Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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720 words
SHJ Issue 2
Fall 2010

Beautiful Country
by Robert Wrigley

Reviewed by Clyde Fixmer

Penguin (2010)

Cover of Beautiful Country, by Robert Wrigley

See also Amazon

I remember clearly one of his first poems—an assignment for my creative writing course in 1972. I read it aloud to the class, then asked if this image—“The road wavers like a windy washline”—depicts what a road might seem like to a drunk driver. I don’t recall their answers, but I did realize that this student was able to do what I had asked of him: to describe for his readers an ordinary incident using language in a new way.

I lost track of Robert for a number of years, but one day I happened across In the Bank of Beautiful Sins. My first thought was, Good God—one of my students actually succeeded! We’ve been in touch from time to time over the years, and I am happy to say his poems continue to amaze me with their skill, their unique and powerful voice, and their incredibly fresh use of language.

His new book, Beautiful Country, continues Wrigley’s journey through the natural landscape, still reflecting the influence of Annie Dillard’s love of the everyday, as well as James Dickey’s love of narrative poems and his penchant for anapests which ring in every line. There are strong echoes of Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg, but also of Richard Hugo, John Haines, and other Northwest poets whom he relates to so strongly.

Yet in the end Robert Wrigley is, like all real poets, more than the sum of his predecessors. His range of subjects mirrors his range of emotions. His voice is unique—a musical and literary sound that would rival an Irish tenor’s.

In “Anthropomorphic Duck” the reader journeys to a mountain lake where a solitary male teal makes its daily swim from end to end, with the narrator imagining its mate is gone and it is now in mourning, since those birds mate for life:

Why here, an otherwise duckless nowhere? The sky
was wide and blue above him; surely the flyways beckoned.
Though we also knew we had no way of reckoning
what kind of inner life he might have possessed,
if inner life is what instinct is, or if he was lost.

The next day his sons go climbing alone, and the narrator becomes seized with a loneliness for them, which hints at an understanding of that duck’s inconsolable plight.

In “Hay Day” a farmer receives a huge round bale of alfalfa, sips a beer, and watches as two of his horses feed on it. Though the scene is nothing out of the ordinary, the telling of a simple event uplifts the reader, who watches as the two horses, now fully fed, prance deliriously about:

—B.J., the troublesome elder, and Red,
the elegant, genuinely exceptional ride—
as always in the same precise relation to one another
(Red at forty-five degrees and a little back)—
before taking off around the fence line
at a trot, then a canter, and then for just a few
beautiful moments, a dead and joyful run.

Then in “County”, a whimsical Whitmanesque catalog, we find a poem which clearly owes something to Carl Sandburg’s “Chicago”:

County of innumerable nowheres, half its dogs
underfed and of indeterminate breed. County
of the deep fryer and staples in glass against mice,
county of horned gods and billed hats. Sweat county,
shiver county. The hallowed outhouse
upholstered in woolly carpet, the sack of lime,
time out of time, county of country music.

One cannot help but chime in:

“Hog butcher for the world, City of
the big shoulders....”

“Night Music” tells of a man walking home through a forest, listening with earphones to Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti:

music as lavish and intricate as the pine needle
lacework shadowed along the ground he walks.

As he trudges through the snow, he thinks of the history of those six pieces, then begins conducting

with his blunt, mittened hands the virtuoso stars,
an orchestra of light and forest and snow, through which
he walks a mile or more from home, and returns,
so that at the end of concerto number six, we see him bowing
and shaking the hand of the first violinist, the wind.

Surely it is joyous to read poems that create such pleasure. These come from a man deeply in love with his existence—and determined to share that joy.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury