The Earth Avails by Mark Wunderlich
The author of two earlier collections, The Anchorage, winner of 1999’s Lambda Literary Award, and Voluntary Servitude in 2004, Mark Wunderlich also teaches in Bennington’s MFA program, where (full disclosure) I was his student a few years ago. So I was thrilled to get my hands on his third collection, The Earth Avails, which brings prior themes of the natural world and power dynamics into intense and lyrical meditations on small-farm life.
The title comes from the book’s epigraph, the opening lines of an 11th centry Anglo-Saxon Bee Charm, recited to subdue a swarm:
The earth avails against all creatures,
and against injury and against forgetfulness,
and against the mighty tongue of man.
The entire ten-line metrical charm– aka poem– functions as both a set of literal instructions (“earth avails” a reminder that throwing handfuls of dirt onto a swarm can still it), and as a spell, imbued with magical properties. In other words, it is both an “I before E, except after C” sonic prompt, and a “double, double toil and trouble” pagan bewitchment. Such charms are as old as an oral tradition, as tended fields and domesticated animals, as human culture itself.
That “the earth avails” over all of us, in the long run, is well known to farmers, who plant and harvest crops, raise and butcher animals, all while defending field and flock from myriad forms of predation, blight, and weather– often husbanding one life while taking another. Hence, the farmer is also a demi-God of his farm who can experience unique aspects of the divine via mimesis. Inspired by a 19th century book of common prayers and a folk tradition of “Heaven Letters” (blessings) common to early German settlers, Wunderlich constructs many of these poems as prayers:
“You, looking down on us from your canopy of air, to you
I commend my body and my brain, and that of my beloveds,
all that I own– stonepile of a house, tilting barn, garden and beloved beasts,
orchards, woods, and my sweet furred animals,
the white mare and the brindled gelding,
the goats with their worldly eyes,
my reading and teaching from the books I read–
let it all rest in your giant hand.”
The speaker again and again addresses a distant yet intimately-known “You”– part-God, part-Nature– a cosmic intelligence and wielder of power. Sometimes in thanks, often seeking intercession or enlightenment, the poet catalogs his hopes and sufferings in detail, naming specific ills and cankers that prey upon his small farmstead and its inhabitants– the never-ending cycle of tasks, tests, and failures that ultimately forms a spiritual path:
Snuff out the tomato blight, the beetles in the corn, call the wrens
with their needle beaks to eat the green worms
ciphering the cabbages’ leaves.
Pour down on us the soft water of your rain.
Build your room inside me, for I do suffer.
The stance of entreaty is effective, for it allows a clear-eyed look at nature’s most brutal facts, yet voiced with yearning and hope. The tension between the litany of things that can go wrong and the speaker’s stubborn effort and humble pleas for favor is a poignant one. The poet is the clear supplicant in a power dynamic with God, “who has planted language on our tongues,/ given us words, then taught us how to beg.” But: to beg for the life of something is also to love it.
The farm is also a middle space between the human and animal worlds; town and woods. Thus the speaker is witness not just to the life-or-death struggles on his own land, in which he is sometimes supplicant and sometimes the God-like arbiter, but also to moments of suffering or grace in the nearby wild, such as a miserable mange-riddled coyote, or the transcendent flash of a disappearing albino deer, “a white tooth in the closing mouth of the woods.”
Much as the farmer contends with vicissitudes of nature, the poet must face “uglification and strife,” death and decline, yet still find things to praise:
My day will be spent here, in the middle of things
feeding split logs into the stove, cats coiling through rooms
as the snow ticks at the windows’ double panes.
I will read a book with snow at its center,
in a forest lost inside a forest in the north, the sun
an afterthought in the darkest days of the year.
I am thankful for all that buffers me from the cold,
all that binds me to my clan,
though I see a future strange and tuneless,
as I push forward into the mind’s blinding field of white.
Sexual identity is present in these poems, but it is background, incidental: a partner referred to as a “mustachioed czarina;” an eye lingering on “the gothic script tattooed on the young gardener’s brown stomach.” Mostly, though, the work in this collection seems to inhabit another time– much as Mark Wunderlich does. Raised on a farm and a gentleman farmer still, he keeps bees, rides horses, shoots guns, gardens, preserves, sews, and knits. His intimacy with agrarian life cannot be faked, and the poet’s palpable love for a dying way of life lends radiance and depth to this collection.
Modernity asserts itself tonally, though, as the speaker ventures into other stances towards God besides that of humble reverence, such as almost bitchily calling him out, in these opening lines of “A Servant’s Prayer”: ” O Tenderhearted, O Kindhearted,/ you who have spared us from eternal servitude, / by torturing and killing your only child–/ we know what you can do.”
The farming cycle of life and death is explored on a meta level too, as the poet faces his elderly parents’ diminishment and fact that his family line will die with him: “My mother and father call me and sing,/ sweet and tuneless, their voices worn down by your turning wheel.” Finally, we are asked to consider that a ten-thousand-year-old agrarian age, described here with such lushness and ardor, is itself in the final stages of decline. In one of the collection’s knockout poems, “Driftless Elegy,” elegant plainspoken couplets describe a recently-vanished farm town and its vanished way of life, asking:
“Who will remember the lodge hall and the good times had there?
Who will remember the handshake for the Rebeccas?…
Hilbert is dead. Mutz is dead. Chester has turned to crumbs in his grave.
No one remembers when Babe Schwark died
and Bootie Schmidt is up to the Home for good.
Piggy is long gone, Home his headstone says…”
As an agrarian way of life dies out, does our ten-thousand-year-old sense of the divine (the Lord as shepherd) die too? As we move away from harvest rituals and planting charms, do we lose some of our pagan DNA– common as well to God and song? These are worthy questions, beautifully posed, in a gorgeous collection.