited by the premise that only first-hand experience can be known (“when speaking of myself / when speaking of the sky / when speaking of anything / how can I know / I can’t know”). And, curiously, despite the credence given to the argument that our lives are predetermined, Wronsky bemoans our propensity toward lack of action (or outright avoidance), as in the poem “An Acre or Two of Land That No One Wanted (“the temptation to annihilate / which we confront by not confronting things, / letting them go to seed, to pot, to hell, to waste, a fate which is / in some ways worse than death”).
The day’s just handed me a glass-bulb pipe and an
energy drink despite my death-fetish.
(“The Trees That Lift Themselves Spontaneously”)
here I am
looking at the bright side again
(“Far Be It from Me to Indulge in a Nap”)
Imperfect Pastorals holds no promise that wrestling with the miasma of mortality is an optimistic endeavor, yet Wronsky’s poems do so much more than just brood. For instance, in the poem “The Bank All Green with Celery, the Cucumber Snaking,” the poet plainly states “in my own quaint way / I like living,” and the reader can be assured that she does not consider “looking at the bright side again” taboo; indeed, she takes hopefulness to a higher plane by recognizing the bliss of being “ecstatic and alone,” an experience that most poets are well acquainted with. In addition, Wronsky never sacrifices humor, as in her pairing of “Cuzco” with “Costco” (Cuzco is in Peru and Costco most likely near you) nor abandons the poetic spark, such as the imagery of “the Seine weeping incoherently / but in French.”
… but we Charleston-ed backward you and I like
it was New Year’s Eve in Moscow 1925 pushing our beaded asses and calves
in platinum behind while trying not to imagine what was coming what terrors
and shames the certain failures of our ember days whether the future would
all grow black or all grow bright
(“An Ant That Fears a Lean Old Age”)
Through mythology, history, and the dire dance of nostalgia, Gail Wronsky’s breathtaking poems encompass the not-always-rosy state of being but offer some sanguinity (and, fatalism notwithstanding, maybe even a bit of salvation) all along the passageway.