At its best, After the Point of No Return gives us just what we hope to find: poems that wrestle with mortality, retrace the steps of a life, and take us past the limit of flesh into whatever comes next.
Long hailed one of the Pacific NW’s most important poets, alongside the likes of Theodore Roethke, William Stafford, and Richard Hugo (triple swoon,) David Wagoner has been writing poems for nearly 60 years. After the Point of No Return, released by Copper Canyon Press this March, is something like his 19th (or 24th, depending on who’s counting) volume. No doubt, Wagoner knows how to write a poem. Almost all of its 130 pages are flawlessly structured, perfectly paced, sing with syntactic grace, and provide a surprising image or two.
Wagoner is known as a nature poet, and certainly this latest collection teems with lovely images from the natural world. As in the poem, “For My Daughters During Their First Penumbral Eclipse”: “Though the Earth has caught our moon in the outer cone / of its double shadow for awhile this evening, / at dawn the sun will make up for lost time / by spinning fire around all daughters of men.” Or in, “By a Pond”: “Its face, as calm as the air, / holds an inverted world / of trees and trembling sky.” The list of beauties is as long as you’d like to make it. The thing is, the poems rarely transcend observation. Time and again we’re drawn in by the beauty of the images, and the tension building in the language, only to have the poem fall off a cliff before the anticipated payoff. Is this resistance to revelation intentional? Maybe, but it leaves us wanting more. We expect from our octogenarian poets some vital musings on mortality, on the preciousness and brevity of life, instructions for how to live well while we have the chance! And perhaps this is a false expectation, maybe not every aging poet cares to indulge the stereotype, but then why tease us with “Mother’s Night,” a poem potent with insight and emotion, in which time flows backward and the speaker’s dead mother is returned to the world:
…She’s coming back
from the place where she was scattered, from the place
where she was introduced to medical students
and their teachers and was slowly taken apart,
her arms full of the flowers I gave her once
a year in April, and she’s asking me
to put them back on the stems in the greenhouses
they came from, to let them shrink away from the light.
Or the poem “Going Back to the Sea,” in which we’re caught between staying under or crawling from the water to the “glare and wind” of land: … “In place of speech / you’ll have your exclusive silence. / Now the dissolution of shadows /and the scattering of the sun / into ribbons and broken crescents / will show what swims around you— / Diatoms, plankton, the suspense / of colloidal particles— / and will blur your vision / momentarily / into the visionary, / and you’ll know why you’re here…”In both examples the poet acts as intermediary between the world of the flesh and one beyond. We know he’s capable of such feats. Why, then, the inclusion of so many punch line poems? A poem that lists instructions for the caretaker of a haunted house. A poem about a shrinking dust devil, its lines clipped into a cone, that the poem itself resembles a cyclone. The jacket copy describes this cleverness as, “surprising imaginings, including Jesus as an untidy roommate.” Cute bits for NPR’s weekend programming, maybe, but surprising they are not.
Sometimes we get a mixed bag, as in the poem “Onstage,” which recounts a visit to a waterfall with a stage director and his mistress, its fourth and fifth stanzas overwhelmed with theater jargon: “My minor part would be to climb down there … it wasn’t something I wanted to break a leg for. // I’m leaving them midstream in this melodrama / to tell you the subplot, etc.” Toward the end of the poem some truly great lines arrive but seem almost an afterthought, a lovely thought that the reader desperately wishes, would have kicked things off: “We had been lovers once / by this falling water, which was still performing / what it was meant to perform, with an endless roar containing / and concealing all the vowels of human speech.”
Wagoner often seems distant, but it can be to the poem’s benefit, especially concerning the human body, when objectification serves to illuminate our powerlessness in relationship to death and physical diminishment. As in the case of “A Brief History,” a response to the Thoreau quote “A poet writes the history of his body”: “Where it went, what it came back to, / where and why it laid itself down / and tried to sleep, what happened to it / without advice or consent, / what it failed at, how it disobeyed / its own commands to no purpose, / what it held in its hands when it was told / and told to let go.” This motif recurs throughout the book to great success, most movingly in “My Father’s Body”: “It was the force around wrenches, behind saws / the pivot of sledgehammers and axe blades, / and though he couldn’t teach it to float in water, / he could make it stand its ground under red showers / of molten steel and shrug them off without flinching.”
Each of the collection’s five sections offers a few doozey poems to leave the reader breathless, you’ll have to slog through some so-so poems to find them, but you’ll probably be glad you did. At its best, After the Point of No Return gives us just what we hope to find: poems that wrestle with mortality, retrace the steps of a life, and take us past the limit of flesh into whatever comes next.