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A Review of Robert Wrigley's "Beautiful Country"

Third Coast, Fall 2011
A Review of Robert Wrigley's Beautiful Country

Robert Wrigley's seventh collection of poetry, Beautiful Country (Penguin Press, 2010), examines the United States through the lenses of war (past and present), politics, and its many natural and social landscapes.  It's a fascinating convergence of the naturalist/humanist Wrigley whom readers have come to know since the appearance of his first collection, The Sinking of Clay City (Copper Canyon Press, 1979), and a Robert Wrigley readers don't know quite as well: the Contentious Objector, the politico, the personae poet. 

Beautiful Country is the first book Wrigley has authored since compiling his Selected Works, Earthly Meditations (Penguin Press, 2006), a milestone in any poets career.  But unlike many in his position, Wrigley doesn't give in to the temptation to "reinvent the wheel" in this new collection; rather, the poems of Beautiful Country delve into Wrigley's experience as a CO during the Viet Nam war while boldly investigating the current political, social, and economic status of the United States in pieces like "Exxon" and the title poem. These poems employ the same tools Wrigley has always used: narrative, music, and the line.  Many of these works continue what's become tradition; "After a Rainstorm," "Hail Storm in the Mountains," and "Letting Go" mine the natural world for its redemptive glory.  

Of course, Wrigley's third collection, What My Father Believed (University of Illinois Press, 1997), often refers to his CO-ship, but these poems primarily focus on the resulting conflict between Wrigley and his ex-military father rather than his experience as a CO itself.  Beautiful Country, on the other hand, takes us directly into the army barracks where he received medic training before realizing full CO-ship was the only way to avoid taking part in what he believed even then was a senseless and amoral war.  In "Miss June," for example, we witness a violent (and somehow humorous) encounter between a boyish Wrigley and his superior who takes offense at the peace sign he's chiseled in his dog tags by "tapping with the heel / of a combat boot on the butt-end of a pocket knife."  Likewise, the title poem tells the story of marijuana and heroin use among soldiers, Wrigley and six of his fellow trainees "lotused around / ...several resinous pounds of pot / ... / back from a day at ‘Special Training Detachment.'"

If it's unclear why Wrigley has waited until now to write these poems, one need look no further than poems like "Exxon," which opens "Behold the amazing artificial arm, a machine / eerily similar to the arm it replaced" and goes on to excoriate the physical and social disconnect between the fuel American citizens pay for at the pump and the war (Wrigley clearly believes) America is fighting for oil in the Middle East.  Similarly, "American Fear" catalogues over five pages the various absurd fears ("an actual firm, an employer, a company / selling ‘clothing for the disaffected / youth culture,' ... / a marketing vision for the new world") manifest in 21st Century America, e.g. barophobia (fear of gravity), Cape Fear, and vistiphobia (the fear of clothing).  These aren't poems younger poets often have the skill, authority, or, perhaps, gumption to compose.

But like the epigraph that boldly opens the book, "‘This is a beautiful country.'  John Brown, seated on his coffin, as he rode to the gallows, December 2, 1859," Beautiful Country isn't a condemnation of America but a eulogy to the America Brown died for and that Wrigley has known, knows, and knows it can be. 

There are poems like "County": "County of innumerable nowheres, half its dogs / underfed and of indeterminate breed. County / of the deep fryer and staples in glass against mice, / county of horned gods and billed hats.  Sweat county, / shiver county."; "A Rumor of Bears": "The day had faded dull-gray sun, gray rain. / Even the slim college girls walking by / wore fat coats the colors of wildebeests"; and "All Souls": "It's late in the season, but still I leave the zucchini /to grow inedibly large, thinking / elongated green jack'o'lanterns /or the county fair's generous blue ribbon..." that express a clear love for its natural landscapes, particularly of his homestate of Idaho.  Love poems such as "A Lock of Her Hair" and "Sisyphus Bee" reveal a poet very much pleased to have his freedom, even if much of the book is in protest of the manner via which that freedom is currently (and historically) sustained. And many of the poems of Beautiful Country revel in the strange (oftentimes unsettling, oftentimes magnificent) array of personages in present-day America in poems like "Fraternity," "Poor Priscilla," and "Progress" which asks:

    ...Is there anywhere you can go

    and find a hair-netted octogenarian wrangling a walker

    and four massive, camp-sized cast iron skillets full


    of Sunday dinner fried chicken at 9:00 am

    and ask if she's serving breakfast, then have her say

    "Sure thing, hon, but you'll have to wait on yourselves"

Wrigley still likes to play.  Take the opening poem, "Responsibility," which opens with a fifty-four word sentence broken into nine lines over two stanzas:

    At the lower fence line under the stars

    he hears what at first he takes

    to be the neighbor's mare,

    come to investigate his apple pocket,


    but then gets that neck-chill

    and knows otherwise and turns

    to see by starlight alone a dust devil

    spitting along perpendicular to the wire

    and straight at him.

and "Which Last," an English sonnet camouflaged in stanzaic couplets:

    In the thicket just west of my shack,

    under the heaviest of canopied pines,


    every day, all winter long, two does recline

    and rest, and sometimes when I look


    from the window their eyes are closed,

    but still they go on chewing whatever


    snowbound vegetation they've uncovered-

    or just their sad, inadequate cuds, I suppose.


    As I suppose my daily apple also

    is due to them.  I've been a little slow to learn


    not to throw the core and make them run,

    but to toss it gently between us, like so,


    then go inside and watch through the glass,

    to see which is the lucky first one to it, which last.

As always, Wrigley's poems are as unusually accessible without sacrificing his aesthetic: story, lyric, and a willingness to go where the poem demands.  And while these are poems of immense power held under immense control, Wrigley hasn't forgotten where he comes from.  A descendent of generations of coal miners in East St. Louis, Wrigley challenges many of the beliefs of his ancestry in Beautiful Country without a shred of elitism.  

It's been seven years since Wrigley last published a new collection (Live of the Animals, Penguin Press, 2003).  It was well worth the wait.

Check out the review @ Third Coast