Courageous Music: Jane Mead’s To the Wren: Collected & New Poems
Jane Mead has had a long and distinguished career and To the Wren: Collected & New Poems 1991-2019 still feels fresh, all five-hundred-plus pages. Mead has an extensive publishing history, and has received major awards from the Lannan, Guggenheim, and Whiting foundations. She taught at distinguished writing programs—most recently as the Poet-in-Residence at Wake Forest University—before taking on the management of her family’s California ranch. Her poems make felt observations sing, no matter the subject. A fine example is “Bach, Winter,” which begins: “Bach must have known—how / something flutters away,” and what follows are several quiet but keen moments observed by the speaker that occur and then dissipate. Such moments, though fleeting, the poem seems to say, are nourishing and worth trying to capture: “[T]he smell of applies in a bowl / can stop the heart…,” writes Mead,
in the dead of winter when stars
of ice have spread across the windows
and everything is perfectly still
until you catch the sound of something
lost and shy beating its wings.
And then: music.
“In the dead of winter” would be trite but for the “stars of ice,” and the last line gives us the call to hear the music that follows, an intimate, sacred communion between two composers and the reader/listener and their imaginations. There is a tightly strung longing that wraps and holds the heart.
Much of Mead’s music is courageous, as in “On the Lawn at the Drug Rehab Center,” which is dedicated to her father:
I want you to tell the truth—
our faces were not beautiful.
Truth is you fired five shots
and we scattered. Behind the stone
pillar between the vineyard
and the house I thought, that night,
of how you taught us, years ago,
to stand quietly among the vines,
to close our eyes and listen
with our feet to the sound
of the grapes growing. I listened
and I didn’t hear them, father.
I heard the words
I’d read in intervention theory—
“Tell the addict how he has
let you down. Have specific
examples ready.” Useless.
But we went after you again.
This is about the middle third of a riveting piece, in which the desire to tell a blistering truth is the core that feeds the skill to tell it so well. “The Part—and the Whole of It” is equally direct and acute, with the dusting of loveliness that illuminates so many poems in which Mead addresses pain, a subject that can be monotonous when dealt with less deftly. It begins,
Stocking the globe is not
my issue, taking stock
is my issue—and deciding
what to do next.
The poem goes on to detail—with a light and lyrical touch—the “machine” of the world, of existence, in which we are “only a speck,” and where there is “no visible shore.” Then Mead turns inward, toward home, which, she writes, “Is another story”:
different specks, same machine.
Prescription or sacrifice—
it’s hard to say, but always
the same relentless fever—
on the tattered wing of day.
The final words redeem and soften the granite renunciation at the beginning. This is what Jane Mead does so well, with relentless authority.
A brief aside about one pleasure of reviewing: short, multifaceted poems often make me smile at the contrast of my longwinded gushing with compactness that follows in “Seventy Feet from the Magnolia Blossom”:
there is an ant.
He is carrying
a heavy load.—
We should help him.
This poem could serve as anthem for any environmental group, or as another example of how brevity can be large and alarming (“alarming,” used admiringly by Philip Levine when writing about Mead in the 90s).
Her acknowledgment of the moral aspects of our relationship with this creature helps place us in the realm in which we should honorably belong. “The Geese” is another example of this, and it soars. In it, Mead writes that the geese “slicing this frozen sky know / where they are going—”:
Their call, both strange
and familiar, calls
to the strange and familiar
heart, and the landscape
becomes the landscape
Mead’s versatility, scholarship, and curiosity contribute the strength of her craft, and her italicized, fifteen line poem “Magna Carta” is devastating and resonant, formed solely of direct quotes from the document. The city of London,” referred to as a female, with “her liberties and free customs— / All Archbishops, Bishops Abbots, Priors, Templars— / Shall have their liberties and free customs.” The rub Mead makes raw is the fact that the officials she lists had power that kept women from having liberty. In the New York Times Book Review, authors are often asked in interviews who they’d invite to a literary dinner party. Mead makes me wish I could break bread with her, along with some of those authority figures, and the women whose lives they controlled. Her oeuvre is so spacious that it constantly invites journeys down imagined avenues.
The Magna Carta is bred in the bone of every American project, and so it’s no leap to go from there to many satisfying poems that have heartbreaking connections to men with power. “Money,” Mead’s poem about the Don Pedro Dam, brings to mind Cadillac Desert, the late Marc Reisner’s prose classic about America’s Western water wars. “[T]he water didn’t even belong to the river. / The water didn’t belong to the water,” Mead writes at the end of the piece, the river having been “the once-green Tuolumne,” where the “minnows could have some wiggle room, / so the salmon could lunge far enough/ to spawn, so that there would be more salmon…” The stately logic and sound are a tragic indictment writ larger than the dam itself.
People who live on farms have complex relationships with “domesticated” animals, and when the animals die, they are all worthy of what Mead bestows, the “formal feeling” Emily Dickinson and Seamus Heaney understood so well. “A Song for Alice in the Rainy Season” might induce tears of recognition. It begins:
You will not go to a watery grave,
You will not go to your grave with ticks—
But you will go to your grave today.
As the poem continues, Mead preserves the A-B-A rhyme scheme without letting the poem become mawkish. This is a gift to writers who know how hard it is to write pet poems that aren’t overly sentimental, and to readers who have seen too many pet poems that are. Mead displays two kinds of labor in honor of Alice. The formal, singable composition raises it to the level of austere and deeply felt hymn, as the poem ends:
Before we make your nest of hay
We line the flooded pit with bricks
For you will go to your grave today.
We line the hay surf twigs of bay.
I brush your tail. I check for ticks.
You will not go to a watery grave—
But you will go to your grave today.
Mead’s new poems prove how generous and permeable the skin of her calling is, her bounty, in a poem begins with a lines that cascade off the title, “Bounty”:
of my body where skin meets air,
great are the voices.
“How can I finish the poem // if you do not touch me?” the poem goes on to ask, reminding us of the importance of the body, the material world, the concrete details and moments of real, lived experience that are so important in Mead’s work. And the questions, of course, as the poem comes to an end, if not a conclusion:
Who will linger?
Who will pull the trigger.
Or the roiling in the pearl sky
and the pink-brown ocean
Questions always help lead toward answers. Mead’s questions are always so very, very fine.