[easyazon-image align=”left” asin=”1625641672″ locale=”us” height=”333″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51k7KgUJsTL.jpg” width=”220″ alt=”Paul Willis” ]Fishing for Poems
A Feature Review of
Say this Prayer into the Past: Poems
Paperback: Wipf and Stock, 2013.
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Reviewed by Philip Zoutendam
I made two mistakes when reading this book. The first time, I didn’t read the first poem carefully enough. The second time, I read it perhaps too carefully and applied it too absolutely.
In my defense, the first poem inhabits the no-mans-land between the table of contents and Part 1. I hope this excuses my first mistake. I always half-read introductions: I’m eager to get to the book itself, to cross the border into the territory proper, to read the book rather than read about it.
Admittedly, most of the time the book reads better when I do know a little about it. That knowledge surely would have saved me some frustration here. “Free Verse” is the title of Willis’s prefatory poem. I would have noticed fairly quickly, even without this warning, that both this poem and most that follow wind their way without fixed rhythm or meter. But in “Free Verse,” Willis takes a moment to explain—cleverly, whimsically, almost apologetically—why he writes in free verse.
“I went down to the stream to fish for a poem,” he starts, and that poem was “not about to venture out for anything so obvious / as an iamb. I tried a sliver anapest, then a / flashy hendecasyllabic lure. Nothing doing.” It is only when the poet turns to “the native earthworm—the one I had found / beneath the rotting bark of my conscience,” that the poem darts out from under its sheltering rock. It takes the bait with a fury, and once on the line Willis lets it go “into this wild and babbling book.”
When I read this the second time, on my second pass, I thought I had found the key to this book. “Wild and babbling” described much of my initial experience with Say this Prayer into the Past. I was frustrated, after finishing the first time, with the fluid edges and meandering focus and (at least I thought) missing center of the collection. The poet jumped from this theme to that; no poem looked the one that came before. It felt, if not quite “babbling,” at least rambling, wandering. I felt like I never got anywhere with the book.
I felt a little better re-discovering “Free Verse” at the beginning, telling me that maybe I wasn’t supposed to arrive anywhere in particular, maybe I was just supposed to enjoy the scenic route.
But that wouldn’t be a fair assessment either. My second tour of the book certainly confirmed a “wild” character—its voice remained elusive, darting here and there, refusing to be cornered—but it wasn’t absolute. There is an order framing the caprice in this book. However much each poem, and sometimes each line within a poem, seems to shoot off in a new direction, most at least swim in the same currents.