The Lightness of Sidney Wade

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lightness2Her lightness is not merely pointing out the details of the world but showing us that without the glory of the everyday, the parsnip, for instance, there can be no weight lifted.

Sidney Wade is a poet of lightness. The author of four books of poetry-Empty Sleeves (1991), Green (1997), Celestial Bodies (2002), and Stroke (2008), each book more luminous than the one before-Wade exercises a linguistic freedom uncommon in American poetry. I have always admired her wordplay (“extreme wordplay,” Les Murray calls it), but, when re-reading her marvelous Stroke, when I came to the penultimate poem in the collection, aptly titled “The Weight of Light,” to the couplet “The world outside this illumined order is dark / as it always is, which makes our portion even lovelier,” I came to believe that it was a specific something (her imaginative value; her artful manipulation of words; her opposition to preciosity and easy epiphany), what I will call lightness, that makes her work so distinctive.

strokeTwo writers (and their translators) first gave me this vernacular of lightness, and to them I owe an unrepayable debt. The first is Milan Kundera, whose The Unbearable Lightness of Being is, in a sense, about the savage absence of lightness, and the telling nature of the dangers of making a kitsch of one’s life and art. I admire Sidney Wade for much the same reason Sabina admires Tomas in The Unbearable Lightness of Being: because Wade is the anti-kitsch. “In the kingdom of kitsch you would be a monster,” Sabina tells Tomas: Sidney Wade is just such a monster. The second writer is Italo Calvino, in his essay “Lightness,” who wrote of a “lightness of thoughtfulness,” a “weightless gravity” of words. Calvino’s three criteria for lightness, “it is to the highest degree light; it is in motion; it is a vector of information,” succinctly describe Sidney Wade’s work and provide the infrastructure of the discussion that follows.

1.    It is to the highest degree light
Sidney Wade’s lightness lies not in her usage of the word “light,” nor in the softly lit stanza; no, her syntax is a linguistic flicker; hers is the “subtraction of weight,” as Calvino puts it. It lies in the right choice of the right word-in, say, the opening stanza of “White Birds,” the first poem in Wade’s first book, Empty Sleeves: “A million birds fret in the damp trees. / These fragments disturb me, / Except for the repetitions of the doves.” The poetry begins in hyperbole, breakage, uncertainty, and, most important, repetition (and here I think of a phrase of Kundera’s, “happiness is the longing for repetition”); in Wade’s work, repetition is one of her necessary ideas of order. Later in the poem, the speaker admits, “Because we are never enough / We repeat ourselves, over and over,” and what lightens the grave admission (one of art too, of the danger, perhaps inevitable, of writing the same poems over and over again), is the way she highlights the repetition (form = content) and lights up an old phrase, “over and over,” the word “over” said twice to emphasize endlessness and, ever so lightly, finality.

“Lightness for me goes with precision and determination, not with vagueness and the haphazard,” Calvino writes: this can be seen in some lines from Wade’s “Kansas Weather”:

empty-sleevesBut when misfortune
undergoes a transformation

into something other than it is,
then comes the time to forgive

the tiny lapses of the natural world,
the unnatural frizz and curl

of the water parsnip, for instance.

Wade sees the quotidian, cruel nature of darkness, all grounded with that crisp “water parsnip.” Even better, there is the redemptive belief in the machinations of the world, which, for Wade, lives in the specific words that make it remarkable; her lightness is not merely pointing out the details of the world but showing us that without the glory of the everyday, the parsnip, for instance, there can be no weight lifted.

Further, she wants a reader to notice such seemingly offhand beauty, such unintentional beauty (“beauty by mistake,” Kundera calls it, “the final phase in the history of beauty”), and stand unashamed of the embracing of that beauty. In our hyperaware age, Wade is highly unusual because she is neither interested in the airy sublime nor the backhanded glib gesture; she knows that things are tough all over; she believes that the best way to make one’s way is to trust, in a gloriously mistrustful way, language. Here is “What a Gyp,” in its entirety, the first poem in her second book, Green, a demonstration of her complicated notions of the light:

wadegreenbookBliss. Sits bright and bolt and lightening on the pillows
in the bed. The Maharishi said on days
like this one never minds. I’m fond, though, of the wheedle
and whine, the spotty metaphor. I love a finely
whittled rhetoric as well as sulk and puffery,
the luffing trope, the twang of the diurnal sprawl.
In fact, if I were given the ability
to transmogrify, I’d turn it down. The yellow
haze that bobbles round the hirsute saints and weighs
a ton is just so many gamma rays, a tidal
wave of repose, thank you, no. A more divinely
shaded prospect lies in wayward words that suffer
time, the dark romance of disappearing, all
flawed and hopeful, flushing with nobility.

“What a Gyp” begins in bliss, though bliss is bracing and harsh, more a splash of cold water than a day in the sun. There is haze, yes, but how lovely and grounding her reduction of it to “gamma rays” (how light, too, that internal rhyme); how pure her admission of her love of the lightness that is poetry, that is the lie-the metaphor-no matter its irregularity or its flawed nature. (Again, Kundera: “Metaphors are not to be trifled with. A single metaphor can give birth to love.”) Wade knows that metaphors are scary, that it’s dangerous to say what you don’t mean in order to get closer to meaning: but what would poetry be without them? “I like a bracing game of metaphor roulette,” she cheekily admits, in “Chin Song.”

And, as she says in the anti-kitsch dialogue “Aurora Borealis and the Body Louse,” “Oh please. I don’t give a shit for love. / Fashion for me a desolate confection. / I feel the need of a substantial torte, / Lightly powdered into desperation.” Here love is grounded (ground) into a pastry, according to the whimsy (lightness) of the speaking Aurora Borealis. Speakers who make light of themselves are an important component of Wade’s lightness, and an essential marker of this is her admission of reliance on the slippages of language to make things light and right; “The Visionary from Apopka,” for instance, concedes that “I needed some compound word-matter to settle my nerves.” Her truth is the word, her city a “ruined word-city” on which “we will converge on the horrors / with our blind zen-white eyes” (“Nothing but the Truth”).

2.    It is in motion
“We are dazed and in the open, / on our way to the foreghastly conclusion,” Wade writes in “The Body Politic.” She’s on the go, and I don’t just mean her various locales (Rome, Istanbul, Florida, etc.); she flits from here to there and back, equating the static with the dull slow death of art. In the poem “Istanbul Is Empty,” the speaker repeatedly expresses her dislike of Istanbul’s emptiness, not only because of the lack of incidental beauty-“The tea in the tulip glasses is colorless”; “No one squints in sunlight on the broad backs of the ferries”-but also because there is no movement: “No one walks anywhere on the gray slab pavement,” “The taxis are empty the busses without passengers / They idle at the meydan in white exhaustion,” and so on.

celestial-bodiesWhat she prefers is the breathless, sexy, and unstoppable. Her later work has been more inclined to utilize skillful enjambment and the excision of punctuation (roughly half of the poems in Celestial Bodies, for instance, end with no punctuation mark, adding to their sense of openness), but it’s also that the speakers are actually moving-driving, walking, jogging, running around, etc.-“like bright disaster spilling forward” (“Wind in the Roses”). Wade sheds light on the mystery and poverty of words, the inevitable ugliness and flaws and beauty, and goes forth. When she recognizes that “My poem children are running wild” (“A Million Galaxies and a Little Song”), then what else can she do? “I’m busting out of this seraglio,” she declares in “Un Messagio per il Corpo,” and then ends the poem thus: “We’ll watch the eerie transfigurations / in the winter sunrise, and then we’ll waltz.”

3.    It is a vector of information
“In this tatterdemalion sandwich of Life, / it pays to pay attention to the light, // not to the oligarchic spread of heavy principles,” she states in “The Vulgate of Experience.” The poetry of Wade is quandary elucidated by lightness, the “fine wheedle” of freeing words. Here, for example, is one of her early poems, “Salt Kiln.”

wadeDust depends on the leaves of the olive trees
to give it substance. No sound. No sound
but the hiss of the drying grass and flies
whose crystalline eyes shatter the world

into brilliant repetitions. I stand
here often, fabricating delicate lies
that repeat the green to gold to sere
turn of the earth, syllables in a whorl

of light. They dissemble, court, preen,
and press against one another, each
giving weight and form to the others’
bodies. Drops of sweat, small pearls,

hang from the branches. The grays and greens
weave their own web: lashed for my eyes.

Calvino posits that in Ovid, “the knowledge of the world means dissolving the solidity of the world,” and this applies to Wade, too, her vector one of a destabilizing stabilization, i.e., metaphor, the eyes of those flies that “shatter the world” (an underlying idea in Wade’s work is that this is all an elaborate fiction, and if you take any of it literally, you are doing so at your own peril). The lies here come to life, “court, preen,” so self-aware, ridiculous, swan-like, and stunning.

In another early poem, “Championship Ballroom Dancing,” Wade gallantly takes on a tired conceit, that of dancing as language, and makes it new, the dance itself “a rhetoric in the eye.” There is a great deal of play here, a distancing that is too smart for mere irony, one that honors the weight of light; it is in this divide that Wade finds such movement and lightness:

And ooooh the fat
And spangled mind will dragoon

The stunning sentences, will grimly
Note each misplaced moue,

Each faulty flourish and clarify
The prepositional grace, the long and

Lovely floor line, the gorgeous

She notes the “favored metaphors: // Paso Doble, Fox Trot, / The Samba and Rhumba,” which are a form of (mis)information. Contempt is the absence of light; the last line of the poem, “God, / How we love the dance,” shows that Wade has no contempt for the goings on. Wade is wry but never snarly; she has too much respect for language, too much humility in the face of the dance.

An important mode of communication for this poet is desire: “I think it’s time to translate the pleasure of being found / into a damp stellar language,” she says in “Rain Heart.” Part of her project is demystifying want: “It so happens I’m tired of desire,” she writes in “Rain”; instead, “I want to lie down and transmogrify sentences.” Or in “Engagement,” she says, “Once I had a common flirtation with life,” yet things come to life with her uncommon flirtation with language. All of this longing in her poems is recognition of the lack as well as flexibility of words. In spite of not knowing “the great highways of love” (“Leaving Train”), she continues forward, continues as she must; the poem ends: “I’m on the road. I steam.”

She is disabused and still finds the light. In “Kara Göl,” for instance, at a black lake, “I am harder than I know and my heart is blacker / The water is silent and exact” and yet:

There is joy though in the coldness
It streams from the earth it bowls

down the mountain in bright exuberant ribbons
excessively bristling with wayward propositions

a constant and variable slosh in the ears

Or, in “Drought,” she knows that she cannot fight the oppressive heat, that “dog days dog” and “hollow nights fall”: “I am helpless to stop them. Instead I sprawl // in this pool of glossy words. They are all I have / to irrigate the old and green and fluent mundo.” Or in “No Comfort to Be Had,” she admits that “One half of the brain, bewildered, racked itself / In search of comfort, while the other, firmer / Half scoured the mall for a gown for the ball.”  Or. . .

I could go on and on; I want to quote and quote these poems. Suffice it to say that again and again in Wade’s work, there is a recognition that, yes, “Things are bleak” (“Time Is Money”). So what. Her answer?

See here-this bag
of olives on my lap

is radiating happily
its currency.

Let’s slurp it up
in unison

and celebrate
inflation for a change.

Sidney Wade returns to the hard, shiny pleasures of the particular to make sense of things; when I reach these final lines of “Time Is Money,” I want so much to believe, I cannot help but believe, in her lightness: “The world is burning / up in beauty.”

Illustration by Amy Letter

Read a new poem by Sidney Wade in Rumpus Original Poems

Randall Mann is the author of two collections of poetry, BREAKFAST WITH THOM GUNN (University of Chicago Press 2009) and COMPLAINT IN THE GARDEN (Zoo/Orchises 2004), winner of the 2003 Kenyon Review Prize; and the co-author of the textbook WRITING POEMS, Seventh Edition (Pearson Longman 2007). He lives in San Francisco. More from this author →