My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I started reading Eleanor Wilner’s second collection of poems from 1984 before she read at the University of Arizona Poetry Center in January 2018. I knew I was going to love her work after I read the first poem, “Emigration,” about Charlotte Brontë and her friend Mary Taylor: “There are always, in each of us, / these two: the one who stays, / the one who goes away”. It’s not that I know much if anything about Brontë or Taylor beyond what I found in Wikipedia; it’s that Wilner draws them so vividly and profoundly on the page that I’m inspired to find out more about them.
I find Wilner’s style to be very straightforward and clear (as is her reading style) and her poems full of beautiful sensory detail and movement, featuring persona narrators who are typically distant and generally focus almost all their attention on the subject and themes of the poem. I’ve read that Wilner generally prefers to avoid autobiography, confession, and self in her work, focusing instead on a cultural memory and perception of subjects and themes. This is exciting to me because I’m tired of the autobiographical and personal in my own writing and I’m eager to explore subjects and themes in a different manner.
After I first started reading poetry seriously a few years ago, it took a really long time for me to see the imagery in my mind (a problem I don’t at all have with prose and fiction.) Even then, these mind tableaus were static. Starting with Wilner’s work, I’m finally seeing poetry cinematic and in motion in my mind. In “Labyrinth,” the Minotaur and its lair are vividly constructed:
“[…] The walls have narrowed
to a channel, damp to the hands
that grope your way; the rank air
hangs against the stone, as if
the stone had hooks and held it.”
“The floor that opens out around you
is spread with straw, in places worn almost
to dust that rises from the ground
where something stamps and stumbles
in its place;”
Where movement kicks in in the following stanzas and the second-person persona narrator leads the Minotaur out of the labyrinth and into the sun, the cinematic quality of these lines gave me chills!
I’m eager to read more of Wilner’s work. The poems she read during her reading were much newer than these, and reflected how her already fantastic poetry has matured and compressed over time without losing that incredible vividness and movement. A poet’s ability to shine a light on an object, person, scene, and theme with preciseness and clarity of detail turns out to be one of the first things I look for in their poetry. In this way, Wilner’s poetry evokes in me the same appreciation and wonder I have for the great Wisława Szymborska’s poetry.