Before Our Eyes: New and Selected Poems, 1975–2017 (Princeton University Press, 2019) is a new collection from Eleanor Wilner and embodies a 47-year project to challenge and re-envision the myths and histories that drive much of the machinery of this world. The selections from seven earlier volumes, together with thirty-three new poems, illuminate the tragic falling off of a “world gone wrong” and offer both elegies for what we’ve lost and an alternative vision.
Using materials primarily from Western Classical and Judeo-Christian traditions, Wilner time warps scenes and actors from ancient eras into the near present. She infuses these tropes with compassion and an original sensibility—the weight of what we owe nature, and each other. For me (and it should be said that I have studied with Wilner), the power of her poetry is in how it insinuates that we confront our own myths and archetypes and examine what we allow them to govern. She does this deftly, as with the speaker in “Found in the Free Library,” who observes,
And we were made afraid, and being afraid
we made him bigger than he was, a little man
and ignorant, wrapped like a vase of glass
in bubble wrap all his life, who never felt
a single lurch or bump, carried over
the rough surface of other lives like
the spoiled children of the sultans of old
in sedan chairs, on the backs of slaves…
…over whose heads he rode, no more aware
than a wave that rattles pebbles on a beach.
Her technique imbues the poems with a timeless quality, here with a characterization that could fit any number of elevated tyrants and those who abet them.
When reading this work, I think of Richard Wilbur’s poem, “Advice to a Prophet” who is “mad-eyed with stating the obvious.” Wilner, however, remains a steely-eyed oracle who doesn’t flinch when relating the horrors humans have and will inflict on nature and each other. What makes the sorrow bearable is the beauty of the telling. The alternative vision, which is really world rebuilding, starts in her early work with poems such as the often anthologized “Sarah’s Choice,” where Sarah calls God out on the morality of asking her to sacrifice her son:
[…] “You have promised Abraham,
through this boy, a great nation. So either
this sacrifice is a sham, or else it is a sin.”
“Shame,” she said, for such is the presumption
of mothers, “for thinking me a fool,
for asking such a thing…”
[…] “What use have I
for History—an arrow already bent
when it is fired from the bow?”
Her mapping of history and the collective unconscious does have an Inferno-like quality (one of her books is titled, Tourist in Hell). Still, she hands us lines with lifelines: clews (thread-mapping the labyrinth), bell ropes, parachutes, a path through the woods and kite strings. In “What the Kite Sees,” the speaker says, “for I have the master view, / the long perspective of the airborne one / who floats above the scene,” and later in the poem, “without the long, and lovely line, I’m just torn / paper / in the grass, / and the wind is / finished with me.” That can, it seems to me, be read almost as an ars poetica.
Wilner’s longer poems reach Blakean proportions as they spool down the pages in rich, cinematic scope and sensual detail. In “Labyrinth” a source myth Wilner revisits a few times in her oeuvre, the speaker finds herself lost in an underground maze.
You’ve lost the clew—somewhere
in the maze, the golden thread’s
run out…and the air
is getting thick and grainy as old film,
filling with something foul and dank
a steam rising in the heat
from a heap of compost.
At last the speaker comes head to head with the Minotaur, who like Rilke’s dragon, turns into an ally when fears are finally faced:
The beast is the color of turning cream,
slender with a fawn’s grace, fragile
as gentleness grown old, its large eyes
soft with sorrow, its horns
are ivory candelabra, its worn flanks
scarred with roads like countryside
seen from the air. It neither shrinks back
nor approaches, but waits, as snow just fallen
waits for the wind to shape it to the land.
The Minotaur is not who we’ve been told he is, and Wilner suggests that perhaps all myths (and histories) depend on both the teller and motive and are therefore ripe for reinvention. Turned on the wheel of Wilner’s craft, ancient images and conceits are re-shaped, transforming monstrous into holy, and holy into monstrous. The voiceless finally get the chance to speak for themselves.
And such are the other rough beasts that serve as warnings or guides—the tarantula in “Saturday Night,” the Ba’al-like creature in “Magnificat” with its intimations of modern statehood run amuck. When the ants beginning their ominous drumming in “Under the Table,” one senses that nature is gathering force for a kind of retribution the poet invites us to imagine.
Alongside the old stories, she invents new ones, as in “Turning,” where the roll of a dice transmutes into the spin of the cosmos, or “The Girl with Bees in Her Hair,” wherein a figure rises from a postcard to unleash a swarm on those who though they were safe in a manor house. She seems to speak from dreamtime, a liminal state, often in the moment before revelation or waking.
In Poetic Imagination and Reverie, Gaston Bachelard observes, “The imagination will see only if it has visions, and it will have visions if it is educated through reveries before being educated by experiences.” While the reverie or dream that gives rise to these poems must have been terrifying, she refracts it through a regular and reassuring meter, until we realize the rhythm and occasional rhyme is in tension with the images in the poem. We see this in “Middle Class Vantage,” where we watch as a whole social class is serenely indicted:
[…] autumn slides
its razor in the seams, the wind comes up,
the tent flaps stir, and something like a burr
sticks to the heart and nothing can shake it off.
Situated as we are, we watch the river coursing on,
carrying whatever debris has fallen to its current ways,
and this is when we see familiar shapes go whirling by,
carried who knows where; helpless, we watch
from the banks, as we see ourselves float by—
all we can think to do is wave, wave from the water,
wave from the shore, hello, hello; goodbye, goodbye.
More sinister are poems like “Bat Cave,” which starts with an expedition into a holy cave, “plastered and hung with / the pulsing bodies of bats, the organ / music of the body’s deep interior,” but, as we go further into the cave, the poet conjures other night flyers, bombers of sleeping children, their horrific trails of fire, until, she returns to this strange conflation:
circle, the clouds wheel,
the earth turns
pulling the dome of stars
among the spinning trees, blurring
the sweet globes of fruit, shaped
exactly to desire—dizzy, we swing
back to the cave on our stiff dark
wings, the sweet juice of papaya
drying on our jaws, home
to the cave, to attach ourselves
back to the pulsing dome, until,
hanging there, sated and sleepy,
we can see what was once our world
upside down as it is
and wonder whose altars
those are, white,
encrusted with shit.
Even as Wilner leads us through the gates of Hell in her work, a slim hope is not altogether lost as she keeps us moving toward an imagined safe exit or a point where at least we can see, “there’s a filament / of light, a slow unravel of gold / like a ray of sun as it passes through the water. A moment later, the two of you step / blinking into the shining day” (“Labyrinth”).
We are grateful for the occasional happier vision, here from the perspective of a frog in “For the First Time,” who awakens to a new way of being more radical even than his tail-to-legs conversion,
[…] Imagine that: to wake in such a way,
from such a depth, to Spring and to the ringing
of the bells—but not as they had ever rung
before, to hear for the first time:
It would be that day
the wars ended, when all the towers rang
their bells, the air was one reverberant
sound: as if we, too, had, dormant, lived
in some dark depths, cold-blooded,
ears stopped, our eyes glued shut,
ice crystals formed
around the heart, but now
(permit a poet’s dream)—the bells!
Readers interested in poetry that does not flinch from human history will welcome the necessary perspective of one of our finest poets. Before Our Eyes may help us navigate the currents of our difficult era by acknowledging both history’s recursion, and the dream that transformation at a large and small scale is still possible.