Borderlands: Texas Poetry Revoew, Winter, 2010
A Review of David Wevill's To Build My Shadow A Fire: Selected
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:
the sun for myth
in a land where snowdrops thrive
on cold and water,
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,
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:
Autumn is gone. The leaves have turned to mold.
I tramped over the mush of plants on my way to you.
orphaned eyes skulked in holes the dead had abandoned
like hermit crabs in the dead shells they crawl to.
The dry wind ticks the
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
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)
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.
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"
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:
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.