Light is the realm of the lyric, never more than in Justin Wymer’s abundant debut poetry collection, Deed, winner of the Antivenom Poetry Award from Elixir Press judged by Jennifer Franklin. An antidote to total darkness, Deed enlightens slantwise, askance. Across its pages, suns glisten, glitter, and glint; stars radiate, reflect, and refract. Dusk falls and dawn breaks. Colorless moths alight on candles; locust casings glow amber against lamps. Something always filters the radiance, an effect by which the poet shows how each of us, indeed everything, is indivisible from its own shadow.
Deep in the forest of his forebears, Wymer acknowledges their influence by retracing lexical paths they took through the human condition. We detect Eliot in the new dead of spring in Wymer’s “Edge Habitat,” Plath in the bell jar and lamp of his “Mannequin,” and Bishop in the two vaster realms of his “Litany: Lord I Strove But Could Not Change.” In “Vinculum,” the speaker exclaims that “once in a sweat I / woke into / dance,” a syntactical reference to Berryman’s Dream Songs speaker, who was once glad in a sycamore. In “For Lorca,” we interpret a canonically metrical grounding in the observation that “Everywhere a tremor’s / underfoot—measured, mechanical, / as if who once dwelt here never left, not completely, / but instead buried light—that still extends into feet / in its orbit unfinished because / it glimmers.” The words of these luminaries in earthen repose echo in Wymer’s verse, poetic feet meeting poet’s feet on the trail and gleaming in their continuance.
Yet some sources illuminate darkly. Physical and environmental illnesses in Deed contour what amounts to collective spiritual decay. We come to understand that the speaker’s brother has been addicted to opioids, as in the opening apostrophe of “Benediction”: “Brother when we spoke last you’d lain down / in the tug and crave of powder, / convinced me your veins were lit / as streets on the night of a famous death.” The specter of overdose looms this intravenous evening, threatening to transfer the pain of existence from the self to its intimates by way of self-destruction. Wymer hails from West Virginia, the state with the highest number of opioid-related deaths in the nation, and he establishes this setting both in the title of the nostalgic “Appalachian Sunday” and in the “blasted / mountaintops, shallowing // estuaries, [and] totaled / grain stocks” of “Litany: Lord I Strove But Could Not Change.” Like his brother, the speaker too identifies with bodily illness, such as when he provides his own counsel in “And All the Word’s a Careful Courtroom”: “While you’ve been frightened of what grows / at the edge of emptiness, sick / sheets have been burning. Because you live inside the sick shape of a man, question the sparrows.” He asks what solace sparrows can offer when driven to the edge of their habitat, to the brink of absence as on the unbreathing mountains in the book’s epigraph from Lorca’s “Landscape with Two Graves and an Assyrian Dog.” The ache of emptied and emptying nature ripples throughout Deed: rabbit hollows, river hollows, the hollow scent of rain.
Or perhaps it’s the impulse to physical love that’s hollow. In the title poem, love is rotten, a phosphorescent cancer that serves only to disguise the body’s irreducible vacancies: “The body / saves its milky records of sickness so it can distinguish / the rancid cloak of love when it nudges / its roofs—when it regains / the cancerous glow that clothes and owns the hollows one cannot decant.” Even the act of love—in males, an emptying out—leaves the speaker unfulfilled, as in “Bouquets”: “it was raining on the gravel / in the clove-scented alleyway, / you knelt, I let you / unfill me, the dam in me / grew papery, irresistibly / small.” It is some consolation at least that from this inner sluice the speaker releases his poems onto the page. In “The Dead,” love between men is explicitly empty, a mortal courting of darkness, a wake where the speaker laments how he keeps “loading the same shadowy men with [his] own wishes” instead of manifesting them himself. “None of this to say, filled,” he clarifies in “Not What’s Found But Where One Looks,” although the book in our hands does fill and fulfill. At base, the speaker can’t forgive his body its fatal flaw of being fleshly, of failing, of needing and wanting, of wanting someone or something to meet it halfway.
In “Dear E.,” an epistolary series broken up throughout Deed’s four sections, the speaker’s seeming isolation falters against an addressee whose very existence, if not their presence, relieves his spiritual loneliness. Rather than to the anonymous reader, he confesses to his dear E. a strategy of compartmentalization for coping with a lover’s impermanence: “I try to think less of whole bodies, which perish or leave.” As a second alternative to bodily integrity, the speaker describes the traditional pact made between Icelandic male best friends in which one would tan and wear the lower hide of the other “like a second skin” after the other’s death, until he too died. The cannibalistic carnality of this practice appeals to the speaker as proof of a devouring bond beyond life and limb, betraying his desire to reside within his lover. Later in “All month I dreamt of losing,” a reprise of the first “Dear E.,” the speaker fantasizes himself into this skin pact, again fragmenting the body to cope with absence: “I’m afraid I see / my tongue is / of no use, my body a raiment // for a ritual I was too shy / to learn.” It’s no coincidence he thinks his organ of language useless, unfit for such a foreign purpose: he is a speaker almost too shy to speak, a lover almost too shy to love. In the face of fear, repression seems the safer course.
The collection doesn’t so much build to a repressive urge as wrestle with it throughout. In the opening line of the first poem, the speaker expresses a profound sense of shared detestability—“Something hates us to the root”—and the second poem accepts responsibility for it: “Penitent beneath // the lashed sky, / I should have exited / the flesh but the woods / wouldn’t answer.” Even when disembodied, the soul requires a safe haven and without one cannot escape its yearning flesh. With romantic pathos in excelsis, the welt of the sky mirrors the speaker’s Catholic guilt, which recurs in the figures of the smothered seraph in “[An absence needs very few attendants]” and the self-flagellating angel in “Apocryphal Will.” For prayer, like love, can bring a man to his knees. In the ecstatic “Litany: Lord I Strove But Could Not Change,” where the collection hits its incantatory fever pitch, the speaker appeals repeatedly to a multifaceted god: Lord of fullness, Lord divination of the soul, Lord of misdirection, of the wicking dark, of pink light, Lord empirically of the believers, distorting Lord, “Lord / of counsel of quietest / my instinct, Lord, to kneel.” Not in the unresponsive woods, nor in the restrictive flesh, but in lyric prayer does the speaker resolve the many directions in which experience rends him. He’ll submit to the higher power of poetry.
What, in the end, does Justin Wymer’s Deed do? It dazzles. It shines right off the page to crystallize into a gold-bright belief in spite of hate, misunderstanding, portent, loss, abandonment, sickness, and death that possibility will bear out. “To cruelty, I leave a granary, many-beaded / -bodied,” the speaker decrees, killing oppression with diverse kindnesses in “Apocryphal Will,” the final poem in the collection. Gone are the fragmentary bodies of yore; in this harvest future, they are manifold and adorned. In a daisy chain of bequests, the speaker gives the secret of brotherhood to the grasses, a cow prod to his brother, and apple-colored pillow talk to his imaginary horse. His generosity knows no bounds of abstraction. “To truth I leave,” he says, no full stop, and after a beat we realize it’s no typo; it’s an open-ended departure into truth, after such a fulsome exploration of its complications. The testaments of Deed will have to sustain us until Justin Wymer returns for a second act.