When a poetry book is subtitled "Selected Poems," as this one is, I usually feel glad. Good idea, I think, don't make me read the others, the ones not good enough to be selected, the ones even the poet knows are not worthy of my time. But when I finished reading Kirby Wright's collection, "The Widow From Lake Bled," I had the opposite feeling. I wanted more, even silently promised that I'd be really glad to have the unselected ones, even if they were less perfect. After all, even a bruised peach can be sweet and rich.
The last volume of Wright's poetry I am aware of came out a decade ago. That was "Before the City," a book with roots in both California, where Wright lives when he is not globetrotting, and Hawai'i--both Molokai and O'ahu--where he was raised. It won awards.
Wright has gone on to win many awards since, and has written outstanding novels about his childhood ("Molokai Nui Ahina") and coming of age in Hawaii ("Punahou Blues").
The Widow From Lake Bled
That's enough context.
In "The Widow From Lake Bled," Wright demonstrates a mastery of his chosen art that is nothing short of astounding. The poems here are composed in at least three distinct forms. Some are prose poetry so precisely crafted that they prove the term is not an oxymoron. Some are free verse, largely within the contemporary mode, for which that is as good a name as any. Finally, some are either the perfection of a form others have toyed with, or they must be seen as an entirely new way of making a poem.
In the prose poems, like most composers in the style, Wright alternates between large, sweeping images dotted with flecks of sharp detail, and almost microscopic images reflective of something broad or universal. That is to be expected, but his success in the form is more than even hardcore fans of the form would expect. Wright buries what could be--or is--a whole poem in a single sentence time after time. The following sentence, one of 11 in "Two O'clock in the Morning" from the Martha's Vineyard section of the book, is a good example: "The geese fly south, feathering toward memory lakes over scraps of dialogue on Main Street."
Naturally, a poet capable of distilling a poem into a sentence within a prose poem can and will do the same in other verse forms. Here's a powerful example from "Memorial Day," also in the Martha's Vineyard section: "When we're alone I feel edges."
Scattered throughout the volume are poems of the mentioned special construction. Each produces a kind of filmic loop of images with a Warhol-like repetition. These pieces have a stopped-time sensibility, a feeling that nothing is really happening at the moment, so every hinted at or suggested alternative is still possible. The moving pictures are devoid of action.
Clicking through what are not sharp cuts, but lightning-fast fades from angle to angle and view to view, each of these poems adds up to a single impression that you know you must remember in the hope that you will "understand" it later. Don't worry. You will remember them. They will haunt and taunt you. They will have meaning and presence, but maybe they will never be "understood."
At times the stuttering frames of imagery seem to be trying to speak something specific. Like an interested listener facing a tongue-tied storyteller, you may feel the need to help out, to finish the sentence so you can hear what comes next. Dream on. What comes next for Wright and each of us is our own experience, and the poem doesn't need our help to develop its implications.
The form Wright chooses for each subject seems, every time, to be the only way to say precisely what he says in that poem. And, regardless of the form, the images fascinate, but the end the reader comes to is seldom the one the writer appears to be encouraging you to expect. Instead, you end on a note that is in a key and mood that were not foreshadowed, but are suddenly inevitable. You arrive there, sometimes by irresistibly filling in unspoken facts, as with the last sentence of "View from _esk_ Krumlov." The poets gives us "They cross Lazebnicky Bridge in the dark morning, long after the last restaurant closes."
From another poem, "_esk_ Krumlov at Six O'clock in the Morning," we can take an example of another way Wright pares language to its most communicative essentials by denying us the small words (articles and prepositions) and forcing evocative words (nouns and verbs) to do double duty. "Wind howls the poplars, Whispers my chances."
"The Widow From Lake Bled" is divided into four "books." The sections--Eastern Europe, Hong Kong, Martha's Vineyard and Hawai'i--are different in tone and apparent topic, but all are inescapably Kirby Wright looking both at himself and at us, asking if we look often enough at ourselves. Good literature does that, the best poetry does it best and Lake Bled is the best poetry volume I have read since, maybe Ginsberg's "Howl." It is unrelentingly frank and almost impossibly beautiful, which is a real achievement when the subjects include the death of a not-to-be-mourned father.
There is a special cohesion to the poetry in the Eastern Europe section. All the words and lines could be laid end-to-end to create a single dramatic image of the region, including its past, present and imaginary tenses. None of these turn out to be quite what you would expect from books and television.
The Hong Kong poems, written while Wright was there with 1975 Pulitzer Prize Poet Gary Snyder, do not compose a panorama of the Anglo-Chinese district. Rather, somewhat more self-consciously, they mix straight reactions to Snyder and Hong Kong with what amounts to open-heart surgery that Wright performs on himself, apparently without painkillers.
In Martha's Vineyard, yet another tone emerges. Here, in an almost voyeuristic way, Wright explores himself in relation to an environment in which Belushi's grave, migrating waterfowl, sex, trees and Chappaquiddick (to mention a few) are already woven into a unified cultural phenomenon, one that is far too tightly wound to support its easy-going reputation.
Lake Bled ends in Hawai'i. As with the other section-title places, Hawai'i is unlike its famous hula-poi Hollywood self, nor is Wright his adult self here. Hawai'i is fraught with pressing images of a childhood with only the rarest of carefree moments. It is a place looked back upon, rather than experienced. The islands--represented here by a cruel father, leprosy and loss--come to be a place where the adult poet recalls "The time of immortality when the future was not yet reduced," and where he says, "I am haunted / By the dull ache / Of a childhood / Nearly forgotten."
Everyone experiences losses and disappointments, desire and revulsion, closeness and distance. Everyone knows that the experience of living blends joy with anguish. Kirby Wright is uniquely qualified to share with us, through his art, a special perspective about all that, and it is spelled out over and over in "The Widow From Lake Bled."
Whatever waves may batter us, if we are there to see them pass, we will see them also die away, leaving us still standing, perhaps stronger and more confident than before. Maybe little Kirby learned that lesson in the surf off Molokai.