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A Review of David Wevill's "To Build My Shadow a Fire"

Borderlands: Texas Poetry Revoew, Winter, 2010
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A Review of David Wevill's To Build My Shadow A Fire: Selected Poems

To Build My Shadow a Fire, released by Truman State University Press in April 2010 and edited by Michael McGriff, chronicles the near half-decade career of poet David Wevill.  Born a Canadian in Yokohama, Japan in 1935, Wevill has published fourteen collections of poetry in 43 years, his first in 1963 in Penguin Modern Poets 4 (alongside David Holbrook and Christopher Middleton) and his most recent, Asterisks, with Exile Editions in 2007. 

To Build My Shadow a Fire opens with a lengthy introduction by McGriff that sheds light on Wevill's upbringing in Japan, his education in England, and his eventual move to Texas, all of which clearly informs Wevill's verse.  Without McGriff's introduction, much of what's at work in Wevill's poetry might be lost simply due to the limitations of a selected works.  Moving chronologically through Wevill's verse, the selections reveal a poet obsessed with experimental free verse, unafraid of reinventing himself time and time again.  His first three books utilize a traditional, somewhat lengthy line that, as Wevill puts it in the Author's Preface, displays an early "rhetorical energy" (xiv).  After moving from London, England to Austin, Texas  (where he still lives and teaches in the English Department at the University of Texas), he shifted to a much shorter, often-unpunctuated and rhythmic line in 1971's Firebreak.  His next collection, Where the Arrow Falls, released three years later, is a book-length sequence made up of three sections.  The first two deploy what he learned about the line in Firebreak; the final section (which is entirely omitted) is in prose.  Casual Ties, released in 1983, is comprised of thirty-three interlinked prose poems.  And Asterisks, another book-length sequence, is an economical sequence of forty-nine numbered poems separated by an asterisk.

While Wevill writes with an almost violent desire to reinvent his own line, almost all of his poems find their subject matter in the wandering, lost soul.  "Poem," the first selection from Firebreak, opens "A year / burning away time. // Where are the words? // The room / was full of people, / but they didn't speak" (51).  Thirty-three years later in "Namelessness," the same theme arises: "But now after all these years / I don't know who the 'you' is anymore / when the word writes itself instead of a name..." (168).  Where the Arrow Falls takes its title from a Persian myth of a king who commands his three sons shoot their arrows into the sky and build their kingdoms where they fall.  For two of them, their arrows fall in fertile lands, they construct prosperous kingdoms, and they live happily ever after.  For the third son, however, his arrow disappears, and the search that follows makes for a richer life (xxv). 

Similar to the works of Lorca or Rilke, Wevill's poems emerge from an ecstatic impulse but within a more narrative than lyrical structure that allows for Wevill to not only express himself with language but within the structure of his poems and the books they appear in.  Where the Arrow Falls is composed in three sections, two in free verse and one in prose.  His next book, Casual Ties, explores the nature of existence and time in a sequence of prose poems.  Child Eating Snow and Solo with Grazing Deer, which returns to a more traditional line, delve into politics and injustice.  And in Asterisks, Wevill makes use of white space and that which is unsaid with the asterisk which "refers you to / another place / fire, her star / an unpronounceable name / whose wherebeing / kept old light" (194).

The best poems in the book come after Wevill's move to America in the wake of his split with his wife, Assia Gutmann whose affair with Ted Hughes is commonly attributed to Sylvia Plath's suicide.  Assia committed suicide herself in almost identical fashion.  This tragedy goes unmentioned in McGriff's introduction, but its affects are evident in the books he wrote after 1970.  "Lament" of Firebreak appears to be about Assia:

                        She chose

                        the sun for myth

                        in a land where snowdrops thrive

                        on cold and water,

 

                        fine bones

                        showing the skull... (60)

as well as the more allusive "They That Haunt You," selected from Casual Ties:

      Your change of name has not helped.  Your change of location has got you

      nowhere.  You are still what you are and will be taxed as such.  Your long list of

      unpaid parking fines will spell out your name, retrospectively, and point to

      where you are this very moment.  The children you leave behind you, if any, will

      lead them to the door you think you closed forever, the house whose number you

      changed at night when you thought no one was watching.  Your lost mail has your

      name and knows where to find you.  (95)

To Build A Shadow A Fire also includes a section of Wevill's translations as well as an introduction by Wevill that reveals the influence of European and Spanish poets, particularly Ferenc Juhasz who was born in 1928 in western Hungary and whose works, Wevill writes, are "a dialogue between the poet and the wilderness he filled with...a sense of disconnection, bewilderment, strain" (207).  These translations were originally published in 1970 in Penguin Modern European Poets: Sandor Woeres and Ferenc Juhasz.  Wevill's' Firebreak was published in 1971.  Place the opening lines of poems like Juhasz's "Four Seasons" and Wevill's "For Woodwinds" side by side, and the influence is obvious:

                     Four Seasons

         

                        Autumn is gone.  The leaves have turned to mold.

                     I tramped over the mush of plants on my way to you.

                  My orphaned eyes skulked in holes the dead had abandoned

               like hermit crabs in the dead shells they crawl to.

 

                     For Woodwinds

 

                     The dry wind ticks the leaves

                     The coral snake has left his hole by the water pail

                     The days climb to a hush

                     over noon, and at night

                     the hidden river leaves a lake in the cup of your belly

                     where

                     we dabble like children, lights out

                     to the small wild noises in the grass

                     and the dead eye of the gun in the bedside drawer. (234; 53)

Given that Wevill has been so prolific over such a long period of time, it's surprising he's not better read.  Then again, Wevill has not shied away from changing his style from book to book and, no doubt, has gained and lost his readership with each new manifestation. 

His poems at times can get bogged down in statement, be they literal ones or metaphorical.  Wevill is a dark, brooding composer of verse.  He's not funny, and he's not easy to read.  Readers sometimes have to stop in the middle of a poem and retrace their steps due to his leaping, somewhat elliptical style. 

Wevill's use of figurative language is sometimes puzzling as well simply because he's so good at it-- his metaphors and similes layering visual upon visual rather than simply trying to redefine his subjects.  Take this simile from "Child Eating Snow" for example:

                        In the winter sun that year

                        her father was all bone.  Slowly

                        he was turning white

                        like her shadow on the snow. (161)

Similarly, when Wevill eschews punctuation and deploys the dropped/indented line, it's easy to get a little lost.  Take "26" from Where the Arrow Falls:

                        what does

                        happen to the mind

                                    waking in cloud

                        burned by dreams, no

                        less self than the wary deft-

                        handed body gardening stones

                                    this Wednesday, the sun

                        a fiery negative. (73)

If Wevill's move away from his traditional, rhetorical style in favor of a stark, more symbolic, stripped down approach didn't alienate his readership, his move towards prose most certainly would have.  And for readers looking for the poet in his poems, Wevill often appears in his work but in a detached way that is less like first person and more like third. 

As a result, Wevill seems to have found himself straddling multiple poetic realms simply because he never desired to reside in any one in particular over any particularly lengthy period of time.  He's a poet whose proven one can be prolific and experimental at the same time.  It would seem that displaying this aspect of his work is what the publishers and editors of To Build My Shadow A Fire had in mind.  They've succeeded brilliantly.



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