‘You Good Thing’ by Dara Wier

  • COLDFRONT RATING: four
  • PUBLISHED BY: Wave Books, 2013
  • REVIEW BY: John Deming

 

“Sit back, clear your mind, we’ll investigate the terms of you.”

 
Start with the title—its pronoun, that boldly caps-locked YOU on the cover. This is where each of the poems in You Good Thing begins. Contemplate its transformation from person into thing, into object of contemplation. Wonder about that sweet but somewhat noncommittal descriptor good. These are the book’s fundamental questions. But readers of Wier’s previous work will know not to expect any fixed answers: Her poetics relies on destabilization, and she has a penchant for mystery. Her narratives, where they exist, are heightened by uncanny imagery amid occasional drifts of abstract wordplay. Her method of meaning has been characterized as one of accrual, but she also enjoys reversal, negation, and collision. Her moves tend to be tentative or interrogatory rather than declarative. Sometimes she grounds the fluctuations of her work by choosing to constrain them with regular stanza patterns or pre-determined forms, as she has here.

Described in the publisher’s copy as a book of “loose sonnets,” Dara Wier’s new collection indeed contains forty-two identically sized poems, each with the requisite fourteen lines, and all but two are addressed to you. If readers enter the collection expecting love poems, they won’t be disappointed: “Is 250 years a very long time? I don’t think so, and you? / For a good long time, I plan to love you,” she promises in one of the most straightforward pieces in the book, “You Are Our 3rd Destination and Our 9th Destiny.” “For you / I believe in forever. I mean this, literally.” This is Wier’s one sure thing, and as absolute as she’s willing to get.

Many will hear in those lines Elizabeth Barrett Browning, whose own promise to “love thee with the depth and breadth and height / My soul can reach,” even “better after death,” come from her most-quoted sonnet, number 43. And this won’t be the only time: Wier also borrows a number of key images from Sonnets from the Portuguese, including several cypress trees, a few bees, and various specters of death, as well as some of her predecessor’s heaven-flung seeking. (More about that later.) Barrett Browning’s not the book’s only hovering figure, either. The sonnet’s been a project for so many poets, it’s impossible not to notice many of them over, under, and behind some of Wier’s sonnets, faces in the woodwork. In a 2010 interview with Cynthia Arrieu-King in Jacket, Wier cites both Shakespeare and Donne as early influences, and talks a bit about her beginnings as a poet exploring traditional forms. About sonnets specifically, she admits, “[i]f the form has been around forever, you have to have absorbed something about what reasoning goes on within [its] logic.” She adds, “I didn’t get exciting ideas about sonnets until I’d written about thirty or forty of them.” Perhaps she was writing these at the time.

Readers can make as much or as little as they like of Wier’s selection of the sonnet and her loosening of the form in the newer tradition of Berrigan and Mayer et al. The sonnet brings with it plenty of literary ghosts. But what’s more interesting are the variations in how Wier approaches her “exciting idea,” the eponymous you. In the first poem, “Not a Verbal Equivalent,” her addressee appears pretty concrete, intimately present if not exactly unwavering:

You said one thing as a way of not saying something else.
You wrote something so that other things wouldn’t be written.
You drew me a picture of one thing and not anything else.
I’m trying to figure out how this applies to what you’ve gone
And done in case, by doing so, a solution to the problem we’ve been
Having no success solving makes itself evident. For the sake of
Argument, let’s say I’m a crime and you’re a clue and someone
Else, we don’t know who, is the detective. We’re on the Wind
River and it’s twilight and you have on your windbreaker of many
Pockets and I have on my boots in which I hide whatever needs
To be hidden. To be perfectly accurate you are barefoot and I
Have nothing to hide at the moment. Wild geese. Two butterflies
Of black and blue geometry. A coal train. Skid marks on the
Curve in the road that will point us slowly into a nearby cave.

Just try letting the perfect puzzle of that line slide by: “I’m a crime and you’re a clue.” The investigation commences. Each detail gets enumerated, then negated, “to be perfectly accurate.” The scenery begins as a mappable location (the Wind River, a real place in Wyoming) but suddenly all signs (and skid marks) swerve the couple away from the road, into the unknown: the mouth of a cave.

Where that poem is ominous, others are melancholy, usually due to the absence, or fading, of the you. Mourning is a recurring theme. “Who covered all their mirrors with sheets / While they grieved, who wove together hair bracelets for themselves / To wear,” asks “Needle Threader in Need of a Needle,” the repetition embedded in the title emphasizing the pining tone. You appears in graveyards, both as “a tombstone nearby which a child’s blowing out a match” and as a presence: “I took you, though you weren’t with me.… You took off your hat to salute every gravestone.” Though he doesn’t seem quite gone yet, he often seems to be missing, hiding, or separated from the speaker in some frustrating way: “You turned to kiss me as / A door slid between us.”

Just as for Barrett Browning, the loss of the beloved for Wier’s speaker is an already-ongoing process. Love is inextricable from grief (as crimes are from their clues), resulting in a mourning that taints the experience but also heightens it, even as it feels somewhat premature. In “Preemptive Grieving,” Wier’s speaker plans ahead and helps her beloved prepare as well:

[…] You’ll need to
Invent a new language. You’ll need to find replacements for
every time
You’ve opened your mouth. There’ll be no one anywhere able to put a
Cool hand on your brow, no one to gently remove dirt from
your mouth.

Here, as in other poems, Wier’s pronoun simultaneously encompasses both the speaker and the spoken-to, intimately fused. She often speaks as much to herself as to anyone. At other times, her focus expands; I becomes a politicized we, or her you becomes teleological as she turns her addresses to God (perhaps) or the universe (maybe), “those famous silent skies,” with typical slippage. “As we are unable to sense with our sensors your whereabouts / We are asking you to alert us with arrows our orders,” begins “Proprioception,” “…we ask / For mercy. It is mercy you have in excess of your spacing. / We did as we were instructed and followed a black trail of circles.”

Despite her metaphysical reaching, Wier’s speaker remains mostly agnostic, more comfortable questioning and testing a series of answers than settling on any definite belief. “I’ve never told a soul what it is I believe.” Yet we’re left with a sense of contentedness and gratitude as each of the sonnets lingers over its small moments, even as they pass too quickly toward their inevitable ends. This is true to the spirit of the book’s epigraph, a snippet from Pessoa (another sonneteer influence)—“by the longest possible route”—a caption under his diagram for walking his beloved home from the office, designed to intentionally prolong the journey. Wier wants to prolong hers too: “I missed you. By which I mean / I didn’t get you, you whizzed right by me, you far-flung master of / Whispering bumblebees. I want a submersible in order to find / A few of your tentacles.”

Wier’s investigative, open, willing-to-be-buffeted attitude in the end creates some of You Good Thing’s most beautifully bewildering moments, as in two of my favorite poems: The extravagantly titled “Swags of Light in the Quaternary” begins like an alchemical experiment, with argon and silica. (Several of the titles are similarly gorgeous.) Another, “Cypress, Dateless” ends in a kind of vibration, or chant, expanding in rings:

You are a seahorse unraveling.
You are the back of a landhorse looking backward.
Gotten away from have you thrown yourself racing.
Who took what was not out of thunderous shade
In an all-knowing sycamore’s branches.
What who do you make of stone steps you stepped through.
You took the boat onto flattened waters.
White wall of blue morning fog to slip into.
You withstood what it was that was wailing you through.
There you were standing on nothing, looking down at two
Blackfeathered slashes your two hands held on to.
Off were you going aloft would birds such as these take
You.
Who leaned you and stood you and shook you and shook you.

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