“A poem should begin in delight and end in wisdom,” Robert Frost famously said. Happily, most of the poems in Wendy Drexler’s Before There Was Before follow Frost’s advice. The ones that don’t simply stay at delight. And some, through their attitudes and themes about the natural world, are distinctly Frostian. Consider her poem “All These Years.” Using lush imagery, she describes the decay of leaves and trees, “bark peeled raw, the tree unhinging.” Then, in a final stanza, she enlists a verbal arabesque that would have stunned old RF: “Haven’t I been careless/expecting better,/or more, or something else, aren’t I always trying/to strip the sky bare?”
Or how about the poem “Relationship Theory,” in which she relates the well-documented symbiosis of alligators “protecting” islands of birds from predators. All they expect in return are a few hatchlings they knock from trees. “Hard to tell, exactly,” Drexler muses, “if protection always comes at such a price . . . and what did I know,/ when I married young/perched out on the end of a pliant and precarious branch?” It’s a deft use of extended metaphor, the way she welds the human condition to details she observes in her world. Even crickets and beetles offer insight through her well-honed imagination. The cricket chirps in the early morning searching for something, like the young family she encounters crying at the bus stop for a father who won’t return, or the dead beetle in her basement whose life she wonders about: “And refused what? And raced where?/Sought what solace scuttling?”
Unlike her first volume, Drive-Ins, Gas Stations, the Bright Motels, not many of these poems are straight-on autobiographical. However, the few that are pack a wallop, as my uncle used to say. “The Book of Apology” begins simply enough, almost prosaically.
The last time I saw my mother I was reading on the patio, when she came out, cinching her bathrobe around her, her wrists thin as a wren’s . . . .
Then, Drexler plunges deeply into self-reflection and the springs of guilt well up.
I didn’t really want to understand that she had just opened the door the dying must pass through to leave us And what did I do or say to her then?
The ending, too intense to reproduce here, is guaranteed to provide sufficient gooseflesh for the most hardened reader.
One year before the twentieth century, a modern writer first used what I call the what-next? strategy to end his writings. Anton Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Dog (1899)” is about an affair between a Russian banker and a young lady he meets while vacationing in Yalta. The lovers, plunged in secrecy and deception, are at a loss about what to do. Here is the last sentence:
And it seemed as though in a little while the solution would be found, and then a new and splendid life would begin; and it was clear to both of them that they had still a long, long road before them, and that the most complicated and difficult part of it was only just beginning.
That’s it. This classic what-next? offers no clues. Drexler uses the same technique with characteristic finesse. In “The Birch,” she leaves us with her five-year old self, trying to make sense of her parents splitting up. (Back then they were called “broken homes.”) She finds a children’s book in the closet, one with a picture of a dog, “his front and back legs/outstretched, running hard.” There the poem ends. No resolution, nothing but bleak abandonment and endless running. In “The Whole Spent World Comes Rushing Back” she describes a great blue heron, “in the broth of silt and moldering leaves,” catching a frog.
From the cave of her mouth, the frog flails, kicks, flashing white, the belly refusing to surrender, everything at stake in the long stretch and gape.
There it ends. Did the frog escape? Drexler doesn’t say. She’s lead us into the room of this poem where we wander its intricate walls, and then shown us the door. But unlike the definitive and ironic and kicker endings we expect most poetry to have (and some of hers do), she doesn’t completely close the door. She leaves it open a crack. We can still look back in and, to paraphrase Keats “tease ourselves out of thought.” Therein lies its infuriating charm.
I wish the book were illustrated, as least for the black & white photographs she writes about, like “Photo of Serbian Women, circa 1920” and “Nazi Photograph.” Unlike the famous paintings she also writes about, they seem impervious to Google.
Finally, Before There Was Before contains humor. Quirky humor. The humor that the poet in us relishes. In “Out on the Plaza” Drexler the world traveler forges a sardonic conceit. Street vendors try to sell her a “coin purse/made from the skin of a stingray.” They proudly declare that it’s
Farm-raised in Italy, the man says Waterproof, the man says. The eye needs something to lean on.
The humor advances one step further. In “Squirrel Eating the Milky Way” she conflates the mundane with the vast universe and . . . ah, but this is where I get off. You’ll have to buy the book to taste these creative metaphors.