Voodoo Inverso by Mark Wagenaar, Winner of the Felix Pollak Prize in Poetry

October 5, 2012

Reviewed by Lisa Russ Spaar

Mark Wagenaar’s Voodoo Inverso (University of Wisconsin Press, 2012) reads like far more than a single book. A breviary of talismanic mojo, it ripples with series and meta series—references to fragments and missing leaves from a tome called The Book of the Missing, for instance, make mysterious appearances and, by implication, disappearances throughout the collection. Its formal tropes—gospels, nocturnes, self-portraits, portraits of artists, gacelas—and poetic forms (blank verse, sonnets, sestets, proems, dropped lines, Q & A) are manifold and inventive. The collection is a cosmos, and each of its poems shimmers in at least two realms. On their scriptural surfaces, these dense, intensely musical pieces foreground the minutely attended details of the physical world. Coursing in the background are oneiric depths of loss, allusion, erotic and spiritual yearning, and an obsession with what vanishes and what abides. Wagenaar’s gift resides in his ability to hold these two planes, of attention and affect, in volatile equipoise, allowing them, at ecstatic moments, to exchange the secrets of their sensuous textures and their metaphysical, analogic soundings, “as a well waits / for the once-a-day brilliance of high noon.”

Here is a passage from “Spill”:

Or your love of unlit bridges, the one over the Chickahominy,
above water long before you realize it, the surprise
of the water that darkens us, that hurries us along by holding us
under. It’s that kind of wonder the loon dives into, the nowhere
it makes anywhere, such is its solitude, the shade-sized body
it leaves behind in the water . . . .
. . . What is my only comfort in life
& death, each catechism asks. That I am not my own,
each answers. No wonder the thanksgiving & the leaping deer
in the Song of Songs. And the vineyards, & the beloved.
Petunias, petunias, their scent like Beethoven played backward.
Rust-on-blood purple of the red maple, the linden’s
almost peach-soft timber, the shimmering phosphorescence
of the smoke tree, the mimosa’s spikes. A pumpkin’s
orange blossom like a lone prayer flag, the mile of sun & water
between the dragonfly’s damascene wings, the world
we return to without noticing . . . .

Like the “you” of the poem, the reader glides through a dazzling textual catalog of sensory detail, swept “under” the spell of the poem’s litany and the “wonder” of otherness it implies, a nexus of acute presence and ubiquitous effacement that Wagenaar’s deft rhyme reinforces. Those marvelous petunias, with “their scent like Beethoven played backward,” are a signal that even if the catechism is right, and we are not our own, we are still capable of at least half-creating our experience of the world through language acts of pure imagination.

At a time in which irony, detachment, or a kind of wild-ride velocity of snark and smarts (albeit often fetchingly) prevail in the work of emerging poets, Wagenaar is unabashedly seduced by beauty and concerned with the spiritual stakes of the human body in space and time. In poems like “Slow Migration Toward Ecstasy,”

                                                                I don’t know jazz
from God’s ribs, but if the speck in my eye divides the world
in two, re-leaves the oak & makes of them each a dragonfly
against the sun, if it makes of the morning frost
a cathedral in which someone’s trying to pray
but the carollonneur doesn’t know it—hammering the bells
with his fists—the words hallowed be thy name shorting out
as he’s kneeling, thinking if I were a priest I’d be home by now . . . ,

and “Tulip Mania (The New Numerology),”

                                                       And the tulips,
the tulips in the field across the street, the ten years
it took the seeds to weave their silk into flowering bulbs,
ten skinny years, ten years of silence. Now walk back
from the light that stole in on the two of you this morning,
on your one body . . . wasn’t there a number
you kept counting to as you awoke? The number of kisses
last night & tulips in the bouquet? Didn’t you
have the feeling that this could only happen
in this place, at that time, that you’d never have another
moment like that in a hundred tulip lifetimes?,

we see not only Wagenaar’s facility for moving between physical and metaphysical realms, but also the way in which he plays with time, slowing it down, showing—as he says in another poem—an entire lifetime’s history in a single strand of hair.

Wagenaar dedicates the last poem, “Moth Hour Gospel,” to the poet Charles Wright, and it is clear in Voodoo Inverso that Wagenaar has been taking his Vitamin W. Like Wright, Wagenaar uses a mix of landscape, literary, philosophical, and ekphrastic allusion, God-hunger, pop-cultural detail, and a keen awareness of language to keep his pilgrim speakers traveling the via negativa and the rue de ecstasy. But these poems are not mere imitations; they possess a unique brand of Yankee sensualism, an enviable musical ear, and a knack for the uncanny, startling image. This poetry is the real deal, working on manifold registers and rife with essential tension and questioning. Wagenaar has “a finger on the seam between wind & the rumor of wind,” and I for one will be leaning in to listen again and again to the poems he spins from that liminal music.

Lisa Russ Spaar

Lisa Russ Spaar is the author of many collections of poetry, including Glass Town (1999, Red Hen Press), Blue Venus (Persea, 2004), Satin Cash (Persea, 2008) and the forthcoming Vanitas, Rough (Persea, 2012).  She is the editor of Acquainted with the Night:  Insomnia Poems and All that Mighty Heart:  London Poems, and a collection of her essays, The Hide-and-Seek Muse:  Annotations on Contemporary Poetry, is due out from Drunken Boat Media in 2013.  Her awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Rona Jaffe Award, the Carole Weinstein Poetry Prize, an Outstanding Faculty Award from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, and the Library of Virginia Award for Poetry.  Her poem have appeared in the Best American Poetry series, Poetry, Boston Review, Paris Review, Ploughshares, Slate, Shenandoah, The Kenyon Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, and many other journals and quarterlies, and her commentaries, essays, reviews, and columns about poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Los Angeles Review of Books, the Washington Post, and elsewhere.  She is a professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Virginia.

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