Book Review: Notes from the Column of Memory by Wendy Drexler

Some poets never peak. Leonard Cohen never did. And unlike those who churned out clunkers late in life—William Wordsworth with Ecclesiastical Sonnets (at 52) or Bob Dylan with Together Through Life (at 68) —Wendy Drexler shows no sign of peaking. Through her latest volume, it’s clear she continues to improve her poetry in metaphoric complexity and thematic scope. Her first book, Drive-in, Gas Stations, the Bright Motels was a kind of poetic memoir of her childhood. It captured the quirkiness of her family through humor and poignancy. Before There Was Before delved into self-reflection, focused on guilt, and used experimental techniques like dramatic hard-hitting endings. An amateur photographer herself, she also began writing about photography, ruminating on its imagery and implications.

The poems in this book show she continues to explore. Its eighty-nine pages orbit many subjects: the natural world, her mother and father, the mundane (a gas fillup, a chance meeting, a traffic jam), and much more.

In several poems, Drexler shows her fondness for using animals as extended metaphors. This is an apt fit, because she’s a passionate advocate for nature conservancy. She even co-authored a children’s book about urban Peregrine falcons (Buzz, Ruby, and Their City Chicks). In the first part of “At Intermission,” she runs into her ex-husband at a concert and he doesn’t recognize her. It’s an embarrassing and puzzling moment for both.

I wondered if I was to apologize, a joke,
then, about my hair, to relieve my shame,
or to relieve him of his? Was I to giggle,
do a little dance? The sobering
and irrefutable music of the wife
I’d been strumming through me.

In the second part, she muses about the Romas of Bulgaria, who kept dancing bears that weren’t allowed to hibernate. When they were released, they finally got to hibernate, but upon waking they

…didn’t know
what to do. They began to stand
on two legs. They began to rock
back and forth and side to side.
They began to dance.

This device is so successful, she uses it several times, but with some variations. “Thinking About the Octopus,” inspired by the film My Octopus Teacher, seeks a homology between the cephalopods and humans, “that common grammar, that syntax of salt and stars.” “Galapagos Tortoise” tells of the mass slaughtering of this animal. She concludes with a line about her grandmother’s unwitting collusion as she delights in her new tortoiseshell comb. “When she wore it in her hair,” Drexler archly notes, “the reddish-brown flames caught the light.”

Sometimes her metaphors are not obvious, making their detection challenging, like solving a puzzle. Drexler plunks us into the room of a poem and we’re left to wander its unannotated walls by ourselves. But as in Alice in Wonderland, we may have trouble reaching the key. “Calling in the Grosbeak” is one of these. Drexler attends a birdwatch and the guide “lures the bird with a recording of the grosbeak’s own song.” The bird appears, “furious with cause and claim” and is visibly upset. Nevertheless, Drexler exults: “now I’ve got him in my scope—the ivory beak, the scarlet breast/like a wound.” We readers congratulate ourselves for noticing Drexler’s clever visual simile. The grosbeak’s rose breast really does look like blood. Not so fast, cowpokes. It took me three readings to unveil the stronger metaphor. The deception is the wound. Like this poor bird, we have all been slashed by lies. As Octave says to Christine in Rules of the Game (Renoir, 1939): “Today everybody lies. Pharmaceutical fliers, governments, the radio, the movies, the newspapers. So why shouldn’t simple people lie as well?” [Note: Most Audubon guides shun calling in birds with recordings.]

My award for the cleverest poem in the collection is “To Prove That I Am Not a Robot.” Drexler skillfully uses time-honored anaphora as a stiletto dagger, sharp on both edges and on point. First she lampoons one of the Internet’s most annoying security tests, the I-am-not-a-robot form. Unless you’re living in a cocoon, you’ve encountered it. She starts off whimsically:

I check off three mountains.
I check off three crosswalks painted gold.
I check off fourteen images of tsunami waves.

Then she sharpens her blade to social-satiric acuity.

I check off twenty-five states with new voting restrictions.
I check off the last known addresses of six million unfixed lead service lines.

It gets even better. But you’ll have to buy the book to find out how much.

In 1935 the radical aesthetician Christopher Caudwell wrote that “Poetry is clotted social history, the emotional sweat of man’s struggle with Nature.” Although there is much social history in Drexler’s poems, I believe they transcend Caudwell’s outdated definition. I think of them more like dried mango slices: some sweet, some sour, substantial, multi-textural, and long-lasting in the mouth.

So the next time you get a pharmaceutical flier in the mail, toss it aside and pick up Drexler’s Notes from the Column of Memory. The front cover is prettier, and there’s probably more truth in it.

Notes from the Column of Memory by Wendy Drexler. Terrapin Books, 2022. $17.

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Author: Peter Bates

Peter Bates is a writer and photographer living in Florida. He is the administrator of this blog and runs the blog The Bodega Project.

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