(Seattle, WA and New York, NY: Wave Books, 2015)
In October I had the pleasure of attending the Vegas Valley Book Festival, including the panel “Literary Nonfiction: The Elegance of Truth.” Among other topics, panelist Mike Sager, an award-winning journalist, mentioned the pains and the pleasures of field assignments. On the flip side, Dinah Lenney, author of Bigger than Life: A Murder, a Memoir, said the following about writing nonfiction without assignments: “I have to keep lighting matches & wait for the one that won’t go out.”
I love this metaphor, and I remember thinking about this piece of figurative language from a handful of scandalous angles: lighting cigarettes, burning books, starting forest fires. All it takes is that one match. And in the context of a discussion on writing truthfully, what could be more dangerous than fire, than something that we cannot contain? Might it become easy to tell too much, to add something that wasn’t there, or to somehow deceive our readership when we are caught up in the heat of that moment?
Perhaps because I’m a poet, these contemplations led me not to a piece of creative nonfiction but rather to a collection of poetry. Recently I had read Rebecca Wolff’s One Morning—. I enjoy the collection, but I struggled to articulate why. Largely, this was due to my inability to define the book. The collection seems to be, and also to address, all-of-the-things. I’ll admit that if one of my workshop peers had brought the collection to me, I might have been tempted to break the book into two or even three separate collections. But I would have been wrong. The all-encompassing nature of the book is part of what makes Rebecca Wolff’s One Morning— brilliant. Perhaps the seeming lack of cohesion is what pushes the reader to burn through the 150+ pages. The poems spread like wildfire.
Some collections are held together, in part, by their form, whether structural or thematic. Rebecca Wolff’s One Morning—, however, is unbound. Just when I’ve settled into the collection’s sparseness and short line breaks, “The Ungovernable,” a prose poem, hits me on page 56. It doesn’t strike me like a brick wall, though; what lies ahead is clearly new, has a different type of density, but, afterwards, I’m glad that I didn’t pass it by. Appropriately, some of Wolff’s phrases are quite prose-like, almost essay-esque. For example, in “The Ungovernable,” she writes, “Sometimes there is a harsh disjunction between what objective perception would suggest to us what we might expect and what really takes place, or ‘occurs,’ within the framework of what we call ‘our lives.’” Other poems, however, are quite musical. In fact, some even include lyrics. Within “Am I Special,” the poet writes:
(when the lights / go down / in the city)
yet I cannot
compose for example
It’s difficult to miss rock ‘n’ roll band Journey’s “Lights” lyrics. And the original phrases demonstrate a musicality not unlike that of Fiona Sampson, the award-winning British poet and concert violinist. Moreover, delving into another piece, “Seeming Inevitability,” we’ll see that even within the same poem, Wolff combines what’s antiquated — “I love how / you o’ershadow me” — with contemporary lines like “‘vomiting out the demon / of handwriting analysis?’ / live on national broadcast radio.” One Morning— contemplates everything from high art to blatant consumerism; ancient history to contemporary pop culture; “the view of the mountain” to, well, “pissing into someone’s special grave.”
While there is no responsibility for the poet to tell the truth, at least not in the literal sense, there is no doubt that writers of any genre can relate to Dinah Lenney’s metaphor: “I have to keep lighting matches & wait for the one that won’t go out.” No matter how much we believe in the adage that writing is revision, there is something both inherently beautiful and quite dangerous about this uninhibited unraveling. While within creative nonfiction we might look for greater meaning in the pieces of literal truth, it is also true that when it comes to poetry, we look for meaning in the whole that is composed of the fragments. Whether writer or fully engaged reader, at the end of a collection, we are forced to look back and ask ourselves, what have we witnessed, what have we learned, and sometimes even what have we done?
From the domestic, such as a “daughter’s face”; to that which might shock us, like the “raucous / fake penis”; to the literary, such as discussions on Jane Austin, you’ll find it within Rebecca Wolff’s One Morning—. And, it’s true: life is vast, and it’s messy. Largely, it’s out of our control. And although each day is different, every day starts in the same way: it begins with one morning.
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Heather Lang is the Managing Online Editor and Associate Poetry Editor of The Literary Review.