A Review of
The True Account of Myself as a Bird
Paperback: Penguin Books, 2022
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Reviewed by Jennifer Schuldt
Before I begin reading a poetry collection, I flip to the back of the book to look at the poet’s picture. I’m curious about the person behind the words, and perhaps I’m hunting for clues about what to expect. Robert Wrigley’s picture in his twelfth poetry collection, The True Account of Myself as a Bird, discloses much about who he is. His photo shows him midstream, clad in fishing gear, holding a good-sized trout, which I suspect he will release back into the water after the photo has been snapped. Aside from Wrigley’s almost innumerable awards as a poet, and his career as a lauded poetry professor, it’s evident that he’s comfortable in the outdoors.
I read below his picture that he lives in rural Idaho, so I assume a connection with the natural world will inform his poetry. As it turns out, I’m not wrong. The book’s first poem, a sonnet entitled “Why the Night Bird Sings,” draws me into an imaginative consideration of birdsong and the meaning of being a poet. As I continue to read, I notice a pattern. The poems that engage nature don’t merely describe it—they usually show humans interacting with it, and there’s always a line between the two worlds, even if it’s blurry at times. For Wrigley, nature seems to function as a way to demonstrate the “otherness” of human beings. The book’s epigraph confirms this with its quote from W.H. Auden, “All we are not stares back at what we are.” Further, it seems the purpose of his collection is to call us to an awareness of our humanity.
Although many of Wrigley’s poems relate to outdoor experiences or animals, most of the other pieces center on human relationships. The parent-child connection is prominent, and it’s plain that the poet’s loss of his father is the motivating force in some of the most memorable poems, such as “Ackumpucky,” and “Machinery.” In “Machinery,” we see how Wrigley and his father tried to navigate their different interests to find common ground. The poem ends with these lines, “Once my father watched the snow / and noted how landing on the earth it melted. / He said, “It’s snow that doesn’t know it’s rain” (57-59). It’s here, in this poem of remembrance, that two major themes of the book converge: love and mortality.
While themes within a work are usually best discerned at the end of a deep and complete reading, this collection offers many hints along the way. Love as tenderness appears in titles such as “Narrating Night to the New Puppy Gladys.” It shows up as lust in the audible escapades of a neighbor and as praise in the poet’s up-close examination of a wounded cricket. Mortality emerges clearly in the repeated imagery of bones, as we read about mice who inhabit a whale’s skull or the bird that sits atop the remains of a carcass in the poem “To the Man.”
Even as Wrigley frequently reminds us that life will eventually end, the collection’s mood is not overly somber. It has a compelling liveliness that may stem, in part, from occasional connections between poems. Some pieces call to each from different places in the book, the way birds call to each other from treetops. The linkages may occur with regard to theme or place; however, in “Chorus,” the last poem in the book, Wrigley writes about strumming a guitar and says, “it’s a song I haven’t played since page eight.” Returning to page eight confirms that the same song is played in both poems. Associations like these create delight for readers, and for this reason, the book should be read chronologically, in its entirety, to be fully appreciated.
Another notable aspect of the collection is Wrigley’s expertise with a wide range of poetic devices. His skill with syntax is showcased in the poem “Boy I Knew,” which is about a youth who comes into possession of some questionable magazines. Here, the poet uses inversion to obfuscate the boy’s actions and clouds events by burying them under numerous clauses and phrases. Language functions as a way to cover up the events in the poem, and this mirrors the boy’s efforts to avoid detection. In the child’s situation, we see the pleasure and pain of our existence—the longing for the forbidden, the dread of discovery, and the discomfort of a mother’s knowing gaze.
Although this collection has much to say about what it means to be human, a poignant moment occurs (at least for this reader) when the ability to love alludes to the notion of God as a compassionate father. The poem “Tempest” is an account of the poet attempting to feed his infant while the child’s mother is away for the first time. The baby wails miserably, and the father, who understands the unmet need, holds and comforts the baby. Eventually, the child gives in and accepts the bottle. I’m not ashamed to say these last lines made me weep:
“I bowed my head, and there fell from my cheek
to yours a tear that startled you
from the stupor of a half-hearted suckle—
and your lower lip quivered, as though you’d cry again.
Then you saw me, or recognized me, or in my father face knew
what you were and for all my life would be to me” (16-21).
If the mark of an exceptional poetry collection is its power to affirm our humanity and forge an emotional connection with the reader, The True Account of Myself as a Bird passes the test. Readers attuned to the craft of writing poetry will be delighted to encounter both open and closed forms in this collection. They will also note that Wrigley frequently writes in tercets and quatrains, many of which begin with rhyme schemes derived from traditional sonnets. Those new to reading poetry will be delighted by the collection’s variety. Its poems are long and short, sad and humorous, formal and relaxed, full-bodied and spare. Overall, Wrigley’s work is accessible yet elevated, and his ability to press deeply into the ironies of human existence allows him to deliver rich, satisfying poems in The True Account of Myself as a Bird.
Jennifer Schuldt has written and published Christian devotional material for the past fifteen years. A graduate of Cedarville University, and the C.S. Lewis Institute Fellowship Program, she is currently earning an M.F.A. in writing from Lindenwood University. She is a Midwestern mother, wife, occasional painter, and bibliophile.
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