*Reprinted review of Julia Wendell’s Dark Track, by Sam Schmidt. Material owned and originally printed by WordHouse.
Dark Track, the third full-length book of poetry by Julia Wendell, can be read as a meditation on both the necessity and cost of following your dreams. It is a book written, as Wendell puts it, in the “mid-afternoon of life.” Gone is the attempt to heal or understand the traumas of childhood, a task for young writers. Burned away, too any remaining pseudo-literary awkwardness. What is left are the perennial concerns of mid-life: the striving for excellence, the dedication to work and relationships, and the struggle for self-acceptance. And racehorses. Did I mention racehorses?
“The first time I saw a horse race–,” Wendell begins in “The First Time,” the book’s opening poem,
all steam & speed & spinning arcs
of delicate arms & muscles & bones,
a score of front legs digging into turf & tucking uo
the exact moment hind legs thrust under bellies
& pushed off, three beats barely one times twelve
blurred shapes all willed by the heart to get there first–
I knew I would never leave this animal.
It may be simply a measure of Wendell’s success in Dark Track, but as I;m reading it, the similarities between poetry and horseracing become more compelling. I;m not referring to the way that, particularly in Wendell’s hands, horses’ names are like small poems. At a deeper level, both poetry and horseracing are about perfection, whether it’s a question of using language in the best possible way or producing, in a complex animal, the burst of speed that wins. For that matter, speed is an inherent value in both disciplines. Like a sleek thoroughbred, the great contemporary poem needs to reach its goal swiftly, producing its blaze of meaning with an economy of resources. Despite their concern with everyday life, Wendell’s poems are lean racing machines: swift but saturated with meaning like the fleeting images we recover from dreams, as in this passage from “Once a Month He Gets the Kids.”
Now the land speeds by
as if it had a mission.
Through the train window,
cities flickering like stray thoughts, the miles
unreeling homeward, & I thought
of what cleaved us–what we’d given up
& gotten, that maybe we should
rejoice. Why is it then
that all night from my farmhouse window
left ajar, I too become the weeping
of the barn door hinges?
Wendell’s language has a purity that comes from being focused on its goal, which consists, I think, in fidelity to lived experience; it’s this driven-ness, I think, that explains her use of the ampersand (‘&’) in her work instead of the spelled-out “and.” The ampersand, in this case, represents the artist’s impatience to fold distances together, the same impatience that captures a telling image or feeling with a quick yet precise stroke. In the poem “R. Huey,” Wendell says, “I’ve been writing poems on the backs of feed bags,/ leg wraps, vet receipts,…” driving home the notion that poetry for Wendell, far from being sedentary, accompanies and reflects on action. In the poem “Broken Ankle,” the impulse toward movement is displayed as an essential aspect of the author’s persona.
The urge to move turns the engine within me
& I can’t sit still. I put a magazine back in its
basket, stir sugar for a moment into an endless
cup of coffee, still measuring my life
by what can visibly get done.
I should mention that there’s a definite story line to this collection. The narrator of the poems has followed her dream of starting a horse farm (did I mention that this book is about following your dreams?), leaving behind a husband who does not support the dream (known just as “the ex” in the book) and finding one who does. Unlike in a Hallmark card r a self-help manual, however, having a dream is not an unalloyed blessing. It exacts heavy costs, not only on marriages and other social relationships, but on the dreamer herself. The mid-afternoon quality of the work allows it to measure the costs, mourn the losses and failures, and yet reaffirm the dream as something necessary to life. Unlike in a prose narrative, the human relationships that make up this story shift and shimmer in the background of a more constant world, of nickering horses and sweet hay.
It is this world, and by extension the world of nature, wild or cultivated, that for Wendell, offers respite; it is the world of people that is filled with wildness and darkness. Often, you will find her using imagery from the natural world to resolve–or just capture emotionally or imagistically–human problems and dilemmas, including the dilemmas of her own feelings and behavior. Connected to this, her poetry is most expansive and exquisite in moments that are filled with nothing but an ample appreciation for the natural world. Consider this beginning to the poem “Walk Around”:
From a distance I thought frost or lime.
But once upon it, the polo field was rhymed
with patches of pale-blue wildflowers.
Or the beautiful image of cutting open a hay bale in “At Our Appointed Hour”; the moment turns immediately into a metaphor for human relationship.
The twine I cut with my Swiss Army knife–
the way the bale sighs open
like a belt unloosing a middle,
a barrette springing free a tangle
of hair, our marriage coming undone–
or–again from the poem “Broken Ankle”:
I’ve longed for this time
to put away doing, to sit by my window
all afternoon–watching the fat
catbird alight on the green tip of cypress,
then cast off, only to return an hour later–
As a reader, it’s a privilege to participate with Wendell in both the bright ecstasy of these observations and their dark juxtaposition with human life.
Despite her love of the natural world, Wendell’s work contains a certain puritan streak, and I mean this as a compliment: many of her poems are earnest self-examinations, and they measure that self not in relation to what could be reasonably expected, but to Wendell’s own ideal of transparency and light, like the Puritan’s “City on a Hill.” Look, for example, at the poem “Jalousie,” where the slatted window blinds become the center of the speaker’s excruciating examination of her jealousy (her husband has an apparently quite innocent friendship with another woman). This poem is far more interesting and instructive than, say, a rant at a husband (a choice some poets would have made). What is fascinating is the way in which the emotion itself is almost intolerable for Wendell, as she tries to rearrange her self-conception to make it acceptable. The resulting poem acheives a moving intimacy. In it, and elsewhere, Wendell displays a puritanical pessimism about human nature, including her own–people are inherently flawed. On the other hand, there is a noble will to self-correction and transcendence, a sensitivity to how her thoughts and behavior would be viewed by a serene, judging consciousness.
This puritanical quality in Wendell’s work is tempered by a certain wry humor that can surface in her poetry at unlikely moments, self-examination giving way to self-deprecation and easy humor. Some poems, such as “Room for Rent,” are lovely extended jokes ballasted by the undersong of the poet’s serious preoccupations.
As with the “nervous perfection” of horses, there is something miraculous about the way that Wendell holds all her energies in balance and creates something beautiful. Perfectionism, Puritanism: in less creative hands, these impulses can be destructive and debilitating. For the perfectionist, life is about constantly forgiving oneself and others: hanging onto the knowledge of the ideal, which is a great and rare gift, while still managing to love the world. This is why, for me, the most moving lines in this book are the following, from “In the Shade of Wings”:
Tonight, running cold water into the bowl
of my hands, I lifted what I could to my face,
& for no reason other than I breathed
I blessed myself in my limitations
& absolved my own small delays.
Good words to memorize and tape on the bathroom mirror.