This Sweet Haphazard. Gillian Wegener. Sixteen Rivers Press.
San Francisco, California. 2017.
These remarkable poems seem to do two things at once, they gently reassure you that all will eventually be okay, until it's not. Gillian Wegener's This Sweet Haphazard plays both ends against the middle as though she were a rationalizing mall-mom, but dressed like a gun-slinger underneath.
Or we can approach This Sweet Haphazard this way. How does Wegener know what she knows? The precision of her approach, how a neighbour who doesn't want to rock the boat by telling her firework-crazy neighbour that she hates fireworks. Only to find herself pleasurably lost in the beauty of same, the final spectacle spectacular and Wegener finds the beauty. And then to fold that like taffy, Wegener twists to the real end of the poem where accuracy takes over and the smoke and the dust from the fireworks obscure the real beauty of the night sky, all those stars burning bright. Wegener pulls off this sort of savvy machination repeatedly, seemingly at will.
America by Train
America passes by the window like a set of slides being shown too fast. Here are
the desert scenes with long stretches of blank landscape, but you know that it's
all in the details. How the gray-green cactus will open up the most beautiful pink
flower for just one day, but you'll never see that flower from this train window.
How the lizard will wait on its rock for the unfortunate cricket to land and
become a tiny meal. You won't hear the screech of the hawk welcoming sunset
or see the startle of the mouse in hearing that cry. What you can see is brown
and gray and vaguely green, with the wide, darkening sky overhead, and it's like
holding a book you know will be a good read but that you aren't allowed to open.
But here are the passengers, their unchosen details out for display. The
man and wife who argue about every little thing in hard whispers and then
in loud voices, not quite shouts, not much softer, but not really meant for
the entire car to hear. She has something to say about how he shaves. He has
something to say about the way she cooks turkey. She is wearing a yellow hat
fifty years too late for yellow hats with small cloth daisies, and he has a cane
that he whittled himself, and they are going from Bakersfield to Kansas to see
her sister. He has something to say about that, too. Another passenger peels
an orange, and another says he was attacked by dogs in Indonesia and is going
home to get treatment, but the sores on his arms and face don't speak of dogs,
and the gloss of fever means everyone for the most part leaves him alone, and
what he wants most is a mug of tea, but because he is so tired, he decides to wait
it out. Another passenger walks ahead for a smoke. A baby sleeps on her father's
shoulder. The conductor reads a magazine and wishes he were elsewhere.
And America passes by like that in the night, when the windows show
nothing but passenger reflections. It becomes New Mexico. It becomes
Oklahoma. It becomes a train moving through a world made up of nothing
but darkness punctuated by the little comma moon overhead. It becomes
a train standing still as the world moves past. The arguing couple grows
quiet, her head on his shoulder. The feverish boy sleeps and murmurs
with feverish dreams. The baby is awake and watching her own reflection
in the window, waving at her sweet new self as the night folds around us.
Well crafted almost sounds disparaging these days but Today's book of poetry still thinks that's how things should be done. Gillian Wegener's poems are air-tight.
Frequent readers of Today's book of poetry will remember that we are suckers for a good list poem and Wegener obliges in fine form with a dandy, "The Old Mill Cafe." Today's book of poetry would normally use it for fodder but frankly we were so smitten with Wegener's particular disposition that we were drawn to several other poems. You meet women like Wegener every day, smart, decisive and decidedly kind and gentle (when she wants to be). The wrong assumption that is often made is that these attributes reveal a weakness of some kind. But the real lion doesn't always have to prove herself to be a lion. She just is. She can be as kind and gentle as needed. Until she has to be that other kind of lion.
The Dyerville Giant
When a tree falls in a forest,
a tree like that, anyway,
with all those years ringing it,
having sprouted out of the soft earth
before Jesus was even a spark
in his Father's bright eye --
when a tree like that falls,
it cracks and echoes so that
even the gnats careening
in the sun near the creek
take pause. And when this tree
fell, the crash was like trains colliding.
The ground inhaled and held
its breath, waiting for impact.
The sound rolled through the forest
and made salamanders hide
in their damp burrows. It thundered
like a train wreck, and so
the townsfolk drove out
to the trestle to see the havoc,
while the fine silt of redwoods
rose and then settled
in the forest behind them.
Today's book of poetry's morning read was a slightly more subdued event than some of our recent escapades. Milo, our head tech, and Kathryn, our Jr. Editor, apparently drank all of the Scotch in Vanier last night. Their little wounded souls are being dragged around the office today like corpses with open wounds. Neither of them appreciated this morning's Ornette Coleman concert over the office box. His ground breaking saxophone and disharmonic reverberations were beyond their reason. They didn't enjoy it at all.
Our reading was without musical accompaniment and Gillian Wegener's particularly humane kick at the proverbial can helped Milo and Kathryn see some light on the horizon through their caked and crusty eye-slits. If for no other reason than they could see kindness still existed in the world at large.
This Sweet Haphazard
No one calls this town pretty.
Not with the dusty oleanders off the freeway
and the ragged fence boards of backyards
propped up with two-by-fours, and
the canals with their twin likes of slow and safe,
and the ash trees, dead branches dangling, and
the large, pale no-one's-home houses and
the foreclosed houses and the small houses
with their carefully tended geranium borders,
with the plum trees gone overripe and sticky.
No one calls this town pretty, with the heat
rippling of the parking lots and the sighs
of aunts and uncles sitting in the shade of garages
filled with cars that were once meant to go places,
and the church marquee scolding that
Jesus Did Not Read Porn, and the swarms
of mosquitoes buzzing the standing water
from the leaking sprinkler heads in the park.
And yeah, no one calls this town pretty
as the creek laps at its share of shopping carts,
and the untended grasses bleach dry by April,
and the public pools are mostly closed,
but the sky here turns indigo on summer nights,
and the hummingbird chases the sparrow
from the feeder, and the kids on the soccer field
run as fast as kids anywhere, oblivious
to the town around then, because after all,
it isn't so bad. It's an okay town.
We know where all the roads go,
and we know where to get good coffee,
and we know what time the train pulls through.
We know too we're more than soil, more than sky,
more than what you've read in the news,
and no, it isn't pretty, but we still live here, and
tonight the moon will rise, almost full,
over this sweet haphazard of home.
Gillian Wegener's long poem "Neighborhood" sounds a bit like every neighbourhood on earth from Minneapolis to Moscow, and from Houston to Helsinki. Today's book of poetry felt a bit like going home when reading This Sweet Haphazard. Not a home we've ever had but a place we'd like to be.
Gillian Wegener cooks. Her sound reason gives us hope.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Gillian Wegener is the author of three books of poetry: a chapbook, Lifting One Foot, Lifting the Other (In the Grove Press, 2001), and a full-length collection, The Opposite of Clairvoyance (Sixteen Rivers Press, 2008), and her new collection, This Sweet Haphazard (Sixteen Rivers Press, 2017). Widely published, she has won several awards for her work, including the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize in 2006 and 2007, and the Zócalo Public Square Prize for Poetry of Place in 2015. Wegener, a junior high teacher, lives with her husband and daughter in Modesto, where she coordinates and hosts the monthly Second Tuesday Reading Series. She is a cofounder of the Modesto-Stanislaus Poetry Center and has served as the poet laureate for the city of Modesto.
“In This Sweet Haphazard, Gillian Wegener turns her well-tuned ear, her sharp eye, and her considerable intelligence and humor to the California of lightning fires, bulldozed almond trees, and murky rivers with unpredictable currents, as well as that of clear desert night skies, foggy coastlines, and the green light that filters through the sequoias. She sees the beauty and melancholy all around her, and she approaches it with tenderness and without aesthetic pretension. This is a beautiful book of powerful poems.”
—Jane Mead, author of World of Made and Unmade
“‘Place, to the writer at work, is seen in a frame,’ writes Eudora Welty. ‘Not an empty frame, a brimming one.’ Everything is brimming in Gillian Wegener’s fantastic new collection of poems: rivers, bees, the Old Mill Cafe, forest fires, churches, Neville Bros. Service, the ghosts of Humboldt County, the streets, shops, and citizens of Modesto, California, and most importantly, the unmapped geography of the human heart. Candid and creative, Wegener charts past and present, interior and exterior, in order to create a poetic landscape we never want to leave.”
—Dean Rader, author of Works & Days
Sacramento Poetry Center
Video: Tim Kahl
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