In W.S. Merwin’s inaugural address as United States Poet Laureate, he quoted his life-long hero, William Blake, who said, “To the eyes of a man with imagination, nature is imagination itself.” It was this gift for imagination that Merwin believed to be the greatest gift of humanity, and he asks us, “Are we going to live up to ourselves? Are we going to put this gift to use with the time we have left?” Claire Wahmanholm’s second poetry collection, Redmouth, is just such a profound gift of imagination and an affirmative response to Merwin’s prophetic call.
The book opens with an unleashing of oracular utterances that I read in a deeply participatory and embodied way. The lines become physical manifestations and presences on the lips and in the ear—a literal whispering required by the susurrations of consonance in lines like,
Night and nightshade, yes but also
The night-blooming Cereus, itself
A cloak of nameless fragrance,
In her lecture “On Description,” Jorie Graham asks us to read poems in a new way—actually an ancient way—more directly, physically, to experience a poem in our bodies first-hand, to feel the poem as embodied resonance, and to feel it communally. Of course to read this way, poets must structure description to make direct experience possible, an experience much closer to the way we feel music. Redmouth affected me this way. Reading the book was physically painful—but an exquisite pain, a pain joined to beauty through the metamorphosing of words into a palpable presence through Wahmanholm’s deft craft.
The opening poem of Redmouth’s first section, “Elegy Where My Sorrow Appears as an Undiscovered Land,” illuminates the way grief becomes a physical presence in the body, and also the way this sorrow and grief can be so omnipresent that it extends beyond the body into landscape: “—each thorn draws / a drop of ether through the surface of my skin / until I am a lake. I float on myself for a long time.” Landscape and self then become one, and we are a landscape in our sorrow. This theme is repeated again and again, as in “Parallax”: “My body and this field have become a single horizon, frozen.”
There are times in Redmouth when a poem seems to be speaking in longing for a human beloved, a child, a lover, some lost love—and yet still, I read it with the voice of the earth crying out to all of us in our absence and abandonment of nature, and therefore ourselves. This makes the work profoundly ecological to me with an unparalleled ferocity and power. The title of the book refers to a disease decimating the salmon population, and the cover image is of watermelon snow, a red bacterium caused by rising temperatures that blooms on glaciers in the Arctic. In “Thaw,” the speaker watches the snow melt and likens it to a dying creature:
What woke me up was the sudden heat.
I went outside and watched a snowbank sink in fast motion.
It made a chirping sound, like a tape being rewound.
…The snowbank chirped like a wounded bird,
which sounds like any other bird.
There are references to the upside-down kingdom found in many religious scriptures, as in “The New World”: “This was grief’s promise—that this next world / would be lamb-lioned, a reversing of the hemispheres”—images reminiscent of Isaiah and of Jesus foretelling “when the lion shall lie down with the lamb.” These lines reference a future kingdom that is to come, and is already in the process of becoming, where the forces of oppression will be overturned and where there will be restoration, a peaceable kingdom.
But Redmouth does not have the luxury of hoping for this redemption. Things are much too dire, and the most important prophecy now is telling the truth about the way things are. Violence and suffering are already at hand, “and the terrible sheep has wolf blood in its wool.” What are we going to do with the time we have left?
Charles Wright wrote, “…just give me the names for things. Just give me their real names. Not what we call them but what they call themselves when no one is listening.” Wahmanholm echoes this embrace of the unnamed or the names which are impossible to hold within human consciousness. We have been taught ownership in naming, an assertion of control, a commission first given to “Man” by God in the garden of Genesis, perhaps the true original sin. Ever since that first day of naming, “Man” has persisted in claiming everything under the sun as his rightful possession. Wahmanholm, like Wright, moves us away from the patriarchal power structure of “naming” and towards the wisdom of “the asylum of namelessness.” She writes frequently of the erasure of names, all that is vanishing, ungraspable, and fleeting: “…the wind of terror, which drives / the names of all our favorite things / to the edge of the cliff.” Naming in this work becomes an elusive grasp at meaning, but true meaning is found is in the embodied experience itself—that which is nameless, unnameable. These recurring themes and images of vanishing, implosion and dissolution flicker and fade throughout the poems in a confession or prophetic pronouncement that all is temporal, ungraspable, unholdable. We are specks that dissolve.
Structurally, Redmouth’s sections are separated by what looks like a pulsing vibration of O. Is it an eye? Is it a hole? A vacuum? In the poem “xxx” the poet says “the dew is an O.” It is evaporating—it is here for a moment and gone. The pulsing O’s of the section breaks, as well as the erasures of the pastoral poems of Virgil and Theocritus, further illustrate the book’s call to remember that we are both a vast expanse and a perpetual vanishing, as in “Solstice”: “In your absence, my heart has grown so large, so white”—a landscape, ancient, stretching back in communion with everything that has come before it, but also a nothingness, a white light that has the capacity to illuminate and erase everything it touches. Like the “O,” the “I” of the poems feels expansive and elusive. The fusing and melding of the self with the earth makes one wonder who this “I” might be. Often I found myself reading the “I” as nature, as earth, as the energy in all things. I loved this insistence on the “I” and yet the radical dissolving of the “I” into everything.
Similarly, in several poems the “we” could be read as lovers, but the narrative is so buried and subsumed in landscape or natural forces, I prefer to read it as all of us, as in “Heliosphere”:
uncompassed, our here
was everywhere, was an atom blown open,
into an infinite net with us as its center.
And then later in the poem,
We spun and our spinning was a ring gathering
our blood into our hands until our everywhere
tightened into a tiny, incalculable frontier.
Our own instability within ourselves has caused us to colonize everything, everywhere, and in our insatiable hunger to possess we have destroyed everywhere and ourselves in the process. In its rejection of naming, Redmouth is also a deeply anti-colonial book.
Redmouth ends in darkness. The final poem, “Prayer,” says “all shall be well and all shall be well,” as if we are heading toward redemption and “good news,” but it descends into a well of truth-telling about pain. Julian of Norwich’s “well” is transformed into a place where bodies are thrown. There is a brief raising of our hands to haul us out, but then immediately our hands are filled with shells and explosions, and turned back into holes. And then the faint light disappears with the natural turning of the earth. This is not the hope we yearned for. This is a resignation, and perhaps some measure of peace can be found in acceptance—that this is the way things are. I appreciate this refusal to create a false hope.
The recurring acts of metamorphosis throughout the book allow us to live with contradiction and paradox. Subversively, the hope here is not of the lion and the lamb, nor of salvation from God, but of the lion-lambed of the present moment, and our existential choice to do what we can in the time we have left. In this we find both an affirmation and a wholeness in our being that does not rely on a future, imagined new earth, but demands from us action, now, to save our planet, our world, and ourselves.